“Who is this Lord Hutton?”

Anthony Barnett
5 February 2004

“Who is this Lord Hutton?” Two days in New York and it is increasingly difficult to bring myself to answer without feeling sick. Say there are reasons for criticising the BBC here and the answer comes back, “Just try living with the American media!” The British Broadcasting Corporation’s willingness to challenge the British government is seen as wholly welcome.

Appointing a judge to oversee a non-judicial inquiry is regarded as weird here. It is not that the United States of America is unused to political fixes. But they are enjoyed for being what they are. This makes them easier to explain. In the United Kingdom, I begin to try to say, a politics of evasion and displacement, driven by an increasingly desperate nostalgia and persistent illusions of grandeur, produces outcomes which seem ever more fixated on declaring the system’s nether regions to be completely clean.

Every time it happens, it is said, this will be the last time. I’ve said it myself. Nothing so blatant can be repeated. They can’t expect to get away with it a second time, never again, etc. Only now, the acceleration of modern life means the next time has started before this time has even had the chance to become… last time.

I am referring to the establishment of another inquiry into whether the intelligence reports given to the British government were flawed. It will be headed by Lord Butler.

Who is this Lord Butler? And should readers around the world be interested? Definitely. A sense of disbelief amongst we British is undoubtedly honourable. But it needs to be accompanied by an appreciation of how the story of Blair’s Britain resonates far beyond the country’s shores. Without it Bush would not have had his key ally over Iraq, for a start.

On 24 September 2002 Blair told the House of Commons that the intelligence service had concluded that Iraq not only had chemical and biological weapons but that “it continued to produce them”. Ron Manley oversaw the destruction of Iraq’s chemical weapons, and indeed recruited the weapons scientist David Kelly – whose death precipitated Lord Hutton’s inquiry - to work in Iraq. Manley has stated that no one who knew the country and the technology thought Saddam was manufacturing chemical weapons in the run-up to war. Blair and Manley can’t both be right.

So will the new inquiry damage the Blair government? Hardly likely. If it finds that the intelligence services were responsible for passing on faulty information (many in the UK believe that the intelligence community is being set up as the next fall-guy) then the government is in the clear. But even if it finds that it was the government which in fact took the lead in shaping the intelligence reports, this won’t matter.

Why? Because the man in charge, Lord Butler, is a former cabinet secretary (the country’s senior civil servant) to successive governments, including Blair’s. As Robin Butler – it is a revealing aspect of our evasive and displaced politics that public figures elevated to the House of Lords “exchange” their real names for titles – he was asked a question about how Britain’s historic constitutional settlement responds to unexpected circumstances.

His reply? “We can always go to the cupboards” – in effect, “We make it up as we go along”. It will not surprise him in the slightest that the government made it up. Indeed, for him and his fellow Lords, “making it up”, “keeping the show on the road”, is what government is about.

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