Depending on what papers you read, or what radio stations you listen to and tv stations you watch, today was due to be one of the most important in the last decade of our political history. Forget Obama’s one year on, or even his election, but Friday 29th January 2010 was the day that the Chilcot inquiry would get to hear from Tony Blair, perhaps the figurehead of our Iraq ideology and the focus of bile and criticism from the anti-war lobby. Having an ex- (and previous) PM give evidence in an inquiry such as this is unprecedented, and even despite its lack of legal standing or recourse from what evidence was heard, the frenzied build up raised almost feverish hope that we would have our Frost/Nixon moment, especially in light of a recent interview with Fern Britton where he appeared to state he’d have invaded with or without proof of WMD.
In reality, of course, this was never going to be the case. Blair, whatever you say about him (and personally his political conduct before, during and since the invasion turned my opinion of him from respected – if not supported – leader to self-important and pious disappointment) was a good leader up to this juncture. One of his main strengths was being able to put his point across, and to debate and discuss, much of which went into his conduct in the run up to the Iraq invasion. He had his convictions, his beliefs, and he stuck to them rigidly. In previous circumstances this was a strength, but this time it clouded his judgement, in the face of advice from the Foreign Office, Attorney General, and criticism from his own Cabinet, not to mention a tidal wave of public opinion, he ploughed ahead, striving to retain the ‘special relationship’ with America, possibly at all costs.Typically, he slipped in a side door and away from the protesters and families of Iran casualties, an action that seemed to preface his performance during the day.
What we know now is that we had a ‘dodgy’ dossier, a misleading document that overstated intelligence that was patchy from the JIC at best. What we had was a legal opinion from the Attorney General that right up unto the decision to go to war wasn’t convinced of a legal case for war with the existing UN Resolution 1441. And what we had was a plan for war, but no clear plan for post-invasion. There were clear questions that were needed to be asked today, for us to try and finally get some clarity and give at least the public some modicum of truth and respect on how we came to go to war, and with retrospect, what we did wrong.
What we got was another Blair masterclass in bluff and subterfuge, stating his own case, swerving questions and restating his firm belief that he was right. Ignoring whether the intelligence he was given that led him to his ‘beyond doubt’ statement wasn’t strong and if he wasn’t correct in saying what he had, he simply stated that he believed it was beyond doubt. Similarly, he stated that he believed that the case for war was sound, and that the planning for the post-war period was ok (despite multiple criticisms from many parties in the inquiry), blaming it on conditions being different to what had been planned. If regimes with WMD needed to stop using them, why did we not invade Pakistan? China? Korea? It simply isn’t consistent. So many times, his answer started with ‘let me say that….’ where he would revert to pre-prepared answers and statements about, Kosovo, 9/11, Iran, when all we wanted were answers on Iraq.
Don’t let’s get too excited here. We knew this was never going to be a career-wrecking day. Blair wouldn’t have got where he was today by being careless or carefree (he is, let’s remember) a barrister. But he’s deflected every contentious question, at times almost suggesting in the light of others’ criticisms, that there was no issue (and effectively suggesting by that, that everyone else was incorrect). Batting everything back with a stern defence, clinging to the ‘special relationship’, stating his firm beliefs in everything he stood for, and justifying his actions on this. The only chink of light coming where he admitted his interview with Fern Britton wasn’t worded sensibly, but at the same time, denying that he was wrong. He did also concede that the 45-minute claim wasn’t, with hindsight, a sensible move.
For the families sitting in the gallery, that have lost their loved ones in the conflict, this won’t be much closure. If anything, Tony Blair’s performance, while nervous and shaky in the first hour, became more sure-footed, and less revealing as the day went on. The panel made a decent effort of not letting him settle, and after early criticism during the inquiry, they’ve become more steely, but ultimately, with no real legal grounding in their group, they were never going to get one over on the former PM.
Yes, with hindsight we can look at many decisions in a different light, but much of this was being criticised at the time, and there was huge opposition evident, but today started full of hope, and ended with weary resignation. I suppose the only consolation is that, however steadfast his outward rhetoric, Blair will have to live with what happened (and is still happening) in Iraq, and there are hundreds of thousands that have lost their lives as a result of decisions he took. This, sadly, is a situation we will most likely face again in this decade. One can only hope we look back at this inquiry and at least use it to colour our actions in the future, or this will have been a pointless exercise.