The truth is more tawdry than the lies

The so-called "Williams draft" of the notorious Iraq weapons dossier confirms at last that governmen

Now we have the missing draft of the government's notorious weapons of mass destruction dossier in our hands, it is horribly plain why officials and ministers went to such lengths to stop us seeing it. The so-called "Williams draft" - named after John Williams, the former Sunday Mirror journalist who became director of communications at the Foreign Office - demonstrates beyond doubt that the government's spin machine was at the heart of the process of drafting the dossier designed to persuade MPs and the British public of the case for war. The official narrative (that the dossier was the work of the intelligence community) was severely damaged by the Hutton and Butler inquiries. Now, thanks to the tireless work of a charity researcher-turned-sleuth, Chris Ames, who has pursued the issue via Freedom of Information requests as detailed in the pages of the New Statesman, that argument is holed below the waterline.

Williams and the government have stubbornly held to the line that the draft, produced on 9 September, was a helpful act of freelance work, set aside when the real work began the next day, and was never intended to contribute to the genuine process. This is frankly preposterous. Working from first principles: if the document was the irrelevant work of an overeager press officer, why has the government gone to such trouble over the years to hinder its release? The Hutton inquiry was provided with drafts from 10/11 September, and 16, 19 and 20 September. It was also shown an earlier stab at a working document from the summer of 2002, which provided the basis of Williams's work. Each of these documents, on the face of it, is more sensitive than the Williams draft, which was, according to the government, merely the idle jottings of a press officer with too much time on his hands.

But it is not a laughing matter. The Williams draft demonstrates that assertions presented to the public as "judgements of the Joint Intelligence Committee" in fact originated from the pen of a spin doctor presenting the case for war. Take, for example, the claim in the Williams draft that Iraq "has developed transportable laboratories" to produce biological weapons. Thanks to documents released to the Hutton inquiry we now know that the working draft claimed merely that Iraq "sought to develop mobile facilities to produce a biological agent". Despite the government's assertions that the Williams document was not part of the drafting process, the spin doctor's wording about the mobile labs miraculously finds its way into the final dossier.

There is also the small matter of the marginal notes which litter the text of the Williams draft. These fatally undermine the case that Williams's work was "set aside" and the drafting process started from scratch on 10 September. The Foreign Office refuses to say who made the notes, but they appear to have been made by a senior official with detailed knowledge of the Middle East. Many of them urge Williams to tone down his tabloid stylistic excesses but they are patently written by someone who sees Williams's work as part of the dossier process.

Erased note

One revealing note follows Williams's assertion that Iraq "has retained a dozen al Hussein missiles, capable of carrying a chemical or biological warhead, either by hiding them from the UN as complete systems or by reassembling them". In the margin, an official has added: "The Al-Hussein range of 650km brings into Iraq's range Israel and British bases on Cyprus." The threat to British interests on Cyprus was a key element in the briefing to journalists that took place after the publication of the final dossier. A similar claim in the Williams draft about Iraq "developing as a priority longer-range missile systems capable of threatening Nato (Greece and Turkey?)" is firmed up in the final dossier to read: "Iraq . . . constructed a new engine test stand for the development of missiles capable of reaching the UK sovereign base areas in Cyprus and Nato members (Greece and Turkey)."

The marginal notes also provide a further clue to the real reasons the government did not want the draft released. When the Information Tribunal ordered the release of the Williams draft it allowed one of these handwritten notes to be "redacted" (ie, removed) from the document. The reason given was that the note would be damaging to international relations. Normally such a redaction would be marked by a blacked-out section in the text, but in this case the Foreign Office has simply erased the note altogether. So what did it say? There is already plenty in the notes that could be seen as damaging. Take, for example, the comments on the first paragraph of the draft, which begins: "Iraq presents a uniquely dangerous threat to the world." Williams goes on to state that, "No other country has twice launched wars of aggression against neighbours." The official makes a note in the margin that Germany might be considered to have done so and helpfully inserts "since WWII?". But he or she also adds "US. Cuba, Grenada, Mexico". The next sentence reads: "In the 77 years since the Geneva Convention against chemical weapons was signed, Iraq is the only country to have broken it." Here, the fastidious official has added: "Japan in China?"

The references to Japan and Germany clearly refer to the countries' dark past, but what marginal note could be more damaging than the suggestion that the US was in some way equivalent to Saddam's Iraq because it too was guilty of launching wars of aggression against its neighbours? What if the note referred to the final sentence in the opening paragraph, which reads: "No other country has flouted the United Nations' authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction"? Because if officials in the Foreign Office believed there was another country as guilty as Saddam's Iraq of breaching UN resolutions, then this would seriously undermine the argument that it presented a unique case. It would be intriguing if the note had been removed at this point (there is a tantalising dash in the margin which appears to lead nowhere. Was there originally the name of another country here?). What diplomatic relations did the Foreign Office wish to protect by removing this marginal note and how can they be more sensitive than those with Britain's closest ally, the US?

Desperate measures

The official story about the Williams draft is contradictory and has changed several times, so it is quite possible that the "diplomatic relations" argument was just a desperate last-ditch attempt to scupper the release of the document.

John Scarlett sent an email in September 2002 saying that Williams had provided him with "considerable help" with the drafting of the dossier. But he later changed his story at the Hutton inquiry, and played down the spin doctor's role. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's director of communications, even denied the existence of the draft. The Foreign Office initially withheld the draft from the Hutton inquiry. The man responsible, Stephen Pattison, now director of international security at the Foreign Office, was one of the key witnesses at the Information Tribunal, where his evidence was criticised. The draft was finally handed over to Hutton after a request by the BBC, although it appears never to have been handed over to the interested parties, including the journalist at the centre of the storm, Andrew Gilligan. It is revealing that at no point in this process was the rogue marginal note - now seen as so damaging - removed from the document.

The Williams draft is a pitiful document, especially as we now know from the former spinner himself that he was not convinced by the argument for producing a dossier. Williams used all his skills as a tabloid journalist to write a racy and convincing story to engage his readers. We have long known the narrative was fictional, but we now have confirmation that the original author was not from the intelligence community, but a government spin doctor. The truth could not be more tawdry.

Click here for the Guardian's take on the dossier story

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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