No room for closure

. . . on the Iraq inquiry, public spending cuts and Mandy’s manoeuvres

I do not care whether the Iraq inquiry is held in public or private. It is a waste of time and money. Like, I would guess, most NS readers, I think Tony Blair and his aides decided to follow US instructions, distorted the intelligence, and prepared inadequately for the consequences of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Blair should have been forced from office, and possibly indicted as a war criminal, once it became clear there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The five Establishment figures appointed to hold the inquiry cannot turn back the clock and are unlikely to recommend that our former prime minister be hauled before the beak in The Hague. Indeed, it is hard to say what they can do. Lord Butler has already been over the intelligence (anybody who reads his report, rather than accepting Labour’s post-publication spin, will see he did a fairly good job) and, given that the inquiry members, apart from a war studies academic, lack significant military knowledge, they do not seem equipped to pinpoint military failings, as the Esher committee did after the Boer War. Many people want to hear a stirring denunciation of what were essentially political shortcomings, thus providing what is now called “closure”. But Blair would still swan around the world, collecting fat lecturing and “consultancy” fees while pretending to be a peacemaker.

No inquiry was held into the Second World War. Post-1945 governments just got on with building a welfare state. More pertinently perhaps, there was no inquiry into Suez. Britain just accepted its imperial days were over. Now our politicians should accept that we shouldn’t be accomplices to US imperial projects.


Should we lefties be in favour of public spending cuts? Whenever the subject is broached, our default response is to throw up our hands in horror. We believe public spending is inherently good, the Tories believe it is inherently evil, and that’s how we tell each other apart, rather as you can allegedly detect social class by whether someone says “toilet” or “lavatory”. Yet if anything, the left should take a harsher, more rigorous attitude to spending because most of the money comes (and always will) from the workers by hand or by brain.

I suspect the need for spending reductions from 2011 is exaggerated and some of the expected Budget shortfall can in any case be reduced by imposing higher taxes on the rich. Nevertheless, whichever party takes office after the next election will need to make substantial cuts. Labour should publish its list and challenge the Tories to publish theirs. I would include defence (particularly Trident), identity cards (I don’t particularly object to them, but I think we can manage without for a while), road-building programmes, subsidies to farmers, and subsidies for arms exports. I would stop doctors issuing prescriptions for conditions that would, in time, clear up anyway. I would stop creating fancy new schools such as city academies. I would scrutinise all quangos and abolish half of them. I would impose a salary maximum on every public service, so that bosses get no more than five times the pay of the average worker.

You may say I’m a fascist beast or my cuts are impracticable and wouldn’t raise enough money. Fair enough. But the left needs to have a conversation like this if it is to retain credibility.


In Corfu last autumn, an English sailing instructor first broke the news to me that Peter Mandelson had rejoined the government. Mandelson was set to become the next PM, the instructor confidently asserted.

That was impossible, I patiently – and, I fear, patronisingly – explained. Mandelson was no longer even an MP and membership of the Lords would make him ineligible for the premiership. Besides, the Labour Party would never stand for it. So much, I have reflected in recent days, for my inside knowledge and constitutional expertise.

Incidentally, the Mail on Sunday reports that Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has been excluded from Mandelson’s inner circle. If Ed had heeded my advice to make a principled resignation, he would have been spared this humiliation.


The Tories have got themselves into a frightful muddle over the Sat tests for 11-year-olds. If I understand correctly, they will abolish the exams at the end of primary school but have them, instead, when children start secondary school. This, they believe, will stop primary teachers coaching for the tests and encourage a more rounded curriculum. Yet the Tories will still use the results to compile primary school league tables.

Since the point of league tables is to help parents avoid low-scoring schools, why would primary teachers stop coaching? The most likely result is that teachers will instruct parents to drill their children daily over the holidays and I can imagine some primary heads organising summer cramming schools. Middle-class parents are more likely to co-operate, and so, the league tables will become even more unfair to schools that serve disadvantaged areas.


When rain interrupts one-day cricket, as it did during England’s World Twenty20 match against the West Indies, the authorities use something called the Duckworth-Lewis method, which involves algorithms. The principle is that, if one side batted 20 overs and got 160 runs (England made 161, but I’ll try to keep it simple), and there’s time for only nine more overs, their opponents shouldn’t have a target of just 73 runs (nine-twentieths of 160 plus one). Because they’ve still got ten wickets, their target should be higher.

Nobody understands Duckworth-Lewis. Anybody can understand the Wilby method (as I shall call it). Reduce the target proportionately, but also reduce the number of wickets. So the side batting nine overs has to get 73 runs but can lose only 4.5 wickets. (When the fourth wicket falls, one batsman takes strike at both ends.) The decisive advantage of my method is that England would have won against the West Indies.

Which, since we invented cricket and its Twenty20 variant, seems only fair.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran