Thursday 28 January 2010

Why holding the Iraq inquiry is not a political mistake

A new piece of conventional Westminster wisdom:

The decision to hold an Iraq inquiry has backfired on Gordon Brown - and he would have done better to resist the calls and let sleeping dogs lie.

So say Andrew Grice, Andrew Rawnsley, quoting the schadenfreude of a senior Blair aide, Polly Toynbee and many others. (The pieces do offer a fair discussion of both sides of the question, but broadly share that conclusion).

We can expect to hear a lot more of this as first Tony Blair tomorrow and, later, Gordon Brown give evidence to the inquiry.


I admit to a possible bias. I wrote to Gordon Brown in February 2008 ahead of the 5th anniversary of the war, to make the case for announcing an inquiry. Gordon Brown's reply was his first public statement that an inquiry should take place "" to learn all possible lessons from the military action in Iraq and its aftermath". (The issue remained open within government at that time, with some public cooling on earlier pro-inquiry hints).

Still, as both Kierkegaard and Jack Straw remind us, "whilst life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forward". (And, whisper it, but the left-liberal conventional wisdom is not always right either: how are we doing on 'more transparency will increase trust in politics' these days? Which doesn't mean that the answer now is less transparency, rather than more, now).

So I hope I'd be able to fess up if the whole thing had been a big mistake.

But it isn't.

Firstly, there is simply no credible public argument for refusing an inquiry into one of the most significant and most controversial issues in British foreign policy since Suez.

I think that remains a good principled argument why an inquiry was right and necessary. (The "fifth inquiry" argument rather misses the point: inquiring into the death of David Kelly isn't the same thing at all as studying the build-up, conduct and aftermath of the war. When, for example, has the issue of the failure of post-war reconstruction been systematically examined? It seems clear from the questioning and evidence to date that this will be an important focus of the report).

But that case about the merits also affects the public politics. If there is no comprehensible public defence of refusing an inquiry, it would be a brave or foolish government which let that become a major focus of a General Election campaign.

For the new conventional wisdom to stand up, we need to think through the counter-factual case of the political, media and public reaction if there was no inquiry.

Even those who are very sceptical about whether many people could change their mind about anything on Iraq, now have to argue that the government would be better off, in narrow political terms, to have said, in essence: "We don't see any point in trying to learn the lessons from Iraq. We already know what they are, thank you very much".

We would surely have the media in full flow, with "what have you got to hide?" and "Does Brown have secret deal to protect Blair" coverage.

We would have the Conservatives and the LibDems wanting to make as much of the inquiry issue as possible. The Conservatives were already doing by 2008, however opportunistic that might seem. They would have made it a significant campaign issue - 'whatever people thought of the war, why not hold a proper inquiry?' - perhaps particularly in the televised leaders' debates. And they would have made that the key symbol of a broader indictment of the culture of an incumbent government, as unaccountable and unwilling to hear criticism, so allowing strong supporters of the war (like the Conservative frontbench itself) to justify banging the drum for an inquiry after the event.

That case would have been strengthened as we would already have a great many Labour backbench voices, and so many independent voices, were on record as arguing that an inquiry was possible. So this would also become an issue of Labour splits and indiscipline (as always happens when calls for less robotic and more open debates are heeded).

Even if an argument that "If you want an Iraq inquiry, don't vote Labour" might not necessarily have swung enormous numbers of votes, though I expect campaigns like 38 degrees would have been advocating support for candidate who backed an inquiry.

But this would have had a very demoralising effect on Labour party supporters, as campaigners were asked to defend the indefensible. It would provide a "doh!" moment as to why the leadership was putting its advocates in that position without any apparent good reason.

Yes, the inquiry may remind Labour identifiers who switched to the LibDems in 2005 over Iraq of why they did so. Winning them back will be difficult, even if the government might have a stronger pitch on progressive causes such as climate change, international development and the economy. But it would surely have been impossible if the government could not even bring itself to be held to account.

Andrew Grice's column makes this point tellingly, in discussing the rather more second order point of the timing of Brown's evidence.

For Mr Brown, appearing before the election is now by far the lesser of two evils. Imagine the charges of "running scared" during the campaign – including in the leaders' three televised debates. The best hope for him is to face the music and get his inquiry appearance over with as soon as possible, in the hope that the image has faded a bit by May.

How much more true would this be if the campaign argument was about whether and why the government was "running scared" of an inquiry itself.

Of course the inquiry was always going to be difficult for current and former members of the government. That's part of the point of an independent inquiry, because the government does lose control over the process and outcome.

If there wasn't an Iraq inquiry, it is quite obvious that the conventional wisdom would be that Gordon Brown's decision to block it had backfired badly.

In that parallel universe, you know, I think the conventional wisdom would very probably have been right.

1 comment:

_______ said...

The best thing Brown can do is apologize for any of his mistakes well before the election, so the electorate regains trust in him.