By the time you read this, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, will have given his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. There appears to be no great interest in what Brown is going to say, at least compared with Tony Blair. Thousands bid for seats to attend Blair’s session at the inquiry. We are told that the comparable figure for Brown’s appearance will be in the mere hundreds, even though he should have interesting and relevant things to say.
In public, Gordon Brown has never tried to distance himself from Tony Blair’s decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Will this remain the case when he appears before Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues? Brown is nothing if not a political animal. He will be acutely aware that the shadow of an impending general election will fall across his every word. Might he be tempted to dissociate himself just a little from Tony Blair’s decision, if only to curry favour with the majority of the British population who believe that Britain was taken to war on a false prospectus? But in order to do so, Brown would have to admit to having been cut out of the decision-taking loop, just as Clare Short, the then Secretary of State for International Development, has alleged. Such an admission, we are told, would be anathema to a man who, after Blair himself, was the second most important figure in the government of the day.
Yet the evidence heard by Chilcot so far – confirming the conclusions of Lord Butler’s 2004 inquiry into the use of intelligence – has underlined the highly informal nature of some of Tony Blair’s decision-taking. Witnesses like Clare Short have underlined how little the Cabinet was formally consulted on the path to war. Might the then Chancellor of the Exchequer have been likewise excluded? I shall be very interested to see how Gordon Brown plays this one.
Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues will, of course, have their own views on where to concentrate the questioning. By now they have amassed a vast amount of material in witness statements, to add to the even greater mass of material from the government archives that they will have read as preparation for the inquiry. Before giving evidence myself at the end of last November, I had to refresh my memory by reading my own archive as Britain’s Ambassador to Washington during the run-up to the war. This meant sitting for hours in the bowels of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reading all the reports and advice that I had sent from Washington between 2001 and 2003, until my retirement from the Diplomatic Service just before the Iraq war began. I also had to read an enormous number of documents from other sources. I was, thank goodness, regularly fuelled with coffee and biscuits by the excellent Foreign Office staff, who had the unenviable task of collecting all the relevant papers. Inevitably, because of the way documents had been originally filed, some had not been found by the time I appeared before the Chilcot committee (all were subsequently located, except for those archived in the Cabinet Office, which were not the FCO’s responsibility. These included, so I was told, Blair’s revealing personal messages to Bush, which I had last seen when I was Ambassador in Washington).
Before appearing, I had been told that my memoir, DC Confidential, published at the end of 2005, would be used as a source of questioning. The book is largely, but not exclusively, about my time in Washington between 1997 and 2003. It has two chapters devoted to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: ‘War’, which reflects judgements that I made at the time, and ‘Hindsight’, which is precisely that. Under questioning I found myself largely confirming what I had written almost five years previously.
My book provoked a row with the government when it first appeared, even though it had gone through the usual vetting process without the authorities raising an objection to publication. This rift reappeared in a curious way during the hearings. I was asked about Blair’s meeting with Bush at the President’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, in April 2002. I made plain at the outset that I had not been at the ranch for the discussions and that for long periods of time the Prime Minister and President had been alone together. Indeed, on the first night of the visit, Blair’s Downing Street team and I had dined with the White House team 30 miles from the ranch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Waco. I told the committee that I did not know what ‘degree of convergence was, if you like, signed in blood at the Crawford ranch.’ (The reference to ‘blood’ got some of the media excited – in fact it was only an echo of a later remark by Blair that Britain owed a ‘blood debt’ to the US to go to war in Iraq, if need be.) But, I did point to the fact that, the day after his meeting with Bush, Blair had referred approvingly in a speech to ‘regime change’ – the first time he had done so in public. Regime change was official American policy vis-à-vis Iraq; but, as has become clear during the hearings, it was viewed by British government lawyers as an inadequate basis for going to war. When taxed on this by the committee, it provoked a bizarre reaction from the Blairistas, who said that I could not possibly have known what had happened at Crawford because I had not been there. But this was precisely my point! Even more curiously, Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff, happily acknowledged that he had drafted the Prime Minister’s speech to bring it more into alignment with Bush’s position on regime change.
If I were a foreign Ambassador in London, I would expect a member of my political staff to read and analyse all the transcripts of evidence posted on the Iraq inquiry’s website. There is a lot to get through; but, scattered among the verbiage, there are plenty of nuggets – at least for the diplomats, politicians, military men and journalists who have a professional interest in the matter. Yet, I suspect that this kind of detail is of little interest to the public-at-large, because they have already made up their minds about the genesis of the war: that the Blair government in effect sub-contracted to the US President the decision to invade Iraq. On the evidence submitted to the Chilcot committee, that judgement looks exactly right. What remains raw and live is the burning anger of the relatives of soldiers who died for want of decent equipment. If Chilcot and his colleagues choose to pursue with Brown this line of questioning – that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he denied the armed forces helicopters and armoured transport vehicles for reasons of official parsimony – it should be a very uncomfortable few hours or so for the Prime Minister.
Some people argue that the committee has been too soft a touch. There may have been occasions when it could have pressed witnesses harder. But witnesses can always be recalled. It would have been a huge error to have allowed barristers to lead the questioning – witnesses would inevitably have turned up with their own lawyers and, out of the smoke of legal battle, far less would have emerged than has been the case so far. If nothing else, when it appears – perhaps late this year, perhaps early in 2011 – the Chilcot report will be an historical document of immense importance for future generations on why and how Britain went to war in 2003.
I, for one, look at the matter more and more as an historian: recently I published another book, Getting Our Way, a history of British diplomacy over the past 500 years, which accompanied a BBC television series of the same name. As I wrote it, I became increasingly aware how modern politicians ignore history at their peril. As Britain’s Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, flew across the Atlantic in 1962 to meet President Kennedy in Nassau for a highly successful negotiation on nuclear weapons, he was observed to be reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. What a shame that, before they embarked on military expeditions to Afghanistan and Iraq, our more recent leaders appeared to have digested neither Winston Churchill’s The Story of the Malakand Field Force, about fighting the Pashtun during the 1890s on the old North-West Frontier, nor General Sir Aylmer Haldane’s The Insurrection in Mesopotamia, 1920, in which the author recounts how he defeated a major insurgency in what is now modern Iraq. As Haldane himself acknowledged, ‘I regret that on my arrival in Mesopotamia I was too much occupied with military matters, and too ill-informed regarding the political problem.’ That could serve as an epitaph for our recent interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq.