SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Knuckle wrap

CAMBRIDGE LETTER

BILL KIRKMAN

... a torrent of comment, nearly all of it highly critical of Mr. Blair.

... a torrent of comment, nearly all of it highly critical of Mr. Blair.  

IF the British Government thought the Butler Report would end the controversy over Tony Blair's decision to join the American attack on Iraq, the reactions to the report will have been a grave disappointment. The Report (Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction) has provoked a torrent of comment, nearly all of it highly critical of Mr. Blair. Two by-elections in what were formerly safe Labour seats, which took place on the day after the report appeared, demonstrated the electorate's reaction: in one (Leicester South) Labour lost conclusively to the Liberal Democrats, who fielded an Asian candidate; in the other (Birmingham Hodge Hill) Labour just scraped home, with the Liberal Democrats a close second. The by-elections, incidentally, gave no comfort to the Conservatives, who in each case were pushed to third place.

The Report's findings were harsh. Here are some examples. The Secret Intelligence Service had produced intelligence based on unreliable sources. Warnings by intelligence officers about the limitations of their judgments, particularly with regard to claims that Iraq had weapons which could be deployed in 45 minutes, were ignored. There was strong criticism of Mr. Blair's style of government, with informal meetings without proper minutes. As the Report puts it: "We are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the government's procedures which we saw in the context of policy-making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgment."

Critics of the Butler committee complain that in spite of these and many other devastating criticisms they found that no one was to blame. Failures were collective, and not the responsibility of any individual.

For many people, this is a key issue. It may be harsh to expect any individual to take the blame for a collective decision, but that surely is what accountability requires. A government, a cabinet, has to reach collective decisions, and the person in charge — in this case the Prime Minister — must be answerable for those decisions. The fact that the procedures make it more difficult to reach informed decisions does not alter that. Indeed, since it is in the power of the Prime Minister to ensure that the procedures are effective rather than flawed, it underlines accountability.

Cynicism about the Prime Minister's reaction — which can be characterised as accepting responsibility but only up to a point — is heightened by the contrast with what happened to the Chief Constable of Humberside, whose constabulary was severely criticised in a Report for its handling of intelligence in the murder of two schoolgirls in Soham. He accepted that his force had failed, and was determined to reform its procedures, but the Government has required his suspension. There are clearly double standards when it comes to accountability for collective failures.

Significantly, both the Soham murder inquiry and the Butler inquiry were concerned with the collection and use of intelligence. Humberside police failed to keep crucial intelligence on file. On Iraq, the Government and its intelligence advisers failed to distinguish between good and bad intelligence. This serves as an important reminder that there are two meanings for the word intelligence — and for intelligence (in the sense of information) to be used properly it has to be used intelligently.

The consequences of the failures over Iraq, quite obviously, have been far-reaching and dire — and they continue to be. That is why the criticisms of Mr. Blair will continue. They are coming from political heavyweights, such as Robin Cook (who resigned from the post of Foreign Secretary — that is Foreign Minister) over Iraq, and Lord (Douglas) Hurd, a former, Conservative, Foreign Secretary. Lord Hurd was unequivocal. In an article in The Guardian he wrote of Mr. Blair that "his reputation and the reputation of British politics would be immensely enhanced if he could now find the humility and courage to draw a line under the controversy by leaving No.10" (Downing Street).

The criticisms are coming also from many other quarters, including intelligence and foreign affairs specialists, who have been drawing attention to the fact that the Iraq war, far from reducing the threat of world terrorism, has in fact increased it.

Last week's by-elections reflected deep and continuing public concern about the Government's policy on Iraq. I can think of nothing on this level since the ill-conceived and ill-fated Suez campaign in 1956 — a disastrous misjudgment by the then Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, who was forced out of office as a result.

The Iraq controversy shows no sign of ending. The Butler Report has manifestly not brought closure.

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