Thursday, 3 February 2011

21 January 2011

I imagine you would agree that no government takes a decision that’s more important than going to war.

In which case, presumably, it follows that understanding how and why such a decision is taken is pretty important as well.

That’s why – for those of us interested in the machinery of government – the Iraq war inquiry being conducted by Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues provides such a fascinating insight.

This morning, Tony Blair was back, almost exactly a year after his first appearance at the inquiry. There were no fireworks, but there was a significant – and an uncharacteristic – admission.

Yes, said Mr Blair, in retrospect, it might have been better if the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had been more closely involved in the process of negotiating the UN security council resolution which either did (according to Tony Blair and, eventually, Lord Goldsmith) provide legal cover for the Iraq invasion, or (according to critics of the war and many international lawyers) did not.

The point is a simple one: Tony Blair knew that all his commitments to President Bush in the months leading up to the invasion would be worthless if the Attorney General formally advised the Cabinet that military action would be illegal. He also knew that, almost up till the last moment, that was the Attorney General’s view.

It would have been much easier, Mr Blair suggested, if Lord Goldsmith had been present at discussions about the language of Resolution 1441, because that way he would have seen how deliberately it was chosen in order to offer legal cover for military action as a last resort. (Whether that is indeed what the Attorney General would have concluded, we shall never know.)

We already know from innumerable accounts of the Blair years that he favoured an informal style of government. It didn’t go down too well with civil servants, nor does it, it seems, with members of the Chilcot inquiry. They want to see minutes of meetings, and records of conversations.

In a nutshell, Tony Blair’s approach can be summed up like this: I know what needs to be done, so my task is simply to persuade everyone else – and then do it.

He was not, as prime minister, nor is he now, the sort of man who says: We seem to have a problem, so I’m going to sit down with all my Cabinet colleagues and see if we can work out what to do about it.

I remember interviewing him in Downing Street in December 2002, three months before the Iraq invasion. I asked him if it bothered him that his critics were calling him “Bush’s poodle.”

“Oh, it’s much worse than that,” he said. “I agree with him.”

His problem was that many of his Cabinet colleagues, many Labour MPs, and many British voters, were much less sure. So throughout the pre-invasion period, the question he was asking himself was not: What is the right thing to do? It was: How can I persuade everyone else that what I’m doing is the right thing to do?

You may think that certainty in a political leader is no bad thing. Or you may think that in a Cabinet-system of government, with a civil service offering professional advice, certainty can sometimes risk leading to bad decisions.

When the Chilcot inquiry report is published, it won’t pass judgement on whether the Iraq war was legal. (Just as well, perhaps, given that not a single member of the inquiry team is even a lawyer, let alone a judge.)

But it may well have a great deal to say about the way decisions were made. It won’t provide the sort of headlines that critics of the war are hoping for – it won’t result in Mr Blair being dragged off to The Hague in handcuffs – but I’m pretty confident that it’ll make riveting reading for anyone who’s interested in how we are governed.

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