John Mullin: Doctrine of Kicking for the Long Grass

Tony Blair's asserted that Saddam Hussein was a threat not just to his people or the region, but to the world. Picture: Getty
Tony Blair's asserted that Saddam Hussein was a threat not just to his people or the region, but to the world. Picture: Getty
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Delays over the publication of the Chilcot report into the Iraq war reflect an existential crisis at the very top, writes John Mullin

Once you hit a certain age, of course, it all changes. When you make your early morning foray to the bathroom these days, no longer is your initial instinct to gaze admiringly in the mirror at the vision of vitality before you. No. The first glance is now almost unwitting, an apologetic consequence of scrabbling for the toothbrush.

And what is your first thought?

Disappointment, and a certain incredulity.

Do I really look like that? I know I’m getting on, but, really, like that? Where did it all go? And this really isn’t vanity. It’s just, well, surprise.

It’s not as if – intellectually – you don’t know you’re ageing. No-one needs tell you the years are spinning away ever faster. Yet still there is that momentary shock first thing every day.

And it is on this very conundrum of time’s passage – the contradiction between your brain recognising that it is slipping away, but emotionally somehow not quite believing the consequences – that a fundamental feature of our political life is based. Highly successful it is too, for those in high places. We might call it the Doctrine of Kicking for the Long Grass.

A definition of this quintessentially British approach? To boot fearsome controversy way into touch by means of a public inquiry, belatedly and reluctantly set up with highfalutin’ rhetoric citing openness, transparency, uncovering the truth and/or learning the lessons. Then, simply let the sands of time do the rest and blunt the people’s ire.

Take the war in Iraq. It is now 12 years since the skies over Baghdad first lit up orange on live television and excited commentators welcomed Shock and Awe, and it is six – SIX! – since Gordon Brown announced that senior civil servant Sir John Chilcot would lead an inquiry into the run-up to the war, the campaign itself and the planning that went into the aftermath. And still we wait.

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Twelve years is a long time. At the beginning of the war, I was still in my thirties. Just after its anniversary in March, I will be 52: my entire forties, and all that peak decade brings – children, career advancement, the first deaths of friends – evaporated. It will be the same for you: graduation, new jobs, kids, setbacks, and Andy Murray winning Wimbledon.

You realise that all that time has passed, but, just as your early morning reflection comes as a surprise, there are all sorts of headlines you may have forgotten: Prime Minister Tony Blair’s assertion that Saddam Hussein was a threat not just to his people or the region, but to the world; that this threat was growing; that he could deploy his weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes (and against British targets); that the intelligence was formidable, clear and reliable. You may also recall: that this war was about (never-found) weapons of mass destruction, WMD, not about regime change, for that would have been illegal; the remarkable suggestion that there were links between Saddam and al-Qaeda; and the soon-to-be-realised warnings of a backlash on the streets of Britain.

This is the beauty of the Doctrine of Kicking for the Long Grass: even those infuriated by the war, who saw it as illegal, counter-productive, ill-planned, unpredictable, and worst of all, an act of vengeance for 9/11 on the wrong target, have forgotten much of the detail, and perhaps their anger at the time. Yet, with all that has since happened, with the rise of first al-Qaeda and now Islamic State, we desperately need Sir John’s verdict.

Don’t, though, hold your breath for it any time soon. After Prime Minister Brown set up the inquiry in June 2009, David Cameron, then Opposition leader, moaned about it failing to report before the LAST election.

Sir John took his last evidence in February 2011, and the £9 million inquiry was then due to deliver its one-million word report within months. But the chances of it reporting before the next general election? Zilch.

What is particularly frustrating is that there are signs Sir John Chilcot will tell some home truths. As he is required to do by law, he is believed to have warned several of the leading players – including Mr Blair and Jack Straw, the then foreign secretary – that he intends to criticise them, and has asked for their comments before publication.

Of particular interest is what was said by Mr Blair to US President George W Bush in advance of the war, at summits at Camp David and at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2002. What guarantees did he give to support the US, come what may? Did that lead to illegal participation in the war? Was Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, prevailed upon wrongly to give legal cover for Britain’s involvement? Was parliament misled?

Documents which will illuminate these issues are one reason for the delay. Sir John has been embroiled in a long wrangle, battling both the British government, and in particular Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and the US administration, to get his hands on them. The eventual compromise is that Sir John can refer to the “gist” of what was said in 200 Cabinet-level discussions about the war and in two dozen conversations between Blair and Bush. Quotations, though, are to be limited.

The upshot is this: an inquiry set up in the last parliament, six years after a war announced during the previous one, won’t even report in the current parliament, but in the next one. We saw off Hitler from start to finish more speedily. It is, as Lord Hurd, the former Conservative foreign secretary, and someone not exactly given to hyperbole, said recently nothing short of a scandal.

@jmullinjourno

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