Blair, the BBC and dictatorship

The Iraq war was a catastrophe for the way the UK is governed.

Over on his blog, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, posts a revealing PS about Blair's second appearance before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.

What is emerging before our eyes is a clash of cultures between a politician who believes governing is, in the end, about one man's judgement and the Whitehall classes who believe it should be about official papers, formal consideration of the evidence and collective decision-making.

This is appalling. The word for government being one man's judgement is dictatorship. This is not a mere "clash of cultures" (as in "Do you prefer a sofa to a table?"). And Blair has made it clear it is not a matter of judgement. Judgement demands a larger process such as the assessment of evidence and a demand for different options. What Blair has always fallen back on is the sincerity of his belief or gut instinct; again an attribute of dictatorship.

Another aspect to Nick Robinson's attitude, which I am sure is shared across the political class of which he is an outstanding member, is that democracy does not come into it. One part of the Whitehall elite still clings to the need for process and a return to its Establishment codes. As a choice between this and Blairism it is quite right. But it lacks the language to gain popular support for what is an elite form of rule.

I suspect this lies behind the Chilcot inquiry taking itself seriously in a way it was not supposed to do, when it was set up under New Labour. The fact is that the Iraq war was a massive catastrophe for the way the UK is governed. It was illegal, but the government went ahead. It was a military folly, but the warnings were not heeded. It was based on patently ridiculous "intelligence warnings". There were clear distortions of the truth, aka lies (one example will suffice: Saddam could not have been manufacturing chemical weapons but Blair said he was). Above all, the decision was profoundly undemocratic, voters did not want it and were wiser than the elite in their – I can proudly say our – judgement. This is especially damaging as the British system, while not a modern constitutional democracy, has been based on the rule of law and popular consent from the 19th century, before democracy as we know it, with universal franchise, existed anywhere.

People have complained that the Chilcot inquiry does not have a clear brief. But its role has now turned into an inquiry as to whether the legitimacy of British government can be restored.

Note, never mind about democracy.

Of course, it needs a wider remit. When it was announced that Blair was being recalled, was I alone in thinking back to his being the first serving prime minister to be questioned under caution by the police and then questioned again?

Which leads on to more news of the week: Andy Coulson's resignation as David Cameron's media henchperson.

I was confident Coulson was doomed when, before the election, the Observer ran what I described at the time as a "towering" guest column by Peter Oborne. He warned Cameron, whom he supports, not to keep Coulson as his spin doctor should he win the election, as Coulson had been "presiding over what can only be described as a flourishing criminal concern".

The question is: why indeed did Cameron appoint him? Oborne asks this again with knobs on today in the Telegraph.

The answer loops us right back to Nick Robinson's inability to see dictatorship when it mushrooms before his eyes. Cameron thinks that Blair was a successful example of how to govern.

There was a very striking contrast last weekend. In a thoughtful speech to the Fabians to which I hope to return, Ed Miliband told his party how it had misgoverned when in power despite the good things it achieved. He put clear water between himself and his Labour predecessors. That was Saturday. Come Monday, David Cameron in his big speech justifies his reckless approach to public-service reform by praying in aid Tony Blair and only Tony Blair, the "you know", short-circuit dictator himself.

Coulson would have signed off on that Cameron speech as one of his last official acts. Perhaps the question Robinson should have been asking is: who represents continuity and who a change of government!

This is a cross-post from openDemocracy.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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