Whatever Butler's verdict, Blair will know no shame
Nothing better testifies to Blair’s lawyer instincts than his reluctance to admit he was wrongWhen Margaret Thatcher took delivery of the Franks Report on the Falklands in 1982 she sat down carefully in an armchair. She closed her eyes and told her secretary to read her only the last paragraph. It concluded: “We would not be justified in attaching any blame or criticism to the present Government for the Argentine junta’s decision to commit its act of unprovoked aggression in the invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April, 1982.” Mrs Thatcher said: “That’s all right then,” and went back to work.
Present in that room 22 years ago was Lord Butler of Brockwell. He has now had to write a similar last line for Tony Blair. He knows that war is always a sort of defeat and that democracy demands closure. In the Falklands, British soil had been invaded and British lives had been spent regaining it. Who was to blame? The answer lay not in the evidence, which damned Mrs Thatcher’s style of government, but in that last line. Lord Butler must answer the same question, but in such a way as not to overstep his remit. His job is not to bring down an elected leader even if he may nudge him towards the pedestal edge.
Last February I wrote that the run-up to the Iraq invasion needed no further inquiry. Lord Hutton had reported. He found copious evidence that Tony Blair and his entourage were guilty of deceiving the public, and duly declared them innocent. So stunned was Mr Blair by this whitewash that he asked Lord Butler for a second opinion. I expect the latter tomorrow to reverse Hutton. Everyone who fabricated the case for invading Iraq will be blamed. Then each will be individually let off the hook. Good, Mr Blair will say with relief, and go back to work.
These inquiries are not courts of law, nor are they political show trials. Their reports are peculiar, part beginner’s history, part government audit, part political sensation. No prime minister resigns after such an inquiry. Butler, like Hutton, was set up to avert a resignation not precipitate one. It was meant to let time pass and allow distance to soothe any political turbulence.
Downing Street’s game plan for Butler is to delegate it “downstream”. Findings of duplicity and naivety in the handling of intelligence will be“studied with care”. Implementation will pass to Cabinet secretaries, intelligence agencies and management consultancies. What matters politically is how the report plays in the country. This is no congressional investigation. America goes to war with trumpets blaring, and monitors war with equal vigour; witness Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Britain’s parliamentary select committees, under the MPs Donald Anderson and Bruce George, are doormice in comparison.
The Butler inquiry advises the executive, but that is headed by the Prime Minister. Whatever conclusion is reached, Mr Blair will regard any charge of manipulating intelligence as just another embarrassment among the many that afflict him over Iraq. An iron law of politics holds that only voters break your bones, embarrassments never hurt you. Mr Blair must be the least embarrassable politician in history. He knows no shame.
The most damaging fallout from Butler will be the light it sheds not on the machinery of government — but on Mr Blair’s character as leader. Before the war Mr Blair said a dozen things that turned out to be untrue, and his staff induced others to do likewise. But this was for a specific cause. That cause was not confronting Saddam Hussein as such. It was the decision, taken by Mr Blair personally in mid-2002, to support whatever action George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld might take in Iraq.
The Downing Street dossiers that form the raw material for Hutton and Butler were never intelligence reports as such. Such documents are always nuanced, detailed and confidential. These were pro-war tracts. In language and presentation they were the base metal of intelligence turned to media gold by the conjurers and bullies with whom Mr Blair had filled Downing Street. Even professional Washington was aghast.
Mr Blair’s slavish following of Mr Bush continues to mystify analysts. The only time he used any leverage, during the second UN fiasco, was to save his skin back home. How was it that liberal, multilateralist Britain could find itself hitched to so reckless and ill-prepared a neocon adventure? What had got into Mr Blair?
The Falklands offers a reverse parallel. In April 1982, when Britain went to war with Argentina, Mrs Thatcher’s closest ally, Ronald Reagan, thought it risky and unjustified. He pleaded with her to appease an aggressor with negotiation. Reagan at the time was supporting both Argentina’s Galtieri and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. America might love Britain but it “had no dog in this fight” and would not join. Reagan offered covert military aid, that was all.
Why did Britain not speak to America likewise in 2003? It is considered de rigueur to accept Mr Blair’s sincerity in believing in Iraq’s WMD, perhaps reason enough for supporting Washington. Yet it is odd that he now regards WMD as no longer a necessary condition for the invasion, substituting regime change, a reason he specifically rejected beforehand.
I veer towards the maxim, “cherchez la profession”. Mr Blair may pose as an ideologue or a man with a divine mission abroad. I prefer to see him as an instinctive barrister. It would not occur to him to equivocate his support for America after he had accepted Washington as a “dock brief”, after Desert Storm and Kosovo. Staying close to his client became an article of faith. Certainly from 9/11 onwards, he gave the White House unquestioning support, offering it his professional talent without even seeking payback.
The Hutton transcripts, with their frantic tailoring of intelligence, did not read as signposts on a reluctant path to war. They revealed no cautious statesmen probing for facts. They showed no senior officials fearlessly “telling truth to power”. Downing Street appeared more as a solicitor’s office the night before a tricky trial. Clerks raced back and forth seeking anyone, anything, that would help to stack up the case. Truth was for the birds. All that mattered was browbeating the jury. If spies were upset, diplomats enraged, hacks furious, more fool them.
Nothing better testifies to Mr Blair’s lawyer instincts than his reluctance to admit that he might have been wrong. I know defence lawyers who likewise passionately assert their client’s innocence long after crushing conviction and imprisonment. In presenting the dossiers, especially the 45-minutes claim, Mr Blair took a lawyer’s pride in “suppressio veri” and “suggestio falsi ”. He employed such courtroom preambles as “I have not the slightest doubt”, “we have incontrovertible proof” or “we know for a fact”, especially over the most dubious claims. Last Easter I saw him asked about WMD on American television by George Stephanopoulos. “They are there. We shall find them,” Mr Blair replied. “You’re kidding me,” said his interviewer. “I’m not,” retorted Mr Blair with a glare. Mr Stephanopoulos shuddered. Here was surely a prince of darkness.
Mr Blair’s advocacy is what makes him so effective. As the crop of biographies makes clear, he has little intellectual or ideological substance. He has no background and an empty Who’s Who entry. Given a dud brief, such as the Third Way, he is all waffle. Given a tough one, such as reforming the Labour Party or arguing for war, he is superb. He remains a potent electoral force which Labour would be foolish to discard.
The Butler report will undoubtedly be a missed step on Mr Blair’s heroic path. It will be a coup for the prosecution, but one that Mr Blair has already been deflecting. He has toned down his addiction to WMD. He has rid himself of Alastair Campbell and put John Scarlett beyond reach. He sees no reason to apologise.
Mr Blair reasserted his rectitude on Iraq yesterday and will do so until his dying day. He will do so to any inquiry and any judge. There is only one verdict he respects and that is from a jury that returns on election day. Until then “I have not the slightest doubt that I am honestly in the right” must pass muster.