The victim and the judge
The two heroic characters to emerge from Hutton's morality play deserve no applause.
Like some Medieval morality play, the Hutton Inquiry has been billed as defining standards for political life. By deciding who behaved well and who behaved badly in the Kelly affair, it is laying down benchmarks for future conduct. The idea is that following these rules will help those in public life to regain ‘credibility’ and voters’ trust.
As we approach the end of scene three of the morality play, two heroic character types have emerged: the victim and the judge. But how heroic are they?
The whole event revolves around Dr David Kelly, the weapons expert who took his own life in Oxfordshire woods. As Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked, Kelly has been ‘all but canonised’ by sections of the media and politicians (see David Kelly – what can you say?). In death, Kelly exerted an incredible influence over the living – bringing about an uncomfortable scrutiny of the government’s war on Iraq.
Criticisms of Kelly’s actions before his death are frowned upon. When the prime minister’s spokesman Tom Kelly suggested that Dr Kelly was a ‘Walter Mitty’-style fantasist, he was booed from all sides – what seemed to grate was not just the crass expression, but the fact that someone had dared to criticise Dr Kelly.
Kelly is not seen as a man who determined his own fate, who got himself into a bit of a mess, then took his life by his own hands. Instead, everybody else has to account for his death. Officials’ actions are probed to see if they had any role in pushing the lamb closer to the cliff, however unwittingly. Did Downing Street help his name to become public? Did the Ministry of Defence give him a grilling? Did officials want him to be interrogated by the select committee?
Participants in the inquiry tend to express their sorrow and regret at David Kelly’s death. Alastair Campbell said that ‘I would say is that I just find it very, very sad’, and that he had ‘thought very, very deeply about the background to all this’ (1).
Some characters in the inquiry approach Kelly’s authority, by being seen as something of a victim too. When Newsnight science editor Susan Watts complained that she had been victimised by BBC managers – who, she said, put pressure on her to present her story as complying with that of Today programme reporter Andrew Gilligan – this won her some acclaim. Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour MP who was criticised for the grilling he gave Kelly in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Lord Hutton that he himself had been victimised by hate mail.
This elevation of the victim has dangerous implications for public life. The idea that you become admired by throwing in the towel is a recipe for paralysis. Public life requires responsible and robust individuals, who are prepared to fight for what they believe in – indeed, it was these kinds of people that have traditionally been elevated by all sides in politics. By contrast, the inquiry encourages individuals to see things as beyond their control, or to see other people as bullying them. Rather than fortitude, courage or conviction, Hutton’s morality play teaches resignation, passivity and submission. These are unhealthy principles by which to live our lives.
The other figure who appears beyond reproach is Lord Hutton himself. On the Hutton Inquiry website, he is shown peering sternly over his glasses, an open book in his hands. Hutton is represented as dignified and fair – a disinterested figure, who stands above the grubby world of politics. He is saintly because he doesn’t actually do anything: he is a non-actor, who is presumed to be pure and incorruptible.
Witnesses to the inquiry are deferent toward Hutton, seemingly confirming his authority and wisdom. Even the irreverent Campbell was praised for the respectful tone with which he responded to Hutton’s questions. Andrew MacKinlay practically licked Hutton’s shoes – praising him as a ‘disciplined man’, and at the end thanking him and saying how ‘grateful’ he was (2). MacKinlay also told Hutton that he hadn’t defended himself in the media because he was saving himself for the inquiry – avoiding the brawl of public life for Hutton’s hallowed room.
Witnesses gain moral authority by trying to approach Hutton’s state of disinterested inaction. Campbell said that he had ‘no input’ into the 45-minute claim in the government’s September 2002 Iraq dossier, and that he hadn’t tried to bring Kelly’s name out. On the question of why he had wanted Kelly’s name to come out, Campbell invoked fate, saying that these things generally come out in the end. Andrew MacKinlay distanced himself from the row between the BBC and the government, saying that it is ‘not my business’.
By contrast, those who did try to influence the course of events are viewed suspiciously. We are told about prime minister Tony Blair and BBC director general Greg Dyke’s personal interventions as if they were something sinister. It would have been better had the prime minister left matters to take their own course, is the implication. And any signs of aggression or passion (Tom Kelly’s email to colleagues saying that ‘This is now a game of chicken with the Beeb’, for example) are seen as beyond the pale.
The judge character type also provides a poor guide for political conduct. Imagine a public life where people tried to emulate Hutton’s disinterested role. Few people would do anything, or profess interests or passions. We would all sit back peering over our glasses, examining the books to decide what other people had done well or badly. Politics lives by the clash of interests, of people deciding on the best course of action then struggling to achieve it – it is not something that people sit aloof from.
The elevation of the judge also takes decisions out of the democratic sphere, that is, away from you and me. The people we elect are seen as tainted, as requiring dispassionate figures to sit in judgement over them. By saving himself for Hutton, Andrew MacKinlay avoided defending himself in front of the electorate. ‘I do not have tenure. My whole basis as an MP is based upon reputation and I have not been able to hit back or to respond. But you see I am like a sprung coil this morning, my Lord’, he told Hutton.
So the main result of the inquiry will be to promote non-actors above people who make things happen, which is likely to have a crippling effect on public life. Political (and indeed, personal) interests – the lifeblood of politics – are seen as dubious.
Is this what we want – a political world full of figures conducting themselves as if they were preparing their case for the next inquiry? Filing their notes, watching their actions, being careful with their words…. If they don’t fall asleep themselves, then those observing them certainly would.
spiked-issue: The Hutton Inquiry
(1) Quote from the Hutton Inquiry website
(2) Quote from the Hutton Inquiry website
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