VINTAGE GEMS Robert Lewis

NWR Issue 89

At the Inquiry

I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
(Kipling, ‘A Dead Statesman’)


I.


It was a grey, rainy day in January, and very cold. I had left the car at Newport and caught a National Express coach in the middle of the night so I could be in central London at the crack of dawn. It was no more than half full, and we were a quiet, transient lot: immigrant workers, foreign students, mewling infants with tired mothers in saris and hijabs and TKMaxx. In an ideal world, I suspect none of us would have been there at all. What was bringing them to the capital at such an hour I couldn’t say, but I was going to the Chilcot Inquiry.

On Friday the 29th January 2010, Tony Blair was to appear before Britain’s fifth official inquiry into the Iraq War. All day. Tony Blair, progenitor of New Labour, saviour of the third way, hero of the largest Labour majority ever, winner of ‘the historic third term’, ‘a pretty straight guy’, begetter of wars, payer of ‘the blood price’, holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor, ex-Prime Minister. The arch-populist media manipulator was to be subjected to unscripted and televised questioning about the most divisive policy of his leadership, and there was a chance, a very small chance, he might say something we could learn from.

I was wearing a pressed suit and tie, was freshly shaved, clean and sober. I hadn’t worn a suit and tie for months. There were bound to be protests, maybe big ones, and I had no intention of getting stuck
on the wrong side of a police cordon. It had almost happened to me once before, during the May Day
protests of 2001, when I lived near the top of Tottenham Court Road and was very nearly corralled in Oxford Circus along with perhaps ten thousand other people, where they were held without food, water or basic amenities, for eight hours. This ‘kettling’ happened again in Gleneagles at the 2005 G8 summit and also during last year’s G20 meeting. In fact, most large protests of the decade had been met with mass detention and baton charges. The only real guarantee not to be affected was not to go anywhere near them, but that was not an option today, and despite my get-up I was faintly apprehensive.

I needn’t have worried. Hardly anyone turned up. When I arrived a little before seven the only people around were PR girls from some political website holding branded yellow umbrellas, and the assembling ranks of the world media. By midday there were perhaps, at the very most, six or seven hundred protestors there. But I hadn’t been the only one expecting trouble: the back streets leading off from the conference centre that morning were lined with endless white police vans.

From street level the raised garden at the front of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre looks like a rampart, and the Met stood atop it shoulder to shoulder like some Praetorian Guard while TV crews set up behind them. And they patrolled the streets too, and they waited in their vans, and they rode around in motorbikes and patrol cars and four-by-fours, and buzzed the sky in helicopters. Then there were the Forward Intelligence Teams, overt surveillance units with their cameras and camcorders, compiling the faces of potential troublemakers for the Crimint database. The firearms officers you could easily recognize from their gun bags, as they decamped somewhere inside the building itself. Later I spoke to an immaculate mustachioed man in a camel-hair coat who must have been Special Branch, and god knows who else was around but down on Victoria Street and Broad Sanctuary the protestors were badly outnumbered. They practically had to kettle themselves, up against the barriers outside the Methodist Hall, just so they could achieve a photogenic level of crowd density. The flash bulbs duly popped.

In truth, what was there left to protest about? The war had been and gone. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it had triggered the largest protests in human history before it had even officially started: ‘well over seven hundred and fifty thousand’ in London alone according to the police, which the BBC reported as ‘around a million’ (in Rome it was three times that). None of them made any difference. As the war unfolded the dissent actually diminished, even as it progressed into administrative chaos and bloody counter-insurgency and countless accusations of war crimes and prisoner abuse. Even as the polls showed a growing majority were opposed to the war Blair still cruised to another election victory, and now the troops were home. The remaining protestors outside the Chilcot Inquiry on Blair day looked like part of some sort of thermal core of disaffection that would never go away: retirees, students, exhibitionists, eccentrics, victims. Brian Eno, of all people, felt compelled to turn up and give a little speech. But there had always been zealots and dilettantes on both sides of the argument, and often they were the loudest voices; what else but the Iraq War could have secured such voluminous airtime for men like Christopher Hitchens or George Galloway? By 2010 just about everyone else with a voice was either too tired to use it, or lying. However it might conclude, the jaded spectacle occurring inside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre would be the last we would hear of the war before it commenced its numbing transition into history.

II.


I had been trying for admittance into the press room, but without a national newspaper behind me my NUJ card only got me into the enclosure. Probably I wasn’t even supposed to be there either – later I watched the security men remove other journalists whose only offense was, I think, to come less smartly dressed. Anything other than broadcast-standard presentation and you were the low-level kind of exposure the Inquiry didn’t want.

I waited by the building’s entrance with the other hopefuls and tentatives, BBC and ITN staffers amongst them, while the photographers with their footstools and step ladders built up an impressive phalanx of lenses. ‘It’s the best show in town,’ committee member Sir Roderick Lyne said to me, as he passed. Perhaps. For those who still cared, it was the only show in town, and it would be a
one-off performance.

Nobody had paid much attention at the start, back in November, when it was no more than generals and air marshalls talking about military planning. Blair was different. The public gallery could only fit
eighty people, so the Inquiry ran a ballot for admittance (and received over three thousand entries). Half the seats were reserved for the families of Britain’s Iraq War dead, and they lined up opposite us,
red-eyed and mourning, for their chance to see the conflict’s deputy architect being questioned for six hours.

Everyone from the media, from the BBC down to the Western Mail (assuming they had passes), got to sit in an auditorium in the same building and watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television. There didn’t seem much point. I stayed outside with the paparazzi and theprotestors, and people like Gerald Cartwright, who was standing around on Broad Sanctuary wearing his son’s dogtags. ‘I don’t need to go in,’ he said. ‘I know exactly what’s going to be said in there. I don’t need to hear it all again.’

Yet still he had come, and so had I, perhaps just so we could see the man in person, however briefly. Oddly, he didn’t turn up. Or rather he had found some way of getting in the building without being seen. Reluctantly, we decamped; the photographers because they hadn’t got their shot, the rest of us perhaps because we just hadn’t got to look him in the eye, so he might feel our silent judgeful stare on him as he went in, or take some personal measure of the man from a glimpse, how tall he was, how we walked. It was, of course, pathetic. But it was all we could do.

Around eleven I found myself in a little pub on a narrow side street just opposite the conference building, a real Westminster boozer, so used to hacks and lobbyists and politicians that if you ordered a half of bitter the barman would give you a receipt without prompting. Except none of them were there that day. No working politico with any sense wanted to get caught up in all this mess.

There was a widescreen television up above the bar tuned into BBC Parliament, and I took a stool and settled in. The Inquiry was already under way, somewere deep in the bowels of the glass bunker over the road. Sir John Chilcot, presumably for the benefit of Blair alone, had explained to us that this was an inquiry, not a trial, but everyone who felt there was a case to answer knew this was the closest we would come to one.

In time others began to filter in to the Westminster Arms and quietly fill the stools under the screen. Periodically we would offer sullen heckles to soft questions and disingenuous answers, like sports fans
stuck ticketless outside some grim match appealing to a referee that didn’t exist.

It was an interesting crowd. Perhaps a third of it was ex-military, including the Special Forces. They too had come to see Blair’s show trial, each of them individually drawn here by some emotional need to at least be geographically near the man as he lectured and lied. The youngest was a former SAS trooper whose selection by the regiment had been the highlight of his career, only for him to quit shortly after arriving in Baghdad. He had already served with distinction in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan. ‘In Baghdad we were just snatching guys off the street, any guys we could find, nobodies, and handing them over to the Americans,’ he told me. ‘We knew they were going to be tortured.’

He was expecting a custodial sentence, as had been handed down to Medical Officer Malcolm Kendall-Smith (eight months plus £20,000 costs). Instead, his commanding officer discharged him with a testimonial describing him as ‘a balanced, honest, loyal and determined individual who possesses the strength of character to have the courage of his convictions’. Back in Britain, others were less understanding. The high court gagged him from talking about his time in Iraq; his flat was periodically raided by the police. ‘The last time they said they were worried I might be able to make an explosive device. I said I should fucking hope so.’

It was a stark reminder that not only were we lied to about why Britain had to go to war, we were lied to about the nature of the war itself. As General Shirreff had already explained to the Committee earlier that month, in May 2006 the British commander responsible for Basra (our sole area of responsibility) could put fewer than two hundred soliders on the ground in a city of 1.3 million. Or put another way: ‘We couldn’t do fuck all,’ as a Scottish ex-infantryman remarked to me. ‘They were a lot more of them than there were of us.’

Eager to meet government targets for recruitment to the all-new, all-democratic, post-Saddam police force, the British Army had given weapons, uniforms and legal powers to whatever militias signed up for the job. Britain’s outnumbered troops then remained on their base at their airport while Iraq’s second city collapsed into sectarian mob rule. They only left camp for special occasions, like when Defence Secretary Des Browne wanted to fly over for a cup of tea, so the world could see how safe we had made Iraq’s main port. The Army evacuated every street within a half mile of the café. ‘Life was getting worse for the Shia under us, not better,’ as another General had already testified.

The soldiers in the Westminster Arms knew this perfectly well. The eldest amongst them was George Kay, also ex-SAS, and one of the legendary NCOs of the British Army. At ninety years of age he had recently discharged himself from hospital after ‘a small heart attack’ to stand here in a regimental blazer with a chest full of medals, to clutch a tumbler of whisky underneath the television, and grimace.

III.


As the day drew on I was reminded of what Peter Mandelson had said back in Bonn in 1998, at the dawn of the New Labour project, when he announced that the era of purely representative democracy was ending, and would be replaced with a more involved, participatory system. This was it. A man whom less than a quarter of the country had voted for had waged an unwanted war, and seven years later we got to jeer while five of his own political appointees encouraged him to talk about it all day long on live television.

That was, of course, assuming you had the stomach to watch the whole thing. Some didn’t; one or two of the bereaved got up and walked out of the hearing not long after it started. The ones who stayed took succour from the hope that underneath his toothy smiles and laughter and rhetoric, despite the cosyness of the committee, Blair knew he was being shamed, and that their presence was some small part of it.

‘He always had that wee smirk on his face, but his hands were shaking,’ said Rose Gentle, whose son had died in Basra in 2004. ‘I’d have preferred if he hadn’t been sitting with his back to me, then I
could have seen it even better, but I’m glad he was actually in the same room with me.’

Sarah Chapman’s brother died when his Hercules was shot down in 2005, and like Gentle she stayed right until the end, when Chilcot asked Blair if he had any regrets and he said no, whereupon she broke
down (she was not alone). ‘I hope the sound of my tears will ring in his ears,’ said Chapman later. Others in the room, who had restrained themselves throughout six hours of testimony, found them-
selves compelled to say something as the proceedings drew to a close. Theresa Evans, whose son was onboard a Chinook that crashed in northern Kuwait in 2003, called him a liar. So did one or two others;
apparently someone even called him a murderer. Chilcot told them all to be quiet. ‘I may have been out of line,’ Evans said to a reporter from the Metro that evening, ‘but I don’t care. I should have called him a murderer too. I just wanted him to look me in the eye and apologise.’

This was what it all meant, Blair Day at the Chilcot Inquiry. To travel all the way down from Inverness so you could see Tony Blair’s hand shake as he spoke. To make the trip from Cambridge so he might hear you weep. To drive from Llandudno and sit quietly in a conference centre in central London for a whole day so that at the end you could call him a liar from ten feet away. To take the day off work so you could catch the tube into town and spend your morning in the cold air wearing your son’s dog tags, and hope it made a difference.

Night had fallen by the time it was over. Blair was out of the room within seconds. To my surprise, on leaving the pub I found that the pavements surrounding the conference centre were now crowded
with people: protestors, veterans, local schoolchildren, nearby office workers. We all wanted it now: to stand there silently and see him go, to acknowledge his erring with our presence. George Kay came out and unfolded a handwritten sheet of A4 on which he accused Blair of murder, and I think possibly even genocide. He wanted Blair to see it as he was driven past. Blair never did.

He was spirited away somehow, once the hearings ended. There exists not a single photograph of him leaving the building (or arriving). No one knows how he did it. The conference centre adjoined the old
cabinet war rooms so perhaps there were tunnels, but Blair wasn’t going to give us the satisfaction of an appearance. After all, this wasn’t his script any more, this was real life. Why give in to it?

Ultimately, whatever the Inquiry might find (assuming it gets around to reporting back at all) Blair knew his much-touted conviction politics was trumped by the conviction of actual people. And he is trapped now, in the lonely but thrilling fantasy world of his own pathological PR.

Very shortly after his appearance at the Iraq Inquiry Blair flew to Israel, and a few days later in Jerusalem he was given a fawning interview by Fox News where he was praised for his steadfast support for the Iraq War despite being given ‘a hard time by the press’ (far from the truth). He may have had to endure Chilcot, the interviewer said, but ‘over the pond you are America’s favourite foreigner’. ‘One of the reasons I like being in America and around Americans is that optimism and exuberance of the human spirit,’ replied Blair. ‘It’s not about the risks and the dangers and the setbacks and the grievances of life but the possibilities, and that’s the thing that actually distinguishes a nation or people that’s on its way up from one that’s on their way down.’

The tears of Sarah Chapman were, plainly, still ringing in his ears, and it was obvious what he thought about it too: our weakness of national character had failed him. It was darker than any noir I’d ever written.






       


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