Whatever happened to the Chilcot report?

27th January, 2014 8:44 am

The Iraq Inquiry, headed by Sir John Chilcot, held its final public session almost exactly three years ago. The report, all 1,000,000+ words of it, is written and ready to be published. It has been for some time. All that remains is for agreement between the Chilcot committee and the government on which sensitive documents – communication between President Bush and prime minsters Blair and Brown, which the committee has seen – can be shared with the public. Final publication of the report will occur once those criticised in the report have been sent relevant passages in advance of publication to give them a chance to respond – the so-called “Maxwellisation” process.

Sir John himself thought that publication might have been possible last summer, four years after the inquiry process was launched by Gordon Brown. The investigation has been thorough and painstaking, considering evidence and material dating back to 2000. So of course it has taken a long time. But publication is still some way off. Last week in his Evening Standard column the well-informed Matthew d’Ancona suggested that the report would not be published before the summer recess.

What is taking so long? The sensitivity of some of these documents is obvious. But the committee has seen them and is serious about its task. It is unlikely they are seeking the publication of anything that would damage national security. Delay causes suspicion – and cynicism – to grow.

Ask around Westminster and you will be offered a range of comments on the (eventual) publication of the Chilcot report. “What is it really going to tell us that we don’t already know?” is one weary response. Others are darker still. One quite senior civil servant told me, as far as Tony Blair’s actions are concerned: “This is what prime ministers do.” In other words, we should not be too squeamish about the idea of the executive, at the centre, being decisive and taking action. And if things occasionally go wrong, so be it.

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Blair himself is said to be rather anxious, understandably, over what Chilcot will say. There is a feeling in parts of Whitehall that Lord Butler’s 2004 report into the use of intelligence ahead of the second Iraq war pulled its punches, and that its conclusions, grasped fully only by those who are fluent in “mandarin”, went under-appreciated. At its launch Lord Butler expected at least one member of the press to ask whether he felt prime minister Blair should “consider his position” – code for resigning. The answer would have been a long yes. But not a single representative of Fleet Street’s finest asked that question. (Incidentally, Sir John Chilcot was a member of Lord Butler’s committee.)

To some extent the weary voices that say we won’t learn anything new from Chilcot may have a point. The debate over a possible limited military strike on Syria in the summer took place in the shadow of Iraq. Prime minister Cameron acknowledged that in his insistence on having a parliamentary debate and vote before any military action could take place. Maybe the lessons of Chilcot have already been learned. Sir John said that the purpose of his Iraq inquiry was:

“to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.”

It was in precisely that spirit that the debate on Syria took place.

But even if we have to wait until the autumn to see the final text, it must finally come out. I understand the committee is determined that this once and for all account will be published, in full. It will be an uncomfortable moment for some. The political implications are uncertain. But this is one occasion where the public will have to be told, unflinchingly, what happened, no matter how awkward or unsettling that may be.

Ed Miliband has already been warned, by Peter Mandelson among others, that he will have to be careful in his response to Chilcot. I’m sure he will be. But he has little personally to fear from it. Indeed its publication will allow him to assert that the next Labour government will in crucial details operate differently from the last one. It will help Miliband detach himself from some of the more unfortunate aspects of the New Labour legacy. Labour stands to gain politically from Chilcot, not be damaged by it.

You don’t suppose that this explains the delay in its publication, do you?

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