The Daily Star
Friday, November 7 2014
By Michael Glackin
When something goes badly awry in British public life, particularly when a government is caught up in a mess of its own making, the default response of politicians is to set up a public inquiry.
Public inquiries can occasionally expose the truth after a scandal or major controversy. Sometimes they even decide who is culpable. But in Britain, public inquiries are less about digging up the truth, and more about burying it.
So no sooner had the British Army solemnly lowered the Union Flag at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, with a ceremonial efficiency that their military operations in Afghanistan too often lacked, than the cry went up in parliament for a public inquiry into the nation’s involvement in the 13-year war.
In many respects a public inquiry into this long and bloody conflict is desperately needed. It has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Afghans and 453 British military personnel, and cost British taxpayers around $60 billion.
Despite this, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon admitted there was “no guarantee”Afghanistan would be “stable” or “safe” after Britain’s departure.
“The Taliban are still there, there is still insurgency,” he said.
An inquiry could shed some light on why the purpose of Britain’s operations in Afghanistan changed so often during the conflict. It might explain whether Britain’s troops were there too long, or whether they should have been there at all.
However, the smart money says a public inquiry will be about as enlightening as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Witness the soap opera that is the long-awaited report of the official inquiry into the Iraq war.
The inquiry, which began taking evidence in 2009, is chaired by a top judge, Sir John Chilcot. In essence Chilcot was charged with establishing precisely why then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who testified to the inquiry in 2011, committed British forces to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – in the face of huge public opposition – and what lessons could be learned from mistakes leading up to the war and its aftermath.
The last witnesses to the inquiry gave their evidence more than three years ago. But astonishingly the inquiry’s findings remain unpublished.
The delay is largely because of a row over what is bizarrely described as “private correspondence” between Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush in the months before the invasion. This consists of 25 letters Blair sent to Bush, along with the transcripts of 130 telephone calls between the two men.
Chilcot wanted to publish the correspondence. But British Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who oddly enough was Blair’s principal private secretary in the run-up to the invasion, refused, insisting it would jeopardize relations with Washington.
Instead a deal was struck between Heywood and Chilcot to release “selected extracts.” The deal also means no detail of Bush’s comments or views made during the exchanges will be made public.
In Heywood’s words, the “gist” of the crucial conversations between the two men will be published, but the reality is that the full details of these important public documents will remain secret.
We all know the “gist,” it’s the detail we all want to hear. We want to know whether Blair really did write to Bush in July 2002 and say: “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.”
The letter, which was quoted in journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party and was based on his interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., was written almost a year before the British parliamentary vote on whether Britain would join the invasion.
Why a civil servant like Heywood, who had a close working relationship with Blair, should be in a position to censor what can be published by the inquiry beggars belief.
The only silver lining in the deal brokered by Heywood was that it was seen as a breakthrough that might finally allow the inquiry’s report to see the light of day.
But it wasn’t to be. Because it then emerged that before anything can be published, letters must also be sent to any individuals facing criticism in the final report to allow them an opportunity to respond, and presumably, dilute the criticism.
A spokesman for the inquiry has confirmed that the legal process in which figures like Blair will be given the chance to respond to the report has not even started and is likely to take at least two to three months to complete whenever it does begin.
In reality, with a general election due to be held in May, the inquiry’s report is unlikely to be made public until the middle of next year at the very earliest, six years after it started taking evidence.
Small wonder the whole sorry mess has been branded a “whitewash” and an “establishment stitch-up” by the relatives of servicemen who were killed during the conflict.
Accusations of a cover-up are not helped by the revelation that Chilcot asked the government to declassify 7,000 documents for publication but has so far only been given permission to publish 1,400 of them.
Contrast that with the government’s public inquiry into the hacking of telephone voicemails by a handful of journalists which published every scrap of relevant private correspondence and electronic communication.
It also led to a police investigation which has resulted in criminal prosecutions of journalists, several of whom were imprisoned.
The government is embroiled in similar accusations of a cover-up in its handling of a public inquiry into historic child abuse claims in which a number of senior politicians from the 1980s are suspected of being implicated.
So while there is real need for an inquiry into Britain’s part in the war in Afghanistan, one would have to say that based on the Iraq inquiry it would be a waste of time and money.
The long wait for the Iraq inquiry report shows that public inquiries need to be transparent and must be entirely free of government influence.
Experience shows that doesn’t happen when the establishment investigates itself.
As a wise observer of the British political scene once said: “It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them.”
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR, for which this commentary was written. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 07, 2014, on page 7