The fear is that Sir John Chilcott is simply a ’safe pair of hands’ who can be relied upon not to embarrass anyone
The British government has announced an inquiry into the 2003 Iraq War, a long-standing commitment, and has revealed that it is to take evidence in private, citing the Franks Committee as a precedent.
Lord Franks, it will be recalled, headed a group of privy councilors, which included politicians, to look into the background to the 1982 Falklands conflict.
None of the evidence was published, and Franks declined to name all those who appeared before his panel, but did issue a classified appendix which has never been released, dealing with the intelligence dimension to the campaign which, for technical reasons concerning potentially neutral countries, was never formally categorized as a war.
One convention adhered to by the government in 1982, but broken on this occasion, was consultation with opposition leaders. David Miliband’s announcement implied that the Tories and Liberals had acquiesced in the remit and composition of the new enquiry, but it has since emerged that while the party leaders were given advance notice of the committee, they were not given the opportunity to nominate or approve the membership.
This inquiry is to be chaired by Sir John Chilcott, aged seventy, a veteran of the Butler Review into the intelligence background of the war, and a former permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland Office. He was also the Staff Counselor for the security and intelligence services, and can be said to have a good grasp of the secret world.
Protests concerning Chilcott’s committee do not reflect on him personally, but there is dismay about the decision to take evidence in private, especially when the former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Mike Jackson, said he had no qualms about providing his evidence in a public forum. Others, including General Charles Guthrie and even Lord Butler have expressed doubt about the course chosen.
It was the government’s decision to hold the hearings in private, allegedly to encourage candour on the part of witnesses, and inevitably there were complaints from those who recall the very open sessions conducted by the Scott investigation into the Matrix Churchill fiasco, and then Lord Hutton’s inquest into Dr David Kelly.
However, the argument that Chilcott will be powerless to subpoena individuals to appear before him is misplaced. He has the ability to report any frustration or obstruction, and in those circumstances the government will come under intense pressure to intervene and extend Chilcott’s powers.
In reality, Chilcott has wide discretion, if he chooses to exercise it, on how he conducts his appointment, but the fear is that being a former Whitehall mandarin he is simply a ‘safe pair of hands’ who can be relied upon not to flex his muscles and embarrass anyone.
One curiosity about the composition of the committee is the inclusion of Sir Lawrence Freedman and Sir Martin Gilbert. Freedman wrote the huge two-volume official history of the Falklands campaign, a release much delayed because of bickering in Whitehall, and Gilbert is probably best known as Churchill’s biographer.
But why two historians and not a single member of the panel with any military experience? The other two members, Baroness Prashar and Sir Roderick Lyne, seem spectacularly under-qualified to sit on the committee.
Lyne is a retired diplomat and Russian specialist, and Lady Prashar is the Kenyan-born chairman of the Judicial Appointments Committee. Neither has even one hour’s military experience.
The task for Chilcott is an important one, for the public needs to know, in the absence of any ‘forty-five minute threat to British interests’, precisely what led Tony Blair to take Britain to war. Even a hint of an establishment cover-up or whitewash will prove counter-productive, and this particular exercise has gotten off to a spectacularly bad start.