Jonathan Freedland

The Iraq poison will remain in the British body politic until we have a true reckoning.

So now we know Tony Blair’s former director of communications Alastair Campbell’s loyalty to his former boss has limits. “If he’d asked me to jump off a building, I wouldn’t,” he told the Chilcot Iraq war inquiry in London on Tuesday. But even if he draws the line at suicide on command, Mr. Campbell showed he remains utterly faithful to his former master. Asked if he had any regrets about the war in which he served not merely as PR man but as principal adviser, he struggled to think of any.

He stood by “every single word” of the notorious September 2002 dossier, which declared “beyond doubt” that Saddam Hussein was building a terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction — even though it turned out those WMDs did not exist. When he considered the enormous loss of life the invasion of Iraq had entailed, did he still believe it had been a success? “I do,” he said, adding that far from feeling any shame for his role in the greatest foreign policy calamity since Munich, he felt “very proud of the part” he had been allowed to play. Britain too should feel proud of what it had done — ridding Iraq of a ghastly dictatorship — and stop “beating ourselves up” over it.

So Mr. Campbell established himself as the last of the true believers, still clinging to the talking points he scripted back in the first years of the last decade, even as earlier witnesses to the Chilcot inquiry have steadily sought to distance themselves from the Iraq debacle. He gave not an inch to the fainthearts who believe that going to war to disarm a nation that had already disarmed was a catastrophic error.

Still, despite himself, he let something slip. He admitted that Tony Blair had written to George W. Bush in early 2002, declaring that come what may, Saddam Hussein would be stripped of his WMDs. Ideally that would be done by diplomatic means but, if push came to shove and military action were required, “Britain will be there.” That directly contradicted what Mr. Blair, Mr. Campbell and all the others said at the time, as they regularly told parliament, press and the people that “no decision has been taken.” Now we have (yet more) confirmation that a decision had very much been taken — that if diplomacy failed, Britain was sworn to go to war.

Will anyone care? The five members of the inquiry team will. Their body language suggested an impatience with the alternative reality sketched by Mr. Campbell, in which he simultaneously “bombarded” the intelligence chiefs with instructions to rewrite their dossier yet insisted that they could not have felt a scintilla of even subconscious pressure to beef up their assessment of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Beyond the Chilcot panellists, who but scholars and anoraks will really be bothered by what Mr. Campbell and Mr. Blair decided and when? Hasn’t the Iraq war, now that the bulk of British troops have withdrawn, passed out of contemporary politics and into the realm of history?

Not quite

The answer is: not quite. For the Iraq episode continues to cast a long shadow over our public life. It haunts domestic politics in the present and sets limits for what will be possible in the future.

Take one immediate consequence. Even if Labour is not ejected from power until this coming northern spring, the observers of the future will surely conclude that it was the Iraq war that broke the bond of trust between this government and the nation. True, Labour won the election of 2005, but it did so with a meagre 35.3 per cent of the vote in a verdict that was more about the unelectability of their Tory opponents than enthusiasm for Labour.

The damage extends far beyond one party. It was the widespread belief that Britons had been led falsely to war that planted the seeds of distrust which grew to full bloom in the MPs’ expenses affair. After Iraq, voters believe the very worst about their politicians. There is no graver responsibility than sending men and women to face enemy fire: if our leaders can lie about that, they can surely lie about anything.

That, in turn, has fed a disenchantment with democratic politics itself. A refrain chanted with depressing regularity is: “If they can ignore two million people on the streets against the Iraq war then what’s the point in ever protesting?”

Faith dented

There is a flaw in that logic: democracy does not mean rule by demo, in which policy is determined according to crowd size. But faith in the power of citizens to affect events was badly dented by the experience of February 15, 2003. The effect has been reinforced by the aftermath of the financial crisis. There is perhaps no one in the country — not even the parents of the RBS boss, he said — who can defend the multimillion-payouts to bankers. And yet it carries on, the shower of bonuses falling like fat drops of rain this very week. No one seems able to stop it, just as no one was able to stop that war. The result is a pervasive and corrosive sense of powerlessness.

All this is compounded by the fact that, in the Iraq case, none of the consequences one might legitimately have expected has materialised. If there had been even a modicum of accountability, one would expect the guilty men — those who led us to disaster, whether through good faith, incompetence or deception — to have paid a price. They would be consigned to the margins, shamed into a kind of exile.

So where are the guilty men of Iraq? A permatanned Tony Blair travels the world by private jet, trousering multiple salaries to pay the £40,000 a month he needs to feed the mortgages on his four homes in Britain. The Foreign Secretary of the time, Jack Straw, still has his seat at the cabinet table. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary of that era, is alive and well and plotting in curry houses.

What of those who were right about Iraq? The one-time Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is dead and one-time international development secretary Clare Short is one of the political undead, severed from her party and cast into outer darkness. There is something unsettling about this fate, in which those who took us into a needless, bloody war flourish while those who opposed it remain as unheeded as ever.

More is at stake here than a few careers. The Iraq episode has poisoned public support for any and all military action, including the wars we are still fighting. Hardening public opposition to the Afghan mission is not solely about the loss of life: it is about the loss of faith. After Iraq, whenever we hear our leaders telling us force is necessary, we start counting the spoons.

This will matter, if not for this government then for the next one. Let’s say a new administration concludes that Iran really is developing a nuclear arsenal, and that its regime genuinely poses a danger to the world’s most unstable region. Who would believe David Cameron (the likely winner of the forthcoming U.K. elections) when he began talking about “intelligence assessments” and “credible threats?” Not only has Iraq killed off the 1990s notion of liberal intervention; it may have destroyed for a generation Britons’ willingness to use force anywhere.

The Iraq poison will remain in the body politic until we have a true reckoning with that episode. The gentleness of most of the Chilcot inquiry’s questioning — its reluctance to forensically nail witnesses down to specific answers — suggests that it will not provide that reckoning. But we need it. Until we get it, our system will remain hobbled and haunted by an event that refuses to be laid to rest. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010