by James Strong
Another few months have passed with no sign of the long-awaited Chilcot Report. Is it now time to accept the entire thing will prove nothing more than an establishment stitch-up? Dr James Strong of LSE’s Department of International Relations thinks not.
Relatives of British service personnel killed fighting in Iraq are frustrated by the continuation of Sir John Chilcot’s Inquiry into the war. So, albeit with less emotional reasons, are MPs, journalists, academics interested in how Britain wound up fighting and arguably losing such an unpopular war, and even former Prime Minister Tony Blair himself. Chilcot recognizes this frustration. But he still insists he cannot set a timetable for publication of his Report.
Chilcot told the Foreign Affairs Committee in February that his Inquiry would stick to its principles of “fairness, thoroughness and impartiality” come what may. That has not stopped speculation in the media about an establishment stitch-up, threats of legal action from bereaved families and even some suggestions that members of the establishment are themselves behind accusations that the Report will be an establishment stitch-up.
Part of the problem the Chilcot Inquiry faces is that people have already made up their minds about Iraq, and most of them think it was a costly and possibly illegal mistake. Until the Report emerges, the prospect of it failing to criticise those involved in the decision to go to war and its aftermath gets many observers’ hackles up. Chilcot told the FAC that people should “judge us ultimately on the report we deliver”. On past performance that aspiration seems unlikely to be met. If, however, we consider the actual reasons behind the delay, it soon becomes clear that there are several grounds for optimism about the Chilcot Report.
Three factors explain the delay. All three, when looked at properly, suggest that the Inquiry is doing the right thing by taking its time.
Firstly, the draft Report is immensely long and complicated. It will apparently be over one million words long, or the equivalent of ten PhD theses. This is no surprise. The Inquiry panel interviewed some 150 witnesses. Chilcot told the FAC the final report would cite some 7,000 out of a total of 150,000 government documents reviewed. Most of the underlying documents will be released alongside the Report. Several important papers have already been made public. This is a good sign. Whereas critics accused Lord Hutton, author of the first public inquiry into the Iraq War, of a “whitewash” because he focused closely on his narrow terms of reference, Chilcot’s team appear to have taken their commitment to “thoroughness” very much to heart.
Secondly, the Inquiry spent thirteen months between August 2013 and September 2014 negotiating with the Cabinet Secretary in order to release a number of documents not previously considered publishable. This includes Cabinet minutes and details of private exchanges between Prime Minister Blair and President Bush. This is a further good sign. The Inquiry could have accepted Lord O’Donnell’s initial ruling that to release such materials into the public domain would be a step too far. It did not. Establishment stooges do not typically engage in drawn out and difficult arguments with the centre of the establishment. They do not persuade Whitehall to release material it does not want to release. The Chilcot Inquiry did just this.
Thirdly, the Inquiry has been engaged since early 2015 in a process known as ‘Maxwellisation’. In keeping with its commitment to “fairness”, the panel is sharing sections of its draft report with witnesses likely to be criticised to give them the right to respond. Chilcot has refused to give precise details about this process. He told the FAC only that the process did not involve any individuals beyond the 150 direct witnesses to the Inquiry, and that its outcomes would affect the Inquiry’s conclusions and recommendations but not its authoritative account of events. Maxwellisation is itself an inherently complex process. One witness may respond by producing additional evidence requiring criticism of (and a further round of disclosure to) another witness. A witness may point to additional evidence previously not thought important, which appears to have happened in this case. It is also a necessary one, following Robert Maxwell’s court victory (£) over the Department of Trade and Industry in 1974, which established that public inquiries must give criticised individuals a right of reply before publication.
There has been considerable press speculation about who exactly is ‘holding up’ Maxwellisation. Chilcot himself maintains the process is continuing at a reasonable pace (and that it is nearly finished), while some witnesses maintain they received ‘only a few weeks’ to respond to provisional criticism. One point seems clear. The Chilcot Inquiry’s Maxwellisation process includes individuals well beyond Tony Blair’s inner circle. This is again a good sign. Blair should face criticism over the way he took Britain to war in Iraq. He did not lie as much as critics claim, but nor was he as open, transparent and honest as he could have been. As Prime Minister he bears ultimate responsibility for the decisions he made and their consequences. At the same time, he was far from alone in thinking Iraq was developing WMD, breaking international law and violating human rights, nor in suggesting, as the left-leaning Observer did, that military action was a reasonable response. Plenty of other individuals, from the Cabinet through the bureaucracy, participated in the decision to go to war, and hold some responsibility for its aftermath. To absolve them in order to focus on Blair would be to downplay the wider responsibility the British state holds for what went wrong in 2003 and thereafter. It would also be to fail to learn properly the lessons of Iraq.
Britain needs a good Chilcot Report, not a quick one. It needs a thorough Report, not one rushed to meet artificial deadlines, not to mention legal or political threats. The families of those killed in Iraq deserve full, not partial, closure. They should take heart from the experience of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday. It took thirteen years, well beyond even the most pessimistic estimates of Chilcot’s ultimate deadline. It drew a public apology from a Conservative Prime Minister and drew a line under an immensely distressing episode in the lives of those affected. A good Chilcot Report can offer the same conclusion. But the Inquiry panel must be allowed to continue to work on its own terms.
The Inquiry has endured massive public pressure already. To suggest it is bending its conclusions to fit the views of a former Prime Minister, let alone his more junior officials, seems laughable. Instead we should view its continued work as a good sign, as a sign that the Chilcot Report, when it finally emerges, will offer a comprehensive account, supported by original documentary evidence, prepared without establishment interference and with a willingness to criticize, extensively, those whose errors and wrongdoing brought the disasters of the Iraq War about. We might yet be proven wrong. But, if we are, we’ll have a million-word report to justify our conclusions, not the speculation, headline-generation and wilful ignorance of the evidence that underpin criticisms circulating now. There are good reasons to think delays to the Chilcot Report may be no bad thing, after all.
Dr James Strong is Fellow in Foreign Policy Analysis in the Department of International Relations at LSE, where he completed a PhD in 2012 with a thesis on British public opinion towards the Iraq War. He writes on contemporary British foreign policy, the domestic politics of foreign policy and the relationship between public communication and international affairs. He regularly commentates on British foreign policy for the media and online. He tweets at @dr_james_strong.