Iraq inquiry: it's too early to shout "whitewash"

Those already denouncing Chilcot hearings should be patient

The Iraq inquiry got under way this morning with Sir John Chilcot promising that his team will be "fair, rigorous and frank". Chilcot began, rather appropriately, I thought, with a moment's silence for all those killed in Iraq.

There has already been some criticism over the size of the inquiry room, with a large number of journalists turned away at the door. Channel 4's Gary Gibbon writes: "This must be the smallest room used for an inquiry ever. I estimate it is 10m x 10m. I have seen bigger inquiry rooms at a council planning hearing."

The green-ink brigade were shouting, "Whitewash! whitewash!" even before Chilcot had delivered his opening statement. But short of Tony Blair being arraigned in The Hague for war crimes, it is hard to think of anything that could satisfy them.

The opening statement confirmed that the inquiry will be modelled closely on the Franks inquest into the Falklands war, seeking to learn lessons and making recommendations for future governments. But unlike that exercise, as much of the new Iraq inquiry as possible will be held in public, thanks to Chilcot's victory over Gordon Brown. His decision to stand up to the Prime Minister over this central issue bodes well for the future.

He issued an appeal for evidence from members of the public, an effort to prevent the inquiry merely presenting an establishment view of the war.

We don't want to, and are not, just hearing from the "official" representatives. We value hearing a broad spectrum of views from a wide range of people and organisations. We want to know what people across Britain think are the important questions. We want to get a range of challenging perspectives on the issues we are considering.

He also urged the public to be patient, pointing to a further round of hearings due to be held in the middle of 2010. He said: "We expect to invite back some previous witnesses and, where relevant, call some new ones. What I would like to stress now is that people should not jump to conclusions if they do not hear everything they expect to in the first round of hearings: there will be more to follow."

I'm dubious about the inclusion in the panel of Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the architects of Blair's version of "liberal interventionism", and Sir Martin Gilbert, who once compared Bush and Blair to Churchill and Roosevelt, but Chilcot himself appears, for now at least, robustly independent.

With the mountain of documents the committee has to go through, I'd be surprised if the inquiry concludes before the end of 2010. But I am quietly confident that this won't be the "establishment whitewash" some expect it to be.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.