Blair will have to overcome the legacy of Iraq if he is to be heard on Brexit

One year on from his lengthy report, Sir John Chilcot said he does not believe that Tony Blair was “straight with the nation” about his decisions in the run-up to the Iraq war. Dogged by a lack of trust and open hostility towards him personally, Blair is – in spite of this – hoping to play a part in shaping the Brexit debate.

Much has happened politically in the past year (something of an understatement of course), but readers will recall that the Chilcot Report provided a damning assessment of the legal process followed in the decision to go to war against Iraq and concluded that “the circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory“.

The Chilcot Report’s key findings were:

  1. The advice from Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, was not sufficiently comprehensive and was kept for a long time from Cabinet members;
  2. The final advice delivered on the eve of war merely presented a conclusion without going into the legal analysis supporting that conclusion;
  3. The decision to go to war undermined the authority of the UN Security Council, which did not have a majority in favour of military action, albeit that the language of resolution 1441 did support the threat of military action in the absence of Iraqi disarmament;
  4. At the crucial meeting of 17 March 2003, cabinet was not provided with a written analysis of the conflicting legal arguments, as an earlier legal note had done;
  5. Cabinet members failed to ask how Goldsmith had reached his conclusion that military action was lawful.

So Chilcot painted a picture of a timid Cabinet who were, in effect, being asked to waive through the Attorney-General’s somewhat flimsy advice note of 17 March 2003, without any supporting underlying analysis or counterfactual argument. Indeed, Chilcot goes as far as to say “There was little appetite to question Lord Goldsmith about his advice, and no substantive discussion of the legal issues was recorded”.

Cabinet members emerge from the report as having been depressingly supine. Collective responsibility was seemingly treated disdainfully as an out-moded constitutional convention which had long fallen out of fashion, languishing in dusty political theory textbooks.  

However, notably, Chilcot continues to stand by his comment at the time of publication that the legality of the war can only be determined by an international court of law, and not by his, or any other, inquiry.  

Clearly the Labour Party, and British politics more widely, continue to be overshadowed by the public’s perception of a breach of trust over the Iraq war. Had the decision-making process been more transparent, war might have been averted. Millions marched against the war in February 2003 and the defiance from Downing Street left a visceral sore in the political conscience of a generation – the perception of a lack of democratic accountability has loomed large over British politics ever since. The massive feeling of betrayal that resulted is undoubtedly a factor in the rise of populism in British politics, including the backlash against the Establishment that the Brexit vote represented.  

Undoubtedly the Chilcot report highlights some of the problems associated with the concentration of executive powers in the hands of the prime minister. It would seem, in light of May’s rush to trigger article 50 and the current attempt to introduce so-called “Henry VIII powers” via the EU repeal bill, that these lessons have yet to be learnt and that the country continues to lack appropriate constitutional safeguards against the excesses of executive power.

Finally, Blair himself has recently said that he feels so strongly about the “catastrophe” of Brexit that it could even tempt him back to frontline politics. Following his recent interventions in the Brexit debate, what remains to be seen is whether he will be able to overcome the enormous damage sustained to his reputation from Chilcot, and the war more generally, and viably go on to make future contributions to British political life, in particular around Brexit.

Cat Overton is a lawyer and member of Tower Hamlets Labour Party.

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