The Chilcott Inquiry, having been charged with the task of inquiring into the circumstances leading up to the Iraq war, has announced that Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, has refused to allow Tony Blair's letters to George Bush to be published. This is a crucial moment for Chilcott: Inquiries into national events of this kind have a reputation for obfuscating matters and more or less exonerating deeply culpable people. There are good reasons for this: such Inquiries are manned by retired civil servants and politicians who have been schooled in obedience and marked by institutional imprinting. The Iraq Inquiry is too important to be consigned to the UK's long history of ineffectual inquiries into matters of grave public concern and for this reason Chilcott must insist on the publication of these papers. He cannot, for his own sake and for that of the Inquiry, allow his committee to be suborned by an un-elected bureaucrat - even when that bureaucrat is the Cabinet Secretary.
O'Donnell is no democrat; although instinctively liberal in most matters, in common with most senior civil servants he regards it as an inconvenience and pays lip service to its institutional requirements. Already in his brief tenure he has presided over some serious breaches of democratic principle and been seen to have acted on political principle - most notably in the Green affair where the police were called in to examine routine leaking of papers to the opposition MP Damian Green resulting in Green himself, then an opposition MP, being arrested for carrying out the duties of opposition! It is vital that at this pivotal moment O'Donnell is not permitted to protect the vested interests of the Whitehall world; nor should the Government, in spite of the existence of the principle that Governments should not see the papers of previous governments, be prepared to stand by and see this happen. O'Donnell is a servant, appointed by the Prime Minister to serve the elected Government; the principle at stake here is no mere matter of procedure or of the confidential relationship between the US and UK: it is a matter of the UK's reputation in the world, of the governance of the UK and of the right of the people of the UK to see the kind of commitments that Tony Blair was making on their behalf.
Former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has confessed that some of the statements being made by Blair in the run-up to the war ran counter to his legal advice and it is entirely possible, therefore, that these could form the basis of possible war crimes charges. It is absolutely crucial that these matters be nailed down as closely as possible by Chilcott: for those wanting to see Blair charged with genocide and tried at the Hague it is an uphill struggle: the committee will not want to point the finger: these are tame figures used to working within the institutions of the UK, not exposing them; the real evidence is unlikely to have been committed to paper in any case: the papers will have only inferential value. But they go to the heart of the matter concerning the purpose of the Chilcott Inquiry and this is their true value: they will shed light on the widely held view that war was inevitable because Tony Blair had given assurances to George Bush that he would take part in it if the US did so. Of almost equal value to what those letters say, is their tone and the subtext they reveal in terms of the nature of the relationship between Bush and Blair and whether or not that was likely to indicate an inextricable determination to invade Iraq. All the evidence so far points to this conclusion: the subversion of evidence and its careful manipulation in the run-up to war, the red herring of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the ludicrous "45 minutes" claim: all point to Blair's utter complicity in this matter. The craven mutterings of then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at last year's sessions of the Inquiry, the pressure we now know UK diplomats to have been under at, inter alia, the United Nations and - to his lasting professional shame (admittedly considerable pressure) - Goldsmith's decision to alter his legal advice, brings us squarely to the conclusion that Blair's commitment to Bush was absolute and unequivocal, and that this subservience without moral or judicial authority made the war inevitable since it was being driven by hawks in the US for geo-political motives. Thus matters of its legality, the assent of Cabinet or Parliament - or indeed the will of the people of the UK - did not play a material part in the formulation of the decision. It is a matter of resounding infamy that Scarlett, Straw, Goldsmith et al allowed the shreds of integrity they possessed to be given so freely under pressure, but the central issue remains that of Blair's culpability.
The Chilcott Inquiry needs these documents to be a part of the public record, to inform and harden its findings if they are to have credibility beyond a mere institutional exercise. It is, moreover, the public's right to know. The very fact of O'Donnell's refusal is partly indicative of the problem which permitted Blair to commit the UK to a course of action which had little - if any - legal basis, little support and which may have resulted, directly and indirectly, in the deaths of some three-quarters of a million people. It is essential not only that this truth be exposed as nearly as it can be by Chilcott, but that the principle that one man - in this case Gus O'Donnell - should be permitted to withhold this crucial evidence from the people of this country, should be challenged. The UK went to war because of this self-same principle: one man - in that case Tony Blair - gave commitments which very few people in the military, in Whitehall, in Parliament and - most importantly of all - amongst the people of the UK itself, actually agreed with. It is owed to those who died and as future insurance against such immoral and illegal activities ever being perpetrated against others in the name of UK citizens again. It is important to remember that in withholding the crucial documents, the Chilcott inquiry cannot quote or directly refer to their gist - in other words, to a very large extent, they cannot inform the decision of the Inquiry. That is why it is so important for Chilcott to show his mettle. If need be he should offer to resign - it will not be required: the UK Government cannot afford the inquiry to collapse and O'Donnell will be brought to heel quickly enough. It is also appropriate, given the gravity of this matter, that David Cameron and Nick Clegg should set aside the tradition of standing apart from the decisions of previous governments and show the measure of their own integrity by instructing O'Donnell, an un-elected official, to release the papers forthwith.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Iraq, it is surely that one man should never again be able to determine matters of such magnitude on behalf of so many. It is quite improper for the Cabinet Secretary to withhold these papers in the face of overwhelming national interest - and extremely important that he should not be permitted to do so.
Author The Night Traveller