The trap the Iraq inquiry must avoid

The inquiry must not fall for the myth that "lack of planning" led to disaster in Iraq

The government's old nemesis Andrew Gilligan has returned to embarrass ministers over Iraq from his new perch at the Telegraph. The leaked documents he has obtained provide further evidence that British planning for an invasion began in early 2002 and that the plans "contained no detail once Baghdad had fallen".

As the first public hearings of the Iraq war inquiry get under way tomorrow, what can we expect them to achieve? Sir John Chilcot, the chairman of the inquiry, has already emphasised that he will not rule on the legality of the war, though many hoped he would.

Asked if the inquiry would provide definitive answers, he said: "Definitive is one sense, yes, but not definitive in the sense of a court verdict of legal or illegal. It is much closer to high policy decisions: was this a wise decision, was it well taken, was it founded on good advice and good information and analysis?"

I'm confident that Chilcot, a member of the quietly damning Butler inquiry, won't preside over an establishment whitewash. The biggest challenge for his inquiry will be to avoid perpetuating the myth that it was only a lack of planning and resources that led to disaster in Iraq. In truth, the war was doomed to failure from the day Tony Blair and George Bush convinced themselves that there was no alternative to military action.

It was always clear that Iraq would not tolerate another foreign occupation. There was no scenario under which an invasion of the country could ever have gone well.

But that the inquiry's members include Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the architects of the doctrine of "liberal interventionism", and Sir Martin Gilbert, who once declared that Bush and Blair could "join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill", does not inspire confidence.

It will be up to the robustly independent Chilcot to ensure that their preference for regime change does not distort the conclusions of his investigation. A final reckoning over the single biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez is long overdue.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.