We all know the form: a Terrible Political Thing happens – and like many terrible political things that happen, it appears to have been caused by a combination of sheer contingency and human error. An inquiry is established to find out how far appearance conforms to reality (a philosophic question that has bedevilled thinkers for millennia, but let’s not dwell on that) and witnesses are interrogated to see if they either conspired or cocked up. In due course a Report is written comprising millions of words – and eventually (often after many years), it is released to be filleted by journalists in hours then reduced to two or three headlines, such as: “BLAIR EXONERATED” or indeed the reverse.
Unlike with Terrible Things in the domestic and civil sphere, where some sort of justice for wounded and aggrieved parties can possibly be achieved by criminal prosecution, TTs in the political and international sphere almost never result in such, for obvious reasons: jurisdictions are difficult to establish, “laws” are disputed, while enforcement is patchy and subject to realpolitik.
Anyone on the left who imagined the Chilcot report would definitively name the guilty parties, so leading to their indictment as war criminals, can’t ever have understood too much about the Britain we’ve all been living in. Perhaps that’s why it’s been Alex Salmond who has so vigorously pursued the idea: he doesn’t want the Britain we’ve all been living in to exist. Yet even if the British state is going up in flames, I don’t expect cosmic justice to emerge phoenix-like from the ashes. The purely coincidental arrival of the report and a major constitutional crisis in the same week should, however, give us pause to consider what exactly we’ve hoped for in terms of the Iraq conflict’s aftermath. By “we” I mean those of us who, on and around 15 February 2003, got it into our heads that the popular will – which took the form of many thousands chanting: “Who let the dogs out? Bush! Blair!” – was being flouted by our elected representatives.
Thirteen unlucky years later, with Iraq a failed state, its sepsis infecting its neighbours, anodyne British military boots still on its ground, and the British Muslim community widely and confusedly disaffected, we remain gripped by a free-floating fantasy that settles on anything – such as the Chilcot report – that seems to offer redress. What would we like? Why, the clock turned back, of course: the dead to rise from their graves, the maimed to be made whole, the dossier-sexers and the Dr David Kelly-outers to be arraigned, even as the entire political class that bought the phoney pretext for war hangs its collective head in deep shame.
What we don’t want to do, however, is examine the paralysis this fantasy has plunged us into. For the past 13 years there’s been no serious reappraisal of Atlanticism possible on the left; we’ve been too busy resenting Connaught Square’s most infamous inhabitant – a man who cannot pop out for a pint of milk without being accompanied by eight policemen armed with Heckler & Koch automatic rifles. And that’s the way we like it.
But holding on to a resentment – as the adage has it – is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting the other person to die. TB, who was in the frame for the TT even before the balloon went up, may look considerably older and have gone to Rome in order to save his eternal soul, but he ain’t dead yet. Meanwhile, the party he sidelined in the slipstream of his own hubristic ambition carries on knocking back the poison with predictable results. Since the EU referendum there’s been considerable soul-searching on the left – the trouble is, it isn’t our souls we’re searching, but rather those of the lumpenproletariat wot won it for Brexit. They may be deracinated “tribal Labour” – they could be altogether non-partisan; but they’ve emerged from the cracks and crannies of run-down northern estates to inflict this terrible wound on the British body politic. How could they have done it? We reach in our grab bag of hoary old epithets (the one we got “lumpenproletariat” from), and come up with “false consciousness”. Yes! That’s it – they must be suffering from a confusion about where their true interest lies, or else they couldn’t, in their millions, have made their exterminatory marks.
What about us? Our consciousness, I think, has been far more deceptive: it has prevented us from acknowledging the truth about all sorts of Terrible Things, such as our complete failure to push for a serious geopolitical realignment post-Iraq. In the run-up to 23 June, rather than espouse the positive case for a united Europe as a counterweight to the existing Great Powers, we, along with the political class we so poisonously resent, remained blinkered, with our heads still firmly rammed up the hegemon’s back passage. The late Willie Donaldson, in his alter ego as Henry Root, used often to opine, satirising the left-liberal position: “We’re all to blame.” And indeed, we are all to blame for this impasse; yet for as long as the possibility of holding someone else to account for Iraq remains, we can neither think clearly, nor act decisively.