As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world.
But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough.
This blog is about the new ideas that can change our world and how a 'new multilateralism' can tackle the global challenges of our age.
Change the World, Reports from the Fabian new year conference

Monday, March 17, 2008

Why Brown's Iraq inquiry pledge - to me! - matters

I very much welcome Gordon Brown's commitment to an inquiry " to learn all possible lessons from the military action in Iraq and its aftermath" - even aside from the unusual experience of this very welcome political development coming in correspondence between myself and the Prime Minister. (Naturally, one also expects that other Cabinet ministers will take note. We were very pleased with last week's budget commitments on child poverty and will be thinking about where else we should now be pressing for progress).

On Iraq, the Prime Minister's spokesman says "that there is nothing new in the letter to the Fabian Society". I am not particularly concerned about a Westminster village debate about how much we have learnt from the letter. If an inquiry has been the government's intention all along, then I very much welcome the fact that this is now clearly on the public record and in the Prime Minister's own words too.

For me, the most positive aspect of Brown's letter are that it adds to the sense that he is planning and ambitious and rather different foreign policy for the 'World after Bush' - a pursuit to which this blog is dedicated.

But the letter has also naturally been the subject of considerable political and media interest today because of that clear, personal commitment by the Prime Minister on behalf of his government. The Independent's powerful front-page coverage of the Brown letter helps to take forward the newspaper's own sustained campaign for an inquiry. It is striking too that The Times and the Evening Standard, two papers which were editorially supportive of the government's decision to go to war, also report that Brown's letter marks a significant development of policy. That is also reflected in reaction from Labour backbenchers and the opposition parties, with Nick Clegg and William Hague stepping up pressure on the issue.

The Times reports that:

Since succeeding Mr Blair last summer Mr Brown has stopped short of calling outright for an inquiry. Last September he said the time would come to discuss whether one should be held. His letter to Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society’s general secretary, suggests he has accepted that one should be conducted.

The Evening Standard says that

There have been hints before of an inquiry but this was the first confirmation from No 10.

I wrote my letter to the Prime Minister mainly to make the case as to why an inquiry is important, and why the fifth anniversary offered the government the right context to announce this. But, as I told The Independent, the letter was also motivated by the fact that I wasn't clear what the government's policy on an inquiry was, despite trying to follow these issues clearly. I am not omniscient about these issues, but I was not aware of any public statement from the current Prime Minister or current Foreign Secretary setting that out since the Brown administration took office in June.

Those of us trying to read between the lines of various statements as to what the final decision would be were coming to different conclusions. For example, David Miliband's comments rejecting an inquiry when interviewed by Fabian Review in December were reported as marking a significant cooling of the government's attitude towards an inquiry.

"I am obsessed with the next five years in Iraq, not the last five years in Iraq. And I think that the best 'inquiry' is putting the best brains to think about how to make sure the next five years in Iraq get that combination of political reconstruction, economic reconstruction and security improvement that are so essential."

Certainly, his words then were much more sceptical than both Margaret Beckett and Des Browne had been before the transition, in seeming to accept that an inquiry in due course would make sense. But as I - blogged at the time -

I think is too early to say "Government rules out inquiry into Iraq conflict". I don't see that Miliband has given a definite indication of future government policy ... The case for an inquiry will continue, within and outside government.

And, despite that scepticism. Miliband did, in his keynote speech to the Fabian Change the World conference, make a significant argument about the need to 'learn the lessons' from Iraq and Afghanistan.

'democratic institutions need to be built from the bottom up not just the top down; and military victories are never a solution in themselves; they need the backing of economic and social reconstruction'

By contrast, Tony Blair was, for the most part, strongly opposed to an inquiry. Competing quotes can be found on both sides. The authentic Blair view is, I would suggest, is the claim that "We have had inquiry after inquiry we do not need to go back over this again and again." It was only well into injury time towards the end of Blair's Premiership that Ministers began to suggest they were open to an inquiry - and again there was something of a guessing game as to whether this had been inspired by the Prime Minister in waiting, or might rather have been a case of other Ministers seeking to anticipate

It is certainly true that the Brown letter does not go into any detail as to the nature of an inquiry or its timing. However, it would be more than pushing my luck to complain about that, and I hope that the government will set out more details of its plans as soon as possible. (More formally, I expect, but I would like to place on record that the Fabian letterbox remains very much open).

Now, I hope somebody at Number 10 is also paying attention to the very cogent case made in Saturday's Guardian against the extension of detention without trial.

UPDATE: Andy Grice of the Independent also blogs about the Brown letter, pointing out that Brown had not previously said any more than that "there will be a time to discuss the question" of an inquiry. So the Prime Minister's support for an inquiry is new.

No comments:

As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.