Iraq Enquiry – Public or Not?

Gordon Brown doesn’t want to apportion blame.

Nick Clegg wants to apportion blame, and apportion it now. He thinks he knows what the outcome of the enquiry will be.

David Cameron doesn’t mention blame. He has to be careful, given the Tories were supporters of the war.

Brown wants answers. Clegg wants retribution. Cameron isn’t quite certain what he wants, but whatever he wants he wants it in part in public, because that’s the way the wind is blowing.

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Let’s imagine a public enquiry, with lawyers and affidavits, and public interrogations. If all the evidence was stacked one way, maybe there’d be a steamroller and the enquiry would be over quickly, the guilty would be disgraced, sink out of sight, never to be seen in public again. But the evidence won’t all be stacked all one way. Will Tony Blair or Geoff Hoon roll over quietly? Even Jack Straw would feel he has to fight for his reputation. They’d all have lawyers.  So too would the military men, because the enquiry will take in the way the war was fought, how effective it was, armament and transport, strategy and planning and tactics on the ground in Basra.

If the Bloody Sunday enquiry into one day can take years and cost hundreds of millions of pounds, how much will this cost?

And don’t tell me it need only last six months.

Hold it in public and everyone will be in protective mode. It will be argument and counter-argument, virulent attack, passionate defence. It might even be fun. It would be a media show. We’d all get wound up and talk about it. We’d leap to conclusions, probably based on our existing pre-conceptions. We’d talk about it lots. But would it help us finds the answers to what really happened, would it point up lessons for the future, would it heal wounds? No, it wouldn’t. It’s the worst possible way of doing it.

I’ve heard talk today of the healing a public enquiry would bring. I don’t believe it. Passions once roused would be hard to douse, on both sides. Watching others hit the self-destruct button is a good spectator sport, not too far from reality TV. But not if we’re the sport. Not too good if we want to have a positive influence in the world.

There’s a lot of talk about openness and accountability. The two don’t necessarily go together. Openness isn’t going to mean that those we would wish to be held to account will be held to account. Truth isn’t such a simple black-and-white beast. Like the Bloody Sunday enquiry we may be no clearer at the end than at the beginning, or we’ll find that we’re entrenched in the positions we started in.

No, Nick, it’s not simple, no-one’s going to roll over.

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For my part, I loathed the war, and loathed Blair for taking us into it. I’d have had Blair impeached if that has been an option under our political system. For misleading the public and parliament, if he didn’t lie as such, for taking us into an ill-conceived war, and for sheer gullibility (not an impeachable offence, I admit) when faced with Bush and the neo-cons.

But I’d have had that done in parliament, not in a media-goaded bear pit. There are ways and means for getting at the truth. A public enquiry just isn’t one of them. The terms of reference of the enquiry as now proposed are what we should be focusing on, but these will have to wait for another time, or another post.

Stick to your guns, Gordon.

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