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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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Should Tony Blair be forgiven?

As the long-delayed Chilcot report is published, two writers reassess the legacy of the former Labour prime minister.

Peter Wilby: No, he legitimised Thatcherism

Even Tony Blair’s most steadfast supporters now acknowledge that he was guilty of errors in taking Britain to war in Iraq in 2003, particularly in failing to plan – or perhaps failing to insist that the United States should plan – for the aftermath of a successful invasion. But, they plead, this was a leader who delivered three consecutive election victories for his party, all by substantial margins, and seemed for a time to have turned Labour into Britain’s natural governing party. His governments introduced a national minimum wage, hugely increased spending on health and education, devolved power to Scotland and Wales, brought peace to Northern Ireland, lifted 700,000 children out of poverty, introduced civil partnerships for gay people, more than doubled the overseas
aid budget and put Freedom of Information on the statute book.

Does Blair not, therefore, deserve forgiveness for his mistakes over Iraq, mistakes that derived from a dedication to justice and freedom and an anxiety to take no risks with Britain’s security? Should he not be celebrated for his extraordinary achievements as Labour leader?

My answer is an emphatic “no”. Blair wasted Labour’s best chance in a generation to change the national mood and forge a new consensus. Far from making the 21st century an era of progress, as was supposedly his ambition, he created the conditions for another conservative, even a reactionary, century. He hollowed out the Labour Party, stripping it of purpose and self-belief. Not least through his behaviour after leaving ­office, he also hollowed out British politics, creating distrust and negativity. The political and social climate following the vote for Brexit – Labour facing electoral oblivion, the political stage dominated by shameless populists, racism and xenophobia once more becoming commonplace, the national mood sour and cynical – is his legacy.

That Labour needed to change in order to win office is beyond dispute. The tribal loyalty of working-class voters and the backing of organised labour’s big battalions were no longer enough. Social and economic change had turned the working classes into a minority and undermined the unions’ old power base in manufacturing industry. “Mass politics is becoming middle-class politics,” Blair’s polling guru Philip Gould observed. Labour could always count on the support of what Michael Frayn once called “the Herbivores” among the middle classes: the schoolteachers, university lecturers, artists, musicians, writers, lawyers, librarians, BBC employees and so on. But it now needed the aspirant young residents of Barratt homes, the private-sector middle managers and technicians who read the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, as well as “White Van Man”: the self-employed, self-reliant plumbers, small builders and electricians who were slowly detaching themselves from their working-class origins. These groups’ approach to politics was more instrumental. If they were to vote Labour, they wanted to know what was in it for them.

New Labour’s answer was that it would give them better public services, creating standards of provision and consumer choice comparable to those in the private sector. By some accounting miracle, it would do so without raising income tax and without raising state spending to levels that might frighten the markets. Labour was not just a party for workers organised in big unions, or for those reliant on welfare. It was “on the side” of the upwardly mobile.

This clearly involved a difficult balancing act, though one no more difficult than Labour’s past need to offer socially liberal policies to the Herbivores – for instance, the legalisation of homosexuality, or laws against racial discrimination – without alienating its more traditionalist, working-class supporters. Politics is about reconciling competing interests and winning the “floating voter” without losing your core support.

Here, Blair failed utterly. Indeed, he did not even seem to try. His governments did almost nothing to assist the industrial towns and cities of the north and Midlands that had been devastated under Margaret Thatcher. Rather, Blair made allies among the plutocrats in the City of London.

And so anxious was he to embrace globalisation and attract labour willing to work for “competitive rates” that, when eight east European states joined the EU in 2004, he agreed that their citizens could migrate freely to Britain without the “transitional controls” that were on offer. Ireland and Sweden were the only other EU countries to open their borders in this way. The catastrophic effects on Labour’s electoral prospects among the non-metropolitan working classes are now all too plain.

Instead of trying to achieve Labour ends in new ways, Blair offered a more inclusive Thatcherism. He did not strive to adapt Labour to changing times. Rather, he ruptured it from its past. Much of this was a matter of presentation and rhetoric rather than policy, causing maximum offence to long-standing Labour supporters. The “spin”, so much a feature of the Blair era, was always in a right-wing rather than left-wing direction. For example, the introduction of specialist schools was presented not as a means of strengthening the comprehensive system but as “the end of the bog-standard comprehensive”. Welfare reforms were packaged as “the end of the something-for-nothing days”. Ministers repeatedly promised new laws against crime and terrorism and new drives to lock people up. Projects such as Sure Start, on the other hand, received little fanfare. At times, Blair was frank: if the Labour Party was against him, he must be doing the right thing.

Labour policies on tax and redistribution were to be pursued, if at all, by stealth. In fact, Labour’s record on poverty and inequality under Blair was not at all bad. Just to stop them rising further was an achievement of sorts, given that the effect of globalisation was to increase inequalities – so that in America, hourly wages for the average worker had remained stagnant since the 1970s. But contrast New Labour’s record with that of the 1964-70 Labour government, which brought about a 29 per cent rise in real incomes for the poorest tenth of Britons, or even the much-reviled 1974-79 government, during which income inequality fell to its lowest level in history.

Under Blair, ministers were more or less forbidden to talk about either “inequality” or “redistribution”. The mere mention of either word, the prime minister thought, would send voters hurtling back to the Tories. Yet the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in 2000 found that only 5 per cent of voters agreed that the government should “reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits”, while 50 per cent wanted more taxation and more spending. New Labour came to power when the British were disillusioned with the harshness of Thatcherite individualism and, for the first time in half a century, possibly ready for more solidaristic policies.

Data from the BSA surveys showed that between 1986 and 1996 support for redistribution never fell below 43 per cent and was often above 50 per cent. But after reaching its peak just after Blair became Labour leader in 1994, the pro-redistribution proportion began to fall and stayed consistently below 40 per cent after 1997.

In other words, Blair legitimised Thatcherism and inequality. By refusing even to talk about redistribution, he banished the subject to the political fringes. Inequality was no longer contested. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: they were there by God’s design just as they had been in 1848 when Cecil Frances Alexander published her hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. Only the discredited and defeated dinosaurs of “Old Labour” were silly enough to think that change was possible. Instead of leading the British into more progressive territory and building support for Labour’s core values, Blair led them in the opposite direction, conniving with rich newspaper owners, notably Rupert Murdoch, to marginalise the left.

The Iraq War was just another example of Blair’s determination to flaunt his defiance of the party. It was all part of showing that New Labour was truly new, of burying for good the perception that Labour was soft on defence just as it was supposedly soft on crime, soft on failing schools and soft on welfare scroungers. Most of his cabinet opposed the war, as did most Labour MPs and most party members. This was not a difficulty for Blair; defying the Labour Party was part of his mission. If it involved an alliance with a US Republican president, so much the better. “Anti-Americanism”, based on scepticism about the US model of capitalism and opposition to America’s bullying of weaker nations, was another Labour tradition to be rejected contemptuously.

It might still be possible to forgive Blair if his conduct after leaving office had not compounded his sins. Not only has he refused to express regret for the Iraq War, he has also persistently advocated more wars and more interventions in the Middle East. Unlike his predecessors among post-Second World War Labour premiers, who generally kept their counsel after they retired, he frequently offers the party advice on where it is going wrong, warning it not to steer even slightly to the left.

Perhaps most unforgivable of all is Blair’s continued intimacy with the rich and powerful. He won office in 1997 partly because he promised to end sleaze and dishonesty in politics. Within six months of being elected, his government exempted Formula 1 motor racing from a ban on tobacco advertising that had been promised in Labour’s manifesto. It later emerged that Bernie ­Ecclestone, the Formula 1 boss, had given £1m to the party’s campaign and then visited Downing Street to lobby Blair for the exemption. This was the first in a long line of dubious associations, also featuring the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and the billionaire Hinduja brothers. In the year before Blair left office, the police investigated allegations of attempts to award life peerages in return for loans or donations to party funds.

Since Blair left office, his willingness to sell his services to the highest bidder has become almost a national joke. His “consultancies” with financial services companies, his links to Middle Eastern sheikhs and the brutal, authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan, the $250,000 fees for speeches in the US, his acquisition of a property portfolio worth, according to one estimate, more than £25m – no previous former Labour PM amassed wealth on such a scale. Protestations that much of the money goes to charity are greeted with scepticism. His role as a peace envoy in the Middle East became another joke. Not only was the mission a total failure, his critics claimed he used it merely to make more business contacts.

Blair’s harsher critics compare him to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour prime minister who went into coalition with the Conservatives in 1931 to impose benefit cuts. But MacDonald betrayed a party he had spent most of his life building up; Blair had no Labour roots to betray.

His betrayal was wider and deeper. He misled parliament and the people about the case for the Iraq War. He treated his party’s activists – people who cared enough about democracy to attend meetings and hand out leaflets – with utter disdain. He embraced Murdoch and his senior executives as intimates of the governing party. He used the prestige and contacts acquired through elected office to enrich himself and his family. Blair’s greatest legacy is the cynicism, apathy and distrust, laced with anger, that now characterise the British attitude to politics and politicians. He betrayed our democracy, and that is truly unforgivable. 

Philip Collins: Yes, or Labour will not survive

In 1956 Britain experienced a foreign policy disaster in Suez that seemed to define its post-imperial malaise. Even at the time, Suez was written up as a sign of a nation in visible decline. The Conservative Party’s reputation for stolid competence took a knock and the prime minister, Anthony Eden, resigned in ignominy in 1957. But at the next election, Eden’s replacement, Harold Macmillan, extended the Tories’ overall majority over Labour to more than 100 seats. In the wake of the awful defeat of 1959, Mark Abrams and Richard Rose wrote a text that, sadly, bears rereading today. It was called Must Labour Lose?.

The point is that foreign policy hardly ever affects domestic elections. It matters in its own right – of course it does – but a party that becomes obsessed with a question of foreign policy is likely to part company with the electorate. Those commentators who opposed the Iraq War with great vehemence often forget that the electorate did not share their anger, even if it shared their conclusion. Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a majority of 66 seats in 2005, after the intervention in Iraq. The 2005 election was fought largely on the economy, crime and antisocial behaviour. Iraq barely featured. Yet, for Labour Party members, and especially so after the surge of Jeremy Corbyn supporters since May 2015, foreign policy is a central concern and opposition to Iraq is the irreducible core.

This past week, after an interminable wait, the Chilcot report into the conduct of the war has been published. Whatever it says, Chilcot is bound to be the least persuasive, excessively long book ever written. This is not to cast aspersions on Sir John or to prejudge his verdict. Rather, it is to observe that, even among the small group of citizens who read it, none will change their mind. Opinion is surely settled on the Iraq War. The time has come, though many will not want to hear it, for the Labour Party to learn to forgive Tony Blair.

I say this not for the sake of Tony Blair, who can look after himself. Though it has never been true to say he entertains no doubt, Blair still believes that his central judgement was correct. No, I say this for the sake of Labour, which cannot hope to become a party of government again until it learns to forgive. Or, if forgiveness is asking too much, at least to forget.

In making that request, I am very deliberately saying nothing about the war itself, about its rationale, its conduct or its aftermath. For the record, I was always sceptical that the stated aims of the conflict could ever be fulfilled. I would have been happier if the declared objective had been merely that as a known genocidal killer was vulnerable to an intervention, and because a political coalition to depose him was now possible, it made sense to do it. A war gone wrong based on deposing a tyrant is quite different from a war gone wrong that was linked to the 11 September 2001 attacks and based on finding a cache of weapons.

I also felt at the time, as I feel now, that the prime minister had been cavalier in following the precepts of his own 1999 Chicago speech, in which he made the best case in modern times for intervention in the affairs of another sovereign nation. In what was essentially an updated version of the just war theory of Thomas Aquinas, Blair set out the conditions under which such an intervention can be justified. There is a case that the Iraq War answers to most of the speech, but the third out of the five precepts presented by Blair is more troubling. This is the practical constraint. Is there a reasonable expectation of success? Even if the conflict can be justified for its purpose, can it work? The best critique of neoconservatism was always the claim that it simply wasn’t conservative enough.

I find I am all but alone in this moderate view, not very passionately held. I have no interest in trying to persuade anyone else of it. I do not disparage anyone else’s view. I am well aware, because I have been shouted at so many times in discussing the topic, that people take different views and that they do so with great passion. I do not wish to still such passion in the hope of making people take a different view. Neither do I think that the questions involved are unimportant. Of course they are important. They are a matter of life and death for people who, even when they lived, did so in circumstances far less comfortable than mine.

The best hope for the argument in Labour ranks is not that opponents should persuade advocates, or vice versa. That is impossible. The mature response now would be to talk about something else. The conversation is a circular loop. Even when people profess to be drawing lessons from recent history, the point is usually misleading. In foreign policy you never really step into the same river twice. Iraq was more unlike Libya than it was like Libya, which, in turn, was different again in most material ways from the turmoil in Syria. Each moment demands a specific response rather than a general aversion. The upshot of Iraq is that Britain has stepped away from other conflicts, as if every instance was a reiteration of the first. The vote on air strikes in Syria fell principally because so many MPs did not want another Iraq on their voting record.

This is the context into which Chilcot falls. It will cover much the same ground as the 2004 Butler report and it will be a major exercise in confirmation bias. Snippets of its million words will prove that absolutely everyone was right all along. Tony Blair will be the focus of most of the animus. As W H Auden wrote about Sigmund Freud, “he is no more a person/now but a whole climate of opinion”. The reaction to Blair clouds the Labour Party now. There is no sense at all of admiring his domestic legacy. Today, at a point when border patrols may return to Northern Ireland, nobody from the Labour leadership is out there commending the remarkable work Blair did in Northern Ireland. In Labour circles, “Blairite” is straightforwardly a term of abuse.

It is applied with scattergun recklessness. Anyone who opposes Jeremy Corbyn – even Tom Watson, the man who organised a stupid student-politics coup against Blair – is denounced as a “Blairite” by the online muppets of Momentum politics. Last week the Labour leader lost whatever moral authority in the party he ever commanded. An insipid performance in the EU referendum campaign triggered a move against him by Labour MPs, the shadow cabinet and councillors. Then, just when it could scarcely get any worse, Corbyn chose the launch of a report into anti-Semitism among his supporters to draw a moral equivalence between Israel and “various self-styled Islamic states and organisations”. A Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, left the launch venue in tears.

And so, the last-ditch defenders of Corbyn rushed to their Twitter feeds to denounce this as the work of the Blairites and the mainstream media. As a newspaper columnist who once wrote speeches for Blair, I must say it makes me feel like the Wizard of Oz. And yet this is abject nonsense as political analysis. It describes, instead, a cast of mind, a psychological state of a strong faction in the Labour Party which just cannot throw off the past. The hatred is consuming for those who feel it, and the thing that it is consuming is the Labour Party.

A party of a century’s vintage is on the threshold of collapse. The publication of the Chilcot report will be an occasion to replay the old argument. The only effect now is moral indignation. Being angry lets nobody off the hook. The point has been made and now, surely, it is time to let it lie.

To which I can hear the instant response of the irritable wit: the only person who lied was Tony Blair. Blair can help himself. He has another cause to speak about now: Europe. He should limit his public interventions to speak about how we negotiate our way through the mess into which a generation of ideological Conservative politicians has dropped us. There is 48 per cent of the country keen to hear someone frame those arguments cleverly. Blair always does: but the omertà on Iraq extends to him, too.

It extends to all of us – not, I repeat, because it does not matter, but because we have exhausted what we have to say on Iraq. The argument is self-harming. It is corroding Labour from the inside. Somehow people have to find the courage to quieten their convictions. To forget, if not to forgive, not for Blair’s sake, but for your own sake. The Labour Party has said too much about this topic. A period of silence on its part would now be appreciated. The rest, otherwise, ­really will be silence.

Philip Collins is a columnist and chief leader writer for the Times, and a former speechwriter for Tony Blair

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers