Out-of-control freaks

What the Hutton Inquiry does and doesn't tell us about New Labour.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

According to Nick Jones, former BBC correspondent and author of The Control Freaks: How New Labour Gets Its Own Way, the government/BBC spat over Dr David Kelly has exposed ‘the hitherto shadowy remit’ of Downing Street’s unelected coterie (1). Jones believes that the evidence submitted to Hutton – cabinet minutes, memos, spindoctors’ emails – reveals a ‘command and control culture’, where a select group of Blairite officials is effectively imposing its will on the nation (2).

Perhaps Jones is watching a different inquiry. For all the claims of ‘control freakery’, the evidence seems to reveal a government machine influenced by a powerful sense of things being out of control. The evidence given at Hutton, including the 950 internal documents published over the weekend, may not provide the ‘unique insight into the workings of government’ claimed by many – but it does shed some light on the arbitrary way in which New Labour works.

The Hutton Inquiry is itself a symptom of New Labour’s defensiveness. Sensing that the post-Iraq controversies over Saddam’s elusive weapons of mass destruction and Dr Kelly’s suicide were spinning out of control, New Labour appointed a law lord to take control. The government hopes that Lord Hutton can put the brakes on a spiralling crisis. The willingness of government officials and ministers to turn over emails, phone logs, minutes, memos and the rest to Hutton suggests that New Labour wants to push the controversy away and let someone else resolve it, rather than command and control it.

If the Hutton evidence shows anything, it is that New Labour is an individuated and confused elite for our post-political times. With no political coherence or common loyalties to tie it together, New Labour appears as a collection of individuals, bound together by uneasy alliances that are easily broken or undermined. In the absence of shared aims or goals, the Hutton evidence points to an elite beset by an ethos of every-man-for-himself – by petty, personal squabbles that are being made more public still by the current inquiry.

Some of the evidence suggests an incoherent style of government, where officials desperately seek sources of authority rather than following The Plan. When asked for the minutes of the meetings in which Tony Blair’s ‘inner circle’ debated the September dossier on Iraq, Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell said there were none. ‘[I]t may seem odd to people from outside’, said Powell, describing the discussions as a ‘sort of running meeting’. Or as one journalist characterised it: ‘Tony Blair would stick his head round the door, Jack Straw would pop in for a chat and a ginger nut…minute-taking would have spoiled the free-wheeling atmosphere.’ (3)

Yet even this free-wheelin’ absence of minutes is taken by some to be a sign of something more sinister. One journalist notes that ‘the higher you go up what [Alastair] Campbell calls the Downing Street “pay grade”, the more cautious the written record becomes’ (4). Some commentators project their concerns about the missing minutes on to their readers: ‘To a cynical public which is so ready to believe in conspiracies it can entertain the possibility that Dr Kelly was murdered, the absence of evidence suggests a cover-up at the highest levels of the British state.’ (5)

The government has only itself to blame for this conspiracy-mongering over what was written down and what wasn’t. The evidence frenzy generated by Hutton confirms that ‘transparency’ begets scandal; that New Labour’s obsessive focus on openness, itself a defensive posture, heightens suspicion of the political process rather than allaying it. This is not simply because previously private matters are now made public; indeed, New Labour remains committed to keeping ‘official secrets’ secret. Rather, notions of transparency feed into the idea that politics and politicians are inherently dodgy.

The Hutton Inquiry cites the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information as its authority for publishing the government documents. This Code was brought in by New Labour in 1997, with the aim of making ‘central government departments’ more open, by imploring them to ‘supply facts and analysis with major policy decisions’ and to ‘open up internal guidelines’ (6). Welcoming this openness, one commentator wrote at the time: ‘rulers with nothing to hide [will] surely welcome transparency.’ When New Labour has done so much to suggest that politics needs to be made more see-through, it isn’t surprising that missing minutes can generate accusations of a closed-door cover-up.

Similarly, while claims of control freakery might not ring true in the face of the evidence, such accusations have some purchase in today’s degraded political climate. Reading some of New Labour’s critics, it seems that by ‘control freak’ they mean politician, and by ‘control freakery’ they mean the kind of things that politicians have always done.

So many have latched on to the spat between Alastair Campbell and defence secretary Geoff Hoon over the naming of David Kelly as evidence of the Blairites’ control freakery. According to Hutton’s evidence, Hoon allegedly argued for a ‘two-stage’ naming strategy, where Kelly’s name would be confirmed to journalists who guessed it, while Campbell apparently wanted to leak Kelly’s name to a friendly paper. For one sceptical commentator, this evidence shows that the government did not want to lose ‘control of the agenda and issue’ in relation to Kelly’s naming (7).

This is reported as something sinister – as yet more evidence that, according to one left-wing writer, ‘state policy is decided in a manner more akin to a conspiracy’ (8). Yet however distasteful we might find it, there is nothing surprising about a government wanting to control an agenda, or even the media. Politicians have always done what they feel is necessary for effective government, even if that has meant using underhand tactics.

The reason that such actions can today be denounced as control freakery is because of our changed political climate – and again, New Labour shoulders some responsibility for this. At a time when style is elevated over substance, when sleaze has been made a central preoccupation of government, a politician’s personality often counts for more than his policies. Increasingly, we are expected to judge political types by their characters and behaviour, rather than by their convictions and beliefs. And when the personal overrides the political, anybody with a political agenda, who acts out of self- or party interest – in other words, anyone who is a politician – risks being branded a ‘control freak’.

Behind the claims about closed-door conspiracies and control freakery, some of Hutton’s evidence reveals an increasingly individuated elite. The Blair regime appears to consist, not so much of a conspiratorial cabal that rules the nation, but of opportunistic and fleeting alliances between individuals and departments.

According to the Independent, one thing that has emerged from Hutton is that the September dossier on Iraq was ‘done by a crowd’ – though it remains unclear who was in and who was out of that crowd (9). One person who seems to have been ‘in’ is Daniel Pruce, a member of the Downing Street communications team. Yet when his email from 11 September 2002 – which claimed that the dossier was ‘getting there, but it needs more work’ – was shown to Alastair Campbell at Hutton, Campbell claimed that ‘Pruce is a very good press officer, but this is him making contributions effectively above his pay grade’ (10). Commentators were perplexed by Campbell’s words, as Pruce was clearly part of the team charged with ‘commenting on it’ (11). It would appear that in the New Labour ‘crowd’, individuals can come and go.

There also appears to be a high level of suspicion between departments. In an email to John Scarlett of the Joint Intelligence Committee on 9 July 2003, Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell raises the rumour that Andrew Gilligan’s source was not David Kelly, but possibly someone closer to home. ‘A source in the BBC has told us that Gilligan’s source is in fact in the Cabinet Office’, wrote Powell. ‘This might well be blind. But is there any reason to think there could be any truth in that? Have phone logs been looked at, etc?’ (12) The fact that Powell would believe, and be ready to investigate, claims that Gilligan’s source came from inside the heart of government suggests an internal climate of mistrust.

Relations between government bodies would seem to be based more on opportunism than on the pooling of resources in the name of any common interest. An email from one Downing Street official to another on 11 September 2002 asked: ‘Who will issue the [dossier]….? Why don’t we issue it in the name of the Joint Intelligence Committee? The more we advertise that unsupported assertions come from intelligence, the better.’ (13)

As many have pointed out, this email suggests an attempt by government officials to wash their hands of responsibility, by issuing the dossier in the name of the intelligence committee – but it also points to fragile links between departments, with little sense that the dossier represents a coherent government view. Instead, departments are called upon to provide surface authority rather than internal solidarity.

Today’s peculiarly individuated elite is a product of a climate in which politics has been reduced to management, and politicians to managers. Ours is an apparently post-ideological age, where clashes over how society should be organised have been replaced by the Third Way, and competing ideologies by technical and managerial ‘realism’. Political parties are no longer the embodiment of a collective worldview, but collections of individuals. Politics separated from a political agenda and from mass accountability allows individuals to pursue their own agendas, free from traditional party or political considerations.

That is why New Labour’s one-and-a-half terms in office have been notable for their personal clashes and infighting. Governments are often beset by internal divisions and dispute, but such differences have traditionally been over politics or policy. Thatcher, for example, continually had to face down the ‘Tory wets’ in her 1980s Cabinet, who were keen to promote traditional ‘one-nation Conservatism’ over her confrontational agenda. In New Labour, it is the petty, non-political nature of the infighting that stands out; Blair has no version of the ‘Tory wets’ biting at his heels, but rather a Cabinet and party where personal backbiting and bickering are rife.

The public clashes at the Hutton Inquiry, in both the evidence and the proceedings, are like a bunch of individuals fighting it out to remain a part of the in-crowd for as long as they can. And if that means sacrificing defence secretary Geoff Hoon as the ‘individual’ who kickstarted the process that exposed David Kelly’s name to the public, so be it.

Amid the boring evidence and dozy documents coming out of the Royal Courts of Justice, one thing seems certain: far from putting a stop to a spiralling crisis, the Hutton Inquiry is merely playing out in public the petty and bitter divisions within the elite. How that is supposed to rejuvenate people’s trust in politicians is anybody’s guess.

Read on:

Hutton’s ‘transparency’ is a threat to democracy, by Mick Hume

spiked issue: The Hutton Inquiry

(1) Do shoot the messenger, Nick Jones, Red Pepper, August 2003

(2) All the thrills, and the chills, of the Whitehall paper chase, Nick Jones, Guardian, 25 August 2003

(3) Etiquette of email, Nick Cohen, Observer, 24 August 2003

(4) Etiquette of email, Nick Cohen, Observer, 24 August 2003

(5) Etiquette of email, Nick Cohen, Observer, 24 August 2003

(6) Explanatory notes, Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, Second Edition, 1997

(7) A man is dead, but who will pay the price?, Peter Fray, Australian Age, 23 August 2003

(8) Britain: Inquiry exposes lies on Iraq war, World Socialist Website, 23 August 2003

(9) ‘How weak “45 minutes” claim became rock-solid case for war’, Raymond Whitaker, Jo Dillon and Glen Rangwala, Independent, 24 August 2003

(10) ‘Trail that leads to the very top’, Bryan Appleyard, The Times (London), 24 August 2003

(11) ‘Trail that leads to the very top’, Bryan Appleyard, The Times (London), 24 August 2003

(12) Blair prepares for Kelly grilling, Craig Hoy, ePolitix, 24 August 2003

(13) ‘Trail that leads to the very top’, Bryan Appleyard, The Times (London), 24 August 2003

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Topics Politics


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