Waiting for Chilcot: inquiry delay compounding damage that the war has done

He’s been about to say something for more than three years. David Cheskin/PA Wire

Barely 30 MPs showed up to the parliamentary debate on the delay of the Chilcot inquiry’s report. Yet, as I have explained before, there is much riding on the publication of this report on the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war, and serious questions arise from its delay.

In August 2011, I published an article based on evidence, which the Chilcot inquiry had made publicly available on its website. I thought my publication would loosely coincide with inquiry’s report, and I looked forward to being able to compare our interpretations of the evidence.

I was not alone in anticipating the release of the report well over three years ago. At Thursday’s debate, Jack Straw MP reminded the House of Commons that the inquiry initially aimed to report “by the end of 2010”. Once that deadline passed, Straw was under the impression the inquiry would publish at the “end of 2011”.

We will be in a better position to explain the delay after Sir John Chilcot has given his statement on the progress of the report to the Foreign Affairs Committee on February 4, 2015.

What’s at stake

Some have already dismissed the whole report, arguing that it will be tainted by its inability to publish certain conversations, or that it will not add to what we already know from years of discussion on the Iraq war. But as I have said before, I do not subscribe to that view.

Academics, journalists and the wider public can use the material on the inquiry’s website to reach their own conclusions, but they will never be given the kind of access, time or resources that has been afforded the Chilcot inquiry.

Detailed academic studies have been – and will probably remain – focused on distinct aspects of the war, from legality, to post-war planning, to Blair’s leadership. These studies can be valuable. But the Chilcot inquiry is in the unique position of having the capability to provide a holistic analysis in one report.

More than that, the publication of this report is important because the inquiry – its process as well as its findings – will play a crucial role in creating a narrative that helps to (re)construct self-images of the British state, how it acts and what it stands for in international society. The Iraq inquiry itself, including how it has been conducted, managed and received, is as much a part of the UK’s Iraq war narrative as the inquiry’s substantive conclusions.

An uncomfortable narrative

Conservative MP David Davis, who introduced Thurday’s debate, speculated that the reason for the delay was to do with protocols that enable civil servants in Whitehall to suppress certain documents. “The inquiry protocols are symptomatic of a mindset that seems to assume that serving civil servants are the only proper guardians of the public interest,” he told the house.

I have no way of knowing if this is the reason for the delay. It might not be. But the significant point is this: the fact that this argument is being made shows how damaging the delay is. The inquiry itself is now compounding the damage that the war has done. No one who sees the UK as a democracy can be comfortable with the narrative that could be constructed using Davis’s words.

But there is also a case for parliament to look at itself. The fact that only 30 MPs fronted for the debate is surely not consistent with the self-image of a parliamentary democracy, which holds government to account.

There has been increased interest in parliament on the question of when it is right to use military force. How could there not be after the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the fact that Prime Minister Cameron respected the outcome of the 2013 vote on Syria has been held up as a sign of parliament’s new-found power.

Based on Thursday’s turnout, however, it is hard to avoid asking whether MPs have lost interest in foreign policy, and whether they have forgotten the importance of holding the Whitehall elite to account. One hopes not: after all, the UK is still militarily engaged in Iraq.

The whole Iraq affair has been a traumatic experience for the nation. I do not want the use of this language to diminish the physical and psychological trauma of the victims of the conflict. Far from it. Their suffering is part of the reason why the nation must demonstrate that we have learned from the mistakes.

There was recognition this week that parliament too needed to learn from that experience, as well as from its role in overseeing the inquiry. It is clear, however, that more MPs will need to turn up when discussions turn to implementing the inquiry’s findings.