Spin doctors and the Iraq war

A Tory MP challenges the government to come clean about the role spin doctors played in sexing-up th

As the government challenges the Information Commissioner's ruling it should publish the secret first draft of the Iraq dossier, a Tory MP has challenged it to come clean about the role its spin doctors played in sexing-up the case for war.

And I can reveal the government is suppressing many more crucial documents that were not disclosed to the Hutton Inquiry.

Last week Foreign Office (FCO) minister Kim Howells admitted trying to conceal the origins of the first full draft of the weapons of mass destruction dossier, produced by former FCO press secretary John Williams. Howells is also blocking the release of an unknown number of documents showing the involvement of the Coalition Information Centre (CIC) in preparing the dossier that took Britain to war in Iraq.

The CIC papers are among many documents covering the production of the September 2002 dossier that have been identified and requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The government has almost invariably refused to release these documents, claiming that to do so would be prejudicial to the conduct of public affairs, international relations or national security, even though it is now five years since the dossier was published. The common thread in the suppressed documents is that they challenge the government’s claim that the dossier was the work of the intelligence services.

Last November the New Statesman revealed that the first full-length draft of the dossier was produced by Williams, not former Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett. In August the NS revealed that Williams had based his version on an even earlier document from the CIC, the propaganda unit set up by Alastair Campbell to promote UK participation in US led wars.

It was Tory MP John Baron who obtained this evidence. Howells had sent Baron a copy of the letter that the government sent the Hutton Inquiry with the Williams draft. Initially this had the reference to the CIC redacted on the grounds that it was “sensitive”, but Baron used the FOIA to insist that the full text be disclosed. He then tabled a parliamentary question asking why the missing text had been seen as sensitive. Last week Howells replied, admitting that text had been redacted “because we wished to protect the process that Williams used”.

Baron also made a further request under the FOIA, to see all correspondence to and from the CIC as the dossier was being written. The FCO admitted holding “some information” – a standard formula in these cases – but did not state what that information was. Howells then blocked the request, using the catch-all Section 36 exemption, that disclosure would inhibit the provision of free and frank advice to ministers. This was the same exemption former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had used to suppress the Williams draft. Howells admitted that officials had wrongly blocked disclosure without first seeking ministerial approval.

The FCO is still refusing to state how many documents it has and is refusing to deny that there is a substantial number of undisclosed papers, inspite of repeated requests.

The government has already the blocked the release of a number of documents on the dossier that were not supplied to the Hutton Inquiry and the Information Commissioner is due to decide soon whether they should be published. The possibility that the government may hold a further raft of undisclosed papers suggests that the dossier cover-up was even greater than previously realized. Lord Hutton said nothing about the CIC’s involvement, although his Inquiry was briefly told about it. The Butler Review also made no mention of the CIC, reporting that the dossier was in the “ownership” of the Joint Intelligenc Committee from the outset.

Paul Hamill, the CIC’s “head of story development” was one of four spin doctors named by Scarlett in a letter to Tony Blair as having been involved in ensuring that the dossier “deployed the intelligence effectively”. Hamill is also the likely author of the February 2003 “dodgy” dossier, which was revealed to have been largely copied off the internet.

On Thursday and Friday this week, the Information Tribunal is hearing the FCO’s appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision that the Williams draft should be released under the FOIA. The FCO has resisted release of the draft for nearly three years.

Speaking to the New Statesman website, Baron, who has pursued the issue through debates and questions in Parliament, asked:

"Just what has the FCO got to hide? Why is the Government being so secretive about the involvement of the CIC, unless it is trying to cover up the prominent role played by spin doctors in the lead up to the war?

"This case has again exposed the casual attitude of the FCO towards its Freedom of Information responsibilities. It is high time we were told the truth about the presentation of Britain's case for war in Iraq."

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times