The Chilcot inquiry’s precedents don’t auger well. It’s unfair to describe the Hutton and Butler inquiries as ‘whitewashes’, but their colour was certainly off-white. That said, the condemnatory characterisation of Sir John and his panel as ‘establishment figures’ is redolent of a lower-sixth common room circa 1968. Who else could conduct this inquiry? Mohammed al-Fayed? Pete Doherty? The Bishop of Bath and Wells? The Iraq controversy has not abated and a panel of angels would not be pure enough for some. But it’s absurd to suggest that anyone besides officials and foreign policy experts, with an intricate knowledge of the practices and issues concerned, should or can decide such matters. (Lawyers and judges being the only exceptions) Chilcot should be judged on performance alone.
The real question is what is the point of this inquiry? Bagehot reckons that the testimony of officials might, might, disclose new information. Can it? The terms of the remit, the development and implementation of British policy, are well established. As Sir John put it in his opening remarks, “The findings of previous investigations have eased our task in finding relevant material.” Gary Gibbon reports that the former head of the FCO’s Mid-East section Sir William Patey testified that military action was considered the worst option in 2001. The aim of Chilcot’s investigation is to determine how and why this changed, but the answer is known: flawed intelligence preceded or proceeded Downing Street’s hardening attitude. Testimony from officials is unlikely to reveal which aspect of that dichotomy is accurate, something only Blair, his intimates and, if Blair told Him, God can answer.
The inquiry will decide whether the war was illegal but will not hand down a legally binding judgement – the inquiry enjoys none of the privileges of a court and no lawyers or judges are deliberating. Another unenforceable opinion on the causes of the Iraq war will not provide closure for any party.
PS: Open testimony may disclose new information on Gordon Brown’s role in decision making, which remains an unknown quantity.