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4 March 2010

Gordon Brown at the Iraq inquiry

The key question the panel must ask the Prime Minister.

By James Macintyre

Doubtless much will be made of alleged equipment and funding shortages when Gordon Brown, chancellor at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, and now Prime Minister, appears before Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry in Westminster tomorrow. But there is another pressing question Brown should not be allowed to dodge: did he, in his heart, back the invasion?

One of the reasons friends of Tony Blair were angry about the establishment of the fresh inquiry was that, up until recently, it looked as if Blair but not Brown would be called to account. Some thought that Brown was using it to clear the air on this toxic issue and gain catharsis for Labour — perhaps at the expense of Blair’s reputation — before a general election this year.

Perhaps for this reason, some of Blair’s allies (including, subtly, that loyalist to both Blair and Brown, Alastair Campbell) hinted to the inquiry that Brown was part of the “inner circle” at the time and should, therefore, be called to answer questions. The strategy — if it was a strategy — worked, and tomorrow’s appearance is the result.

Some of Brown’s supporters, meanwhile, could not understand what he had to gain from agreeing to appear, though he probably judged he had no choice after Nick Clegg’s bold intervention on the matter in the Commons, first reported here in November and ignored at the time by the BBC and other outlets. However, others say that, like Brown’s Piers Morgan appearance and like the forthcoming leaders’ debates, the Prime Minister has nothing to lose by opening up on television in front of the British electorate.

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Further, given Blair’s refusal to express regret over the invasion, Brown strategists may believe he can do so, avoid explicitly backing the move as he has always done apart from a one-word answer in a 2005 press conference, and, by extension, carefully dissociate himself from the controversial Iraq war.

Side by side by Uncle Sam

He should not be allowed to do so. One of the many myths that Brown supporters have sought to entrench around their hero — such as that he was “robbed” of the leadership in 1994 — has been the claim that he privately opposed the invasion. By definition, this is misleading, because had he opposed it, he should — and surely would, if he is a man of principle — have resigned from the cabinet, as did Robin Cook.

But there is another, broader point here. Brown is the biggest Atlanticist in the Labour Party: more so, historically, than even Blair. He holidays in America. He started the process, in the 1990s, of “Clintonisation” of the Labour Party, in America. His entire political philosophy is based on the American “enterprise” and meritocratic approach.

True, Brown may possibly have “done a Wilson” on Iraq (as Wilson did over Vietnam), and backed the US-led war in principle but not paid the “blood price” with British troops. Yet, faced with Washington’s determination to invade Iraq, it is highly unlikely he would have gone out of his way to stand up to America.

This theory is based on the view that siding with the United States without a second UN resolution in favour of intervention, and on a timetable determined in Washington in the wake of the unrelated 11 September 2001 atrocities, was not a strong decision. It was the exact opposite.

I can think of only three senior politicians, one from each of the leading parties, who would have had the guts to say no had they been prime minister: Robin Cook from Labour, Charles Kennedy from the Liberal Democrats and Kenneth Clarke from the Conservatives.

Brown should not be blamed for Iraq. Yes, it was “Blair’s war”. But nor should he be allowed to escape the collective responsibility that he clearly thought so important at the time.

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