We have been here before. In April 1972, the former brigadier Lord Widgery published his now notorious report into the killing of 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators by British paratroopers in Northern Ireland three months earlier on Bloody Sunday. Widgery cleared the soldiers of blame, insisting, in defiance of a mass of evidence, that they had only opened fire after coming under attack. The Widgery report was so widely seen as a flagrant establishment whitewash, and continued to be such a focus of nationalist anger, that a quarter of a century later Tony Blair felt compelled to set up another Bloody Sunday inquiry under Lord Saville, still sitting today.
Lord Hutton – a scion of the Northern Irish protestant ascendancy who himself represented British soldiers at the Widgery inquiry – has, if anything, outdone Widgery in his service to the powers that be. Hutton’s embrace of any construction of the evidence surrounding David Kelly’s death that might be helpful to the government is breathtaking in its sweep. Instead of a prime minister who took the country to war on the basis of discredited dossiers about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, it is the BBC that now finds itself in the dock – and its chairman who was last night forced to resign. Hutton’s report could scarcely have been more favourable if it had been drafted, or even sexed up, by Tony Blair’s former spinmeister Alastair Campbell himself. The prime minister certainly knew his man when he appointed the one-time Diplock court judge to head the inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death.
Fortunately, we have the inquiry transcripts to test against Lord Hutton’s almost comically tendentious conclusions. We know, for example, that Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell asked the joint intelligence committee’s John Scarlett to redraft that part of the September dossier which suggested Saddam Hussein might use chemical and biological weapons “if he believes his regime is under threat” – and Scarlett did so, by taking out the qualifications. We know that Campbell asked Scarlett to change a claim that the Iraqi military “may be able” to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes to “are able”. But Lord Hutton is of the view that this is not at all the “sexing up” that the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan quoted Kelly as complaining about. We also know that Blair chaired the meeting at which the strategy for outing Kelly was adopted, even though the prime minister later denied having anything to do with it. But, in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Lord Hutton, that was entirely consistent and honourable.
There are different ways of reading the spectacular one-sidedness of Hutton’s conclusions. One is that the Ulster law lord might be a touch naive about the seamier side of 21st century political life; another, that the legalistic defence offered by Blair, Hoon and senior civil servants naturally appealed to a conservative judge far more than the BBC journalists’ case that the main thrust of their story was in fact right; a third that, as a lifelong servant of the British crown, he knew where his duty lay when the credibility of the state was at risk.
But whatever the mixture of motives, Hutton’s unqualified endorsement of the government’s behaviour is bound, in the current climate, to be widely regarded in the country as a cover-up. It will have no credibility for millions who opposed the war on Iraq; it will merely add to the sense that the political system is unable to deal with the crisis triggered by Britain’s participation in the illegal invasion and occupation.
The Hutton saga has in reality been a very British sideshow to that central issue – and the now barely-contested consensus that the reasons given for joining the war were false. Next to the national and global implications of what has been done – and the more than 15,000 people estimated to have died as a result – a loosely worded 6.07am BBC radio broadcast, and even the grim death of Dr Kelly, pale into insignificance. By setting up an inquiry into the Kelly affair, Blair created a partially successful diversion from the far more serious – and more threatening to him personally – questions raised by the war itself.
Those are the questions – rather than the BBC’s systems of editorial control – that need urgently to be addressed. Armed with Lord Hutton’s report, Tony Blair will now try to “draw a line” under the war and “move on”, as he likes to say. That will be impossible. The failure to turn up any of the weapons used as the pretext for Britain’s unprovoked attack on Iraq last March has been cruelly highlighted by the queue of US officials and politicians now prepared to concede publicly that they didn’t actually exist.
Last summer, Blair was telling us to wait for the Iraq Survey Group to produce his smoking guns. Now David Kay, who has been in charge of the group, says of the phantasmic Iraqi weapons: “I don’t think they existed”. His replacement, Charles Duelfer, thinks “they’re probably not there”.
Meanwhile, the misery of the occupation of Iraq grows, as US and British claims to have liberated the country are exposed as a fraud. While the resistance continues to inflict daily casualties on the occupation forces in the centre and north of Iraq – regardless of the capture of Saddam Hussein – the Shia religious leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani has put himself at the head of a mass popular movement for democracy, opposed by the very US occupiers who insisted they were invading to trigger a democratic revolution across the Middle East.
There are now around 13,000 Iraqis imprisoned without trial; evidence of torture and brutality by US and British occupation forces is growing; and the CIA has warned that Iraq is at risk of slipping into a three-way civil war. For most Iraqis, life has got worse under the occupation and even on the crudest calculus, many more have been killed since Saddam Hussein was overthrown than in his last period in power: as the US-based Human Rights Watch pointed out this week, Saddam’s worst atrocities date from the days when he was backed by the west.
This is the legacy of the decision by Tony Blair and George Bush to invade a country that posed no threat either to Britain or to the US. There is no way in which the Iraq war can somehow be put behind us. That is not only because of what is now happening on the ground in Iraq, but because of the increased threat of terror attacks it has brought about, the precedent of pre-emptive war it has created, and the poison released in the British political system by a war launched on a false prospectus. Nor is it enough for the prime minister to say he believed there was a threat at the time. If that is the case, he is guilty of reckless incompetence.
The priority must now be to bring the Iraqi occupation to an end and for those who launched the war to be held to account. That process could begin in Britain with the independent inquiry into the war demanded by the opposition parties and anti-war movement. But it needs to go further. The Hutton report is no more likely to lift Iraq’s shadow from British public life than Widgery did Bloody Sunday’s. Until the prime minister who took the decision to go to war has been brought to account, that shadow will remain.