The Methodist Central Hall, which stands opposite Westminster Abbey in central London, hosted the first ever meeting of the United Nations in 1946. When I visited to watch the Stop the War Coalition’s (StWC) protest taking place outside on the day of the release of the Chilcot Report last week, there was little harmony on display and not much more unity.
The report was due for release at 11am next door in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. The police had sealed off the area for the media and the protesters had to make do with rallying a few yards away outside the Methodist Hall. To the intense annoyance of many from StWC the road had not been closed to traffic, which resulted in two thin strips of outrage on the pavements either side. The occasional taxi edged through, carrying utterly bemused tourists.
Chris Nineham, a founder member of StWC was leading the event. Via a small stage he announced that the Report would be deemed a whitewash unless four criteria were satisfied. I doubted he was about to describe a set of moderately achievable propositions but really hoped to be wrong. I wanted Chilcot to represent a line drawn; an intelligent, helpful and welcome contribution towards healing the scars of Iraq; that it would, in some way, help to explain the mad deference, hubris, weakness and irresponsibility that had gripped our governing class and, to a lesser extent, much of the rest of the country in the run up to the Iraq war. I wanted the response from StWC to go some way to drawing out the anger, the preference for black and white arguments and drift towards highlighting points of division rather than connection that is coursing through our national psyche right now.
So perhaps I was expecting a lot of Chris and his four criteria, but, hey, with great power (and a leading figure in StWC has such) comes great responsibility. So I bundled up my doubts and prepared to cast them into oblivion, find the nearest biro that worked, sign up to StWC, buy the T-shirt and grab a placard.
I was not disappointed, except, of course, I was.
The four criteria: One, state unequivocally that Tony Blair lied to take us to war. Two, state unequivocally that the war was illegal. Three, acknowledge the chaos that resulted. Four, insist that Tony Blair stand trial for war crimes.
In terms of taking the issue forward this was an exercise more of scab-picking than national healing.
I aim here only to talk about two aspects of the Report that specifically stuck out for me (the general ghastliness of the whole thing has been well covered in the media).
First, I was truly saddened to see the extent to which groupthink enabled a collective, unspoken narrative to form. The ease with which a case was made for action against Iraq before all other avenues had been exhausted shows how dangerous this is. Of course, Tony Blair at this time was still considered an almost divine politician, so perhaps we forget how easy it was to dazzle colleagues and opponents alike. But the sheer lack of imagination and skepticism from those that should have checked and balanced baffles. Their thinking, such as it was, seemed to consist of the following: Saddam is bad and something must be done. Blair is proposing something. We must do the something that Blair proposes. Dangerously simple.
Politicians, civil servants, military, the media; all complicit. Thankfully we all know better now, so will hold our leaders better to account and ask more probing questions of those that use our name to justify their actions. Perhaps. Jack Straw’s dismissal of an assessment six months before the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ of September 2002 is only one example of the expectation that all departments would conform rather than confirm:
“The paper has to show why there is an exceptional threat from Iraq. It does not quite do this yet.”
The only greasy pole I have ever attempted to climb was the military. I got half way. But like, I would imagine, similar poles in politics, the civil service, the intelligence agencies and so on, I was constantly told those above me were an order of magnitude more intelligent and capable. So how did it happen? Why did so many clever, worldly and experienced professionals make such a hash of it all?
The only senior officer I know to have taken a stand was General Sir Richard Dannatt, the-then Chief of the General Staff who stood up to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He told me he only ever tried to do the right thing. It cost him his career, which perhaps explains why he was a lone actor (and says a lot about the realities of truth spoken unto some politicians). I suggested to General Nick Houghton, the current Chief of the Defence Staff, that we no longer view military victory or defeat as a question of lines on a map and how many tanks we’ve destroyed. Rather, in the environments of the modern world (i.e. those that are, annoyingly, no longer devoid of civilians in the combat zone), it is a case of having freedom of movement and the ability to act as we wish without hindrance from the enemy. Perhaps not surprisingly General Houghton did not agree that we were defeated in southern Iraq by the time of our withdrawal. He did not recognise what, in my view, was a shabby deal done with the Mahdi Militia: we would not interfere with them in return for a cessation of the attacks on British Forces. I’m a big fan of the military, but by God, there’s a lot of dead wood keeping the ship afloat.
Chris Nineham was calling out, “Blair lied!” and the crowd eventually twigged they had to respond “Thousands died!” It took a few rehearsals but eventually they cracked it and took to the task with gusto. There was a bizarre StWC placard with a blood spatter and the inscription ‘Out, Damned Spot’ I knew I’d be revealing my innate ignorance but had to get the man in the StWC tent to explain the meaning: the blood on Lady MacBeth’s hands, of course. By now I had developed a headache and considered obscure Shakespearian references a step too far for my first protest.
A man jumped on the podium and raised a cheer with: “the truth will not be blurred today. It will be Blaired!” Then another grabbed the microphone and said he’d been told recently by the head of the army that he’d ordered 600 new tanks for use in the Baltic. “A new cold war!’ he thundered. I decided I’d had enough. I waded through the banners of groups with, as far as I could tell, a tenuous link to a protest about the Iraq war: CND, Women For Corbyn, Momentum, Women Of Colour in the Global Women’s Strike and a 9/11 conspiracy theorist (who pressed an sheet of ‘proof’ into my hand) to name a few. It was like a dozen protest movements had all suffered from satnav groupthink and collided outside the Methodist Hall. Only Veterans for Peace seemed to be in the right place.
They all seemed a merry enough bunch with costumes, props and homemade banners and it was apparent they’d all done this a number of times before. I chatted to a placard-carrying man who was complaining about the noise coming from the podium, although I thought that was the point (“Blair lied, thousands died!” was in full swing). “I wish we’d get this number when we protest about paedophiles,” he yelled, “or the cover-ups at the BBC!” And then, like a sarin-filled artillery shell launched 45 minutes earlier, it struck me. I was in the presence of a professional ranter. Were the rest like that? And didn’t that dilute the strength of the message groups like StWC were trying to achieve? Free speech loses its power if its too free.
The poor understanding of intelligence material in senior government circles was the other major dismay for me in the Report. This may sound a bit wonkish but it’s important to note as this is the bread and butter of how a case for war is built.
There is information and there is intelligence. The latter is information plus assessment. It will always be a best guess; sometimes close, sometimes pretty wide of the mark. It never stands alone – the only 100% intelligence is called hindsight – it is always caveated with a grading about how likely it is to be correct.
When Tony Blair wrote in the forward of the September 2002 paper (the dodgy dossier) that the intelligence had “established beyond doubt” Saddam’s WMD programme was active I will bet my Body Shop Loyalty Card that he ignored the caveats and plumped for the arresting statement. Alistair Campbell’s assertion after the publication of the Chilcot Report that neither he nor Tony Blair ‘sexed up’ any assessments or invented intelligence was, therefore almost certainly true. But that’s not to say they treated such material as it should be. And nobody in government or parliament called them out on it, probably because they didn’t know how to think about such matters themselves.
For me, the Chilcot Report’s repeated references to “intelligence and assessments” does not absolutely nail out of sight the point that they are both assessments; the only difference being that the former is usually informed or produced by spooks. It is certainly not a fact to accompany the latter’s guess. If you know any politicians, please raise this with them at your next dinner party as an ice-breaker.
I headed away from the Westminster Hall to go and read the Report as it had only been out on general circulation for half an hour and nobody around me had actually read it. I doubted the protesters would allow minor details like that to change their views or that Chris would be satisfied his criteria had been met. So, another establishment whitewash then. (Reading their commentary afterwards has confirmed this to be the case.) Personally I think the Report has pulled few punches, although I would have liked to see greater analysis of the impact of the Blair-Brown rift (particularly regarding funding for the military) and the compliant, frothy and irresponsible media. Remember The Sun had a front-page splash comparing Charles Kennedy, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, to a reptile after he opposed the war: ‘Spot The Difference; one is a spineless reptile that spits venom…the other’s a poisonous snake’. Classy.
We’ve learnt how worryingly easy it is to take the nation to war if a small number of people in the right (wrong?) places think it’s probably the right thing to do, regardless of how many people in ordinary or unimportant places think otherwise. If the holes in the swiss cheese all align at the wrong moment, otherwise sensible people can make stupid decisions.
Could it happen again? I see nothing in our divided politics and the ambition I know to still exist in our senior military to say with any conviction that it could not. A few yards away from the Methodist Hall, on Parliament Square Garden, is the Mahatma Gandhi statue. Just next to it is the temporary memorial to Jo Cox, the MP murdered in June. Like most people I only heard of her after her death, but she seemed like someone who understood responsibility and duty; two qualities that most actors in the Chilcot Report seemed to lack.