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

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.