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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.