When I finally got into the additional viewing facility, which holds around 700 people, the day's work had already started. I felt like I'd walked into a church mid-way through a service -- a hushed quiet over the room, Tony Blair's face dominating a large projection screen at the front of the auditorium, a surprisingly emotional experience.
Everyone was watching the screen intently, listening to his words, scrutinising, looking for something. There was a palpable sense of people wanting to bear witness to this, almost as if they were there just so Blair knew that people were watching him, keeping him honest. Part-way through the first session, someone stood up on a chair and started shouting that he couldn't take any more of this -- perhaps hoping to start a riot, perhaps just emotion boiling over -- but he was quickly shouted down by the people there and escorted out by security guards. The audience was intent on auditing.
Well before today it was quite clear that what many people were searching for -- a catharsis, the emotional satisfaction of a proper reckoning for the continuing disaster of the war's aftermath -- wasn't going to happen. This wasn't a courtroom. This inquiry hadn't been convened to judge anyone, despite many people there professing the ludicrous hope that Tony Blair could somehow be prosecuted as a war criminal.
And so as the session wore on, Blair projecting complete confidence in his previous judgements and a smirk constantly lurking around his lips, it started to dawn on people that he wasn't going to reveal anything particularly new. As time went on there was more fidgeting, people started to leave as lunch got closer, and a sense of futility descended.
We'd heard all this before, and it's a pretty coherent narrative, easy to defend -- he did the best he could with the intelligence given to him, flawed as that has turned out to be, and he'd do the same again given the same circumstances. People winced as he talked about his work as the Middle East peace envoy, as he constantly harked back to his experience in Bosnia, as he quoted from his previous speeches like they were part of a prestigious canon.
The hullaballoo about Blair lying, sexing up and dissembling misses the point that what should really be called into question is not whether he's being truthful -- I think he is in the main, despite his abhorrent vanity and unshakeable self-belief -- but his judgement. It's enough that our prime minister had bad enough judgement to drag us into a war with an aggressive ally (not forgetting Spain and Italy), seemingly without proper planning for what to do once the war had been won.
You don't need anything more for this to be a tragedy, and I would suggest that the wilder accusations don't derive from a sober analysis of the facts, but the profound and intense distress that comes from feeling ignored (the largest-ever peacetime demonstration in the UK didn't stop the war) and hoodwinked (those who reluctantly trusted Blair's assessment that war was the only way to solve the problem). We, the electorate, also voted him back into office after it became clear that there were no WMDs in Iraq, and perhaps hate ourselves because of that.
So still we wait -- and we will wait for ever. Unless something unforeseeable happens the only reckoning Blair will face is the one after death, but only if his religious beliefs turn out to be correct, which isn't much comfort for an atheist like me -- I'll have to burn in hell before Tony Blair faces a real reckoning.
Today was simply justification, when what people really needed was absolution through his confession.