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Chilcot Report: Britain must overcome its addiction to inquiries

Please, stop it. Matt Dunham/PA

After the uncertainty and divisiveness of the Brexit referendum, predictability and harmony will be restored by Sir John Chilcot, appointed to head up the inquiry into Britain’s decision to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Its findings, we’re promised, will be like nothing we’ve ever seen.

The 2.6m-word report will tell us what motives lay behind the Blair government’s decision – seven years after British forces withdrew from Iraq, and over a year since they started bombing it again.

Once and for all, we will find out whether or not the US and UK have had a strong military and strategic partnership, one that involvesd close consultation between leaders. At long last, the report will tell us whether or not there were effective plans in place to deal with post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq – which has been in constant security crisis since 2003.

The publication of the report, now years overdue, will offer a set of lessons to guide us before we ever again send our forces to intervene in a fragile Middle Eastern dictatorship – never mind that we joined in the Libyan conflict in 2011 and the Syrian one in 2015.

Most importantly, we will finally discover whether or not one of Britain’s political leaders, Tony Blair, took the unthinkable and unprecedented step of lying to his own people.

This is not exactly earth-shattering stuff. Beyond specific details of the war, the real mystery of the report is what lessons anyone actually expects to take away from it and why we seem so convinced that inquiries are going to solve our problems.

That so much of British political life has been organised around the delayed publication of the report is a shame, as is the one-upmanship of trying to pre-empt and anticipate its findings and the fixation on precisely what George W. Bush agreed with Blair in the run-up to the invasion rather than the consequences of the war itself. This has sunk to the level of an interminable parlour game, no more edifying than he-said-she-said gossip.

Worse still, the focus on whether or not Blair misled the public speaks of a politically infantile outlook, one in which the grossest imaginable transgression for an authority figure is not to tell the truth.

In reality, there are more important matters at issue: hundreds of thousands of people are dead as a result of the military intervention, which has in turn spawned new global terror networks. The Middle East has been knocked into a generational sectarian conflict, and Britain has been at war since 1998, on a tour taking it from the Balkans through West Africa to the Middle East. But to go by the debate around the Chilcot report, what matters more than any of this is whether or not an authority figure lied.

This is not the main lesson we should learn from Chilcot. The report must not be allowed to simply set the stage for the repeated booing and hissing of “Bliar”; it should prompt us to question why the British establishment is so preoccupied with retroactively examining itself.

Let’s just have another look…

Inquiries have become a colossal burden on British politics, and no public debacle has spawned them like the Iraq War has. With the Iraq war alone, there have already been three inquiries: the Hutton Inquiry (2003-04), the Butler Review (2004) and the Al-Sweady Inquiry (2009-14). The process has been taken to new heights of technocratic absurdity with a inquiry set up to vet the Chilcot Inquiry so that we can learn how to do future inquiries better.

Britain’s answer to everything. EPA/Paul McErlane

Successive governments have spawned so many inquiries and reviews over recent years that it is worth asking whether or not they have become a structural feature of the British state itself. The proliferation of inquiries demonstrates how disconnected political elites have sought to maintain their authority by appeal to apolitical means: reviews, expert panels and commissions of inquiry, encompassing everything from historic state crimes to MPs’ salaries and monitoring ethical conduct.

The effect, unsurprisingly, is to boost the authority of unelected figures – lawyers, the police, law lords, judges, academics and retired civil servants – at the expense of elected representatives. Political debate ends up facing backwards, organised around poring over past decisions at great expense rather than thinking about present problems and future solutions.

The more authority that’s turned over to this caste of professional inquirers, the more detached and unrepresentative politics becomes. As politicians concede power and democratic authority to the inquirers, public outrage at elite detachment continues to grow – not helped by the estimated £ financial costs of what has effectively become a caste, a single permanent commission of inquiry adjudicating all of British public life.

It is high time that this crust of technocrats was scraped off the British state, and politicians forced to accept the democratic authority granted them in their mandates. Let’s put a stop to the tyranny of inquiries.

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