The Political Quarterly: Chilcot Collection

A Research Paper by Jean Seaton, published by The Political Quarterly

Professor Jean Seaton provides the introduction the Chilcot collection, a series of articles that unpick the findings of the Chilcot Report and which were published this week by Political Quarterly.

Jean’s introduction begins thus;  “THE CHILCOT Report is an eloquent exploration of the dangers of government by faith rather than reason. At every turn the report encounters deeply held ‘ingrained beliefs’ that predetermined action in the civil service, the security services, the army and, especially, among politicians. Some of these beliefs were hand-me-downs from America (but we did not question them); some were our own. The beliefs were that Saddam Hussein did have deliverable chemical weapons; that his government was determined to enhance them; that the regime could conceal its activities from the inspectors; that the invasion of Iraq would make the region more stable; that the same Iraq, equipped with oil revenues, had concealed within itself a democratic and accountable government that would spring into responsibility once repression and tyranny were swept away. There was also the fantasy that repressive regimes are all the same.

Then among our own home-grown ‘ingrained beliefs’ was the MOD belief that the cobbled-together equipment it sent soldiers
out to fight with would be adequate; that getting alongside America would enhance our capacity to act in the world; and that the
Americans, equipped with their vast capacities of planning and military might, must be calculating a post-invasion scenario. Yet America would have acted in the same way whatever we had done—it would have failed to plan, failed to understand the balance between military intervention and reconstruction, and the result, tragically, would have been much the same. It is possible that a more intelligent action would have diminished, managed, not unleashed the deadly rivalry between competing interest groups that was to be so catastrophic after the invasion, but the UK made no contribution to achieving this. Instead of applying thought and realism to a risky enterprise, evidence that did not fit the agenda was ignored, undermined, batted away, seen as ‘politically motivated’ or, more worryingly, simply not recognised in the UK. Politicians are less likely to understand conflict and armies perhaps than they used to be. But although hundreds of thousands of people marched against the invasio —creating unlikely alliances across political divides—many others assumed that the government had secure knowledge of an imminent threat.

In the 1960s, Harold Wilson was faced with frank dependency on America for the economic support that made it possible to deliver his domestic reforms (with a collapsing economy). He cut the defence budget, making the UK more dependent on American military protection when the Cold War was uncertain and dangerous. Nevertheless, he kept the UK out of Vietnam. While he offered the Americans ‘support’, and believed that communist insurgency had to be held in check (for which he was reviled), he sent no soldiers. With a weaker hand, Wilson—as anxious as any Labour leader to appear firm on defence—was, perhaps because of his Nonconformist background, very cautious about force. Thus the real challenge that the Chilcot Report poses is wider even than the botched post-invasion period in Iraq, which disposed of a savage dictator but which has caused the deaths of so many there, and which helped unleash lawless disruption across the entire region. Tony Blair has assumed a considerable weight of personal guilt; yet although there is always political respon-sibility, personal calculation, the weight of leadership, the report is as much about sys-temic failure as individual culpability. It poses the problems of what mechanisms we need to assist us in avoiding groupthink in government.
Although the Blair government delivered domestic reform and redistribution, and used electoral success to reshape the land-scape, the Iraq war sullied government and politicians. The new world of continual war-fare leaked out of the Iraq invasion to create a blot all over the region. Michael Gove’s recent infamous contempt for experts and the alarming contemporary predicament of evidence, battling apparently unsuccessfully against prejudice and simple lies, may have sprung in part from the distrust generated by that moment.
This cool, lucid report attempts to bring steady common sense and reason back into play in the nation’s affairs. It makes for chil-ling reading. The Committee—led by an old hand at intelligence, Sir John Chilcot (who started his career working for William Whitelaw in Northern Ireland)—created a process that was more interested in interro-gating and learning than indicting. Chilcot had sat on the previous enquiry into what had gone wrong in Iraq—the Butler Report—and seen how the key findings were insuf-ficiently clear. He was determined to make this report unambiguous and fair. It was an onerous task. A total of 534 witnesses were interviewed, and more than two million offi-cial papers assessed. Margaret Aldred led the archive team who managed this and put nearly all of it online with admirable effi-ciency. The inquiry doggedly pushed at the boundaries of what it could see, publish and explain, but some evidence is redacted in a challenging national and international situation.
The stoic persistence necessary to follow it all through was justified by the clarity and severity of the conclusions. The committee’s ambition was to reset how British govern-ment worked. Chilcot thought that the great institutions he had spent his life serving—the civil service, politicians, intelligence, the army—had lost their way. His committee wanted to restore propriety and realism back into government.
Chilcot set the tone for the reception of the findings with his humane, principled, for-midably fair-minded speech to the families of those who lost sons, husbands, daughters and wives as part of our expedition. It is a beautifully written statement, given by no orator but a level-headed public servant with command, humanity and humility. The fami-lies of the dead and injured had not been the key audience the committee had expected to address; its initial aim was to rectify govern-ment practices.
Yet it was an astute move as well as a decent one: the families became the touch-stone of how the report was received. Chil-cot’s sense of obligation and determination to speak to them first was important. In turn, the families’ acceptance of the report and satisfaction with its tone and findings set a wider emotional settlement. This is a testament to the grace and dignity of those families and their own commitment to public service. But it owes something to the author-ity of the report and its findings.
Gordon Brown had set up the inquiry and hearings had been intended to be in private, but the committee fought for public hearings. This, whatever the criticisms of the process (largely that it had no legal force), gave it a public political theatricality that was significant. The atmosphere in the room itself was calm, orderly, always with the small, disciplined, rapt audience at the heart of the proceedings. Journalists per-suaded to abandon the coffee-strewn joshing and cynicism of the pressroom next door and come to witness this alchemy were struck by it.
A procession of civil servants, intelligence and security officials, diplomats, military officers and politicians were spirited into the building and away again. Facing the com-mittee members, with their backs to the audience, their body language was often striking. Some were evidently uncomfort-able, some vain, some cautious, some impressive. For anyone not familiar with the armed forces it became apparent that quite different styles of address and manners seem to characterise the different forces: soldiers, sailors and airforce officers were—well—different in class, tone and language. Within the room this choreography felt like a hold-ing to account, with power because of, not despite, its quiet persistence.1 Courtesy was not a weak complicity or cooperative estab-lishment cover, but actually seen to be an awesome and stern value.”

Jean Seaton

About Jean Seaton

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History and the Official Historian of the BBC. She will publish in the Autumn of 2014 the next volume of the Corporations story, Holding the Line: the BBC and the Nation, taking Lord Asa Briggs work forward for Profile Books. This involves everything the BBC did in a tumultuous decade from the conflict in Northern Ireland, to the invasion of the Falklands, to Not the Nine O'Clock News, the Proms, the early music revolution, devolution, Dennis Potter's greatest plays, Attenborough's revolutionary series Life on Earth, and Radio 1s most influential moment, as well as the role of women in the Corporation, programmes for children and a tense and complicated relationship with the government. The history was given privileged access to BBC archives, but also gained privileged access to state papers. For the first time the Corporation's history is seen in the round. It has depended on several hundred interviews, and explores both the programme making decision that go into the making of an iconic Television series like John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also the high politics around the imposition of the broadcasting ban.

Details

Author
Jean Seaton
Date
22nd November 2016
Published By
The Political Quarterly
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