Tony Blair and Iraq: a public tragedy

David Marquand
2 February 2004

Lord Hutton’s now notorious report on the circumstances surrounding the death of the British government weapons scientist David Kelly, has been greeted with an unprecedented chorus of disdain. Almost without exception press commentators have denounced it as a whitewash. If the polls are any guide, the public shares their view.

It is easy to see why. The report exonerated the leading officials involved in the affair – not just of deliberate deceit, but of questionable conduct of any kind: the prime minister; other government ministers; the prime minister’s staff at Number 10 Downing Street; the bureaucrats of the ministry of defence; and the spymasters on the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

The BBC, on the other hand, was savagely criticised, not just for giving airtime to a false allegation, but for gross editorial and managerial negligence. Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke, the chairman and chief executive of the BBC, have been forced to walk the plank, while Tony Blair smirks beneath a righteous halo.

Also on openDemocracy: David Elstein on lessons for the BBC, Douglas Murray on the wrong inquiry, and Anthony Barnett cracks Alastair Campbell’s code

Given that the whole affair stems from Blair’s insistence on leading the country into a war of dubious legality, whose ostensible justification has turned out to be false, this seems, to put it mildly, a little odd. Planet Hutton, it seems, is a very different place from Planet Earth.

But the charge of whitewash misses the point. Any hopes that Hutton may have had to whitewash the government have not been fulfilled. What he has done – no doubt without realising it – is to throw a vivid shaft of light on a developing crisis of the British state and public realm.

A malaise in the public realm

As I try to show in my new book, Decline of the Public: the hollowing-out of citizenship (Polity Press, 2004) this crisis – whose roots lie deep in Britain’s history – has accelerated sharply under Tony Blair. One of its most depressing aspects is, indeed, the current culture of the BBC. But the question of whether or not Andrew Gilligan – the Today journalist whose early-morning radio allegation of deliberate political deception set off the chain of events leading to the Hutton report – was subject to adequate editorial control, is a red herring.

The real point is that a professional, public-service broadcasting organisation, with an overriding duty to pursue the public interest by maintaining scrupulous accuracy in its news output while steadfastly holding the ring for free comment, had no business employing Gilligan in the first place.

Gilligan was a scoop-hunter, the journalistic equivalent of a pig hunting for truffles in the clammy soil of south-west France. When he had a scoop (or apparent scoop) to masticate, nothing else mattered – not the long-term reputation and standing of the BBC, still less loyalty to his source. The only thing that counted was to hit the headlines. Scoop-hunting à la Gilligan is not an ornament of a free press, as a depressingly large number of journalistic commentators seem to think. It is a cancer gnawing at its entrails. And it is utterly at variance with the public service ethic that the BBC is supposed to embody.

Lord Hutton, Tony Blair and Blair’s ex-director of communications, Alastair Campbell, would probably agree with that. But the lessons of the Hutton report do not stop there. One of the most obvious lessons of Hutton’s inquiry is that Gilligan and Campbell deserve each other – are in fact mirror images of each other. They are both symptoms of the same sickness: products of a malaise which is steadily eroding the values and practices of citizenship, on which the public realm depends.

The BBC hired Gilligan, the obsessive scoop-hunter, because it put ratings ahead of meticulous public service. Blair hired Campbell, the obsessive spin-doctor, because he put the easy pickings of manipulative populism ahead of the hard slog of deliberative democracy.

In the days of the old constitution – the constitution in which ministers are accountable to parliament and served by disinterested professionals, imbued with a public-service ethic – Campbell’s role in the preparation of the notorious intelligence dossier of September 2002 on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would have been an outrage. In the age of manipulative populism, in which ‘spin’ and policy-making are a seamless web, Campbell, or Campbell surrogates, are inescapably part of the landscape.

There is a further parallel between Broadcasting House, the BBC’s headquarters, and Downing Street. Both the BBC and Blair displayed a deep-seated, if unconscious, contempt for the public they were supposed to serve. The BBC thought a sensation-hungry public would desert it if it stuck to the austere values of its great days. Blair thought the public was too stupid and irrational for deliberative democracy to be feasible. Looked at through this lens, the intelligence dossier of September 2002 takes on a new colour.

Hutton’s finding that the dossier was not ‘sexed up’ in the course of the redrafting that preceded its public release is preposterous. Successive changes were made in successive drafts. Virtually without exception, these hardened the text and strengthened the impression that Saddam’s alleged weaponry posed a threat to this country. If that is not ‘sexing up’ it is difficult to know what would be.

The politics of intelligence

But this too is beside the point. The crucial questions – unasked by Hutton – are why Blair was intent on going to war in the first place, and why he wanted a dossier of any sort. To these questions, Hutton’s exquisite casuistry about the meaning of ‘sexing up’ and the sly aside that John Scarlett, chairman of the JIC, might have been ‘subconsciously’ influenced by Downing Street are irrelevant.

There is not much doubt about the answers. Blair wanted to go to war for two reasons. First, he believed it was essential for Britain to fight alongside the Americans in a war they were manifestly determined to launch – both because it was in Britain’s interests to maintain her special relationship with the world’s only superpower, and because it was in the interests of the whole world to ensure that the febrile, slightly paranoid post-9/11 United States was not driven even further into unilateralism.

Second, Blair thought that, if Saddam remained in power, Iraq might acquire nuclear weapons at some stage in the future, hugely destabilising an already dangerously unstable region. I was not convinced by these arguments before the war, and still less am I convinced by them now. But they are neither contemptible nor irrational. They had nothing to do with the state of Saddam’s arsenal when war began, but they were none the worse for that.

Why, then, was Blair unwilling to make them? Why did he and his Downing Street staff focus on Saddam’s arsenal when their real concern was with his long-term intentions? Why did he pretend that his objective was to disarm Iraq when his real aim was to shore up the Anglo-American alliance? Why did he expose his spymasters to the pitiless light of day when he had no need to do so? Why did he impose a burden on the necessarily tentative, uncertain and messy data garnered by the intelligence services which they were not – and could not possibly be – strong enough to bear? Why did he make a risible case for war, which we now know to have been unfounded, when he could have made a serious one?

Had he done so, he would have run great risks. The public might not have been convinced. The Labour Party might have been shocked. The liberal media might have denounced him. Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder might have expostulated. Horror of horrors, there might have been great protest marches through the streets of London. There might even have been resignations from the Cabinet.

But all this happened anyway. Blair gained nothing by treating the people like children when he could have treated them like adults. He lost. Despite Hutton’s encomiums, he is now a broken-backed prime minister. His credibility is in shreds. His American ally, announcing his own inquiry into the failings of pre-war intelligence, has hung him out to dry. Above all, he has fanned the flames of public distrust. As with Margaret Thatcher and Lloyd George, manipulative populism has turned traitor, as it always does in the end. It is, in a way, a highly moral story. It is also a tragic one.

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