As he arrived to appear in front of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, the chant went up “Blair to The Hague!” Demonstrators had been kept well away from the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in Westminster, London, where the Prime Minister was set to appear. Among those demanding that Tony Blair be sent to The Hague to face charges of war crimes were a number of former members of Blair’s own Labour Party.
Tony Blair appeared nervous. His hands were shaking when he reached over to pour himself a glass of water, so he brought them together to steady them. His glasses became useful props, as he faced up to Sir John Chilcot and his team. This was Blair’s “Richard Nixon” moment, but unlike Nixon who finally stumbled and lost it in front of his genial inquisitor, David Frost, the former PM held his ground. As it became clearer that he would be allowed to spend time answering questions, and turning some of his answers into mini speeches, his confidence returned. At once stage during the proceedings, he even managed to afford a little light hearted banter and an aside. None of this cut much ice with the parents of British servicemen who had lost their sons and daughters in the Iraq War, and who were sitting behind Blair as part of the invited audience.
The Chilcot Inquiry is about as close to a truth and reconciliation commission as we are likely to see in Britain. As first military chiefs, then senior civil servants and now politicians appeared before the Inquiry, the failings and vapidity of sections of the British establishment became clear to see. One after another, and with a few honourable exceptions they have dissembled, disagreed with one another, expressed remorse and clearly would rather have been anywhere else other than the Inquiry.
And today it was Tony Blair’s turn. He denied that there had been any secret pact with President George Bush or any private agreement between then when they famously met at Crawford Ranch in Texas not long before the invasion began. Of the letters that were exchanged between both President and Prime Minister there was still no sign. But Blair’s defence was total, and there was no genuflection to his implacable foes. He had even come armed with more ammunition to defend himself with, realising that the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction from Iraq undermined much of his pre War argument. According to Blair, Saddam would have been able to build those self same weapons of mass destruction had he been left to his own devices. Blair also repeated the claim that Saddam was “guilty of the deaths of one million people”. This headline grabbing claim has been made so many times that few now actually question its veracity.
The Inquiry has not been the Establishment “cover-up” that some have claimed, but nor has it – or will it – be able to rule on the culpability or otherwise of the Iraq War’s main protagonists. The Inquiry is not a legal entity and there is no legal counsel to declare definitively on international law.
The Inquiry instead shines a light into a very dark place. It reveals the power of Prime Ministerial patronage and the lack of Executive accountability.
Saddam and his cronies have gone to the gallows and are no more, so we shall never know quite what was going through the Iraqi dictator’s mind. My own view was that he was bluffing, and thought he could play one power off against another has he had managed so successfully in the past. What he did not reckon on – and what few of us here or in America reckoned on - was that as far as Bush and Blair were both concerned, God was on their side.
And that was enough.