The cover-up

David Kelly's death is an event waiting for a conspiracy theory, just like the assassination of President Kennedy and the Paris car crash that killed the Princess of Wales. The speculation is not confined to the clientele of Darcus Howe's local pub (see page 12) or to our diarist Boy George (see page 9); according to our political editor's report (page 6), even some friends of Dr Kelly find it hard to believe that he really committed suicide. But though many questions will be raised about what drove to despair a man with no apparent history of mental illness - to which the answers may possibly be found in the days when he was interrogated by the Ministry of Defence or in the period when he stayed in a "safe" house, away from media communication - a murder conspiracy seems implausible. The real cover-up is a broader one.

The battle between Alastair Campbell and the BBC has buried the important issue: the way the British (and indeed, the American) people were given a false prospectus of the reasons for going to war in Iraq. Whether intelligence information was distorted or exaggerated by ministers and their henchmen is beside the point, and it is wholly contrary to British doctrines of ministerial responsibility for anybody to try to make it the point. Intelligence is always a matter of interpretation; it is by its nature dodgy. Ministers took the decision to publish and to use the information to support the case for war. Their intention was propagandist. They should bear the responsibility whether or not there was sexing up.

From what we know now, Saddam certainly did not pose an imminent threat to British and US interests, and probably not a long-term one. The British government stated that "Iraq has a useable chemical and biological weapons capability . . . which has included recent production of chemical and biological agents"; that Iraq could deliver such agents "using an extensive range of artillery shells, free-fall bombs, sprayers and ballistic missiles"; that they could be deployed "within 45 minutes of a decision"; and that "Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons . . . uranium has been sought from Africa". The case for war, even on the evidence presented, was not a strong one; if these statements were wrong (and at least two clearly were), the case was non-existent.

It is not good enough to say that everything turned out for the best, that a brutal tyrant was overthrown, that his equally nasty sons are now dead and that the Iraqi people rejoice. The armed forces are not a branch of Amnesty International; there is no international legal framework for disposing of tyrants, and the British and US governments do nothing to encourage one. The military is supposed to defend national interests; that is the basis on which parliament votes the money. If western interests are under as severe and constant a threat as US and British rulers say they are, military planning, resources and lives have been wasted on the wrong target. The chiefs of the UK defence staff constantly complain about overstretch. The US army has 33 combat brigades; 16 are now in Iraq. The war and the continuing occupation of Iraq are serious misuses of public money. Those are the grounds for inquiries and investigations, not who said what about whom on Radio 4.

Mr Campbell's attack on the BBC was an attempt to divert attention from the important questions; the belief that attack is the best form of defence, that the best PR is pre-emptive, is fundamental to the new Labour project. If he wished to deny that he personally originated false claims in the Iraq dossier, Mr Campbell could have done so without going on to demand a full apology from the BBC or to insist that the entire corporation was engaged in an anti-war campaign. When the BBC rose to his challenge and tried to defend the credibility and stature of its source - rather than just saying, as it should have done, that its journalists never discuss their sources in any way - Mr Campbell must have been overjoyed. In many ways, it was his finest hour; the whole thrust of the foreign affairs select committee inquiry was thrown off course. The cover-up went horribly wrong. Cover-ups often do. But do not be deceived: Mr Campbell is still ahead.

A judicial inquiry will now look specifically into the Kelly affair with no remit to investigate wider issues. It will probably report around the time of the TUC conference, when other political news is beginning to crowd the agenda. Possibly, it will require the resignation of the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, and even of Mr Campbell; more likely, it will report faults here and faults there, with nobody really to blame. Everybody will have forgotten about the war. The cover-up will remain intact.

The masters of memory

And you think that after, say, half a century, everybody will forget what this sexed-up business was about? Think again. In 1946, Labour's attorney general, Sir Hartley Shawcross (who died this month as Lord Shawcross, aged 101), said in the Commons: "We are the masters now." Or did he? Not according to the Times obituary: he actually said: "We are the masters at the moment and shall be for some considerable time." Wrong, says Donald Bruce, then PPS to Aneurin Bevan, now Lord Bruce of Donington, aged 90. In an "emphatic modification" to the obit, he insists Shawcross did say "we are the masters now": "I was sitting immediately behind him." Hansard has a third version ("we are the masters at the moment . . . and for a very long time to come"). Hansard can be rewritten at a speaker's request. Lord Bruce's memory cannot be rewritten, and so an ancient tribal quarrel continues beyond the grave.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Can we trust our rulers ever to tell the truth?