Those who pinned their hopes on the Hutton Inquiry have pulled off the remarkable achievement of making the Blair government look good.
So what was all the fuss about? For months, we have been told that the publication of the Hutton Report would be the decisive event of a political era, the day of judgement for Tony Blair. Now that it has finally been published, many are complaining that Lord Hutton has not overthrown the government or changed the world after all. Cries of ‘whitewash’ and ‘betrayal’ echo around the UK media. But many critics who pinned their hopes on Hutton only have themselves to blame.
The idea of holding an ‘urgent’ national inquiry into the suicide of a middle-ranking civil servant was always pretty bizarre. The notion that such an inquiry could put the government on trial and effectively find it guilty of murder was even more far-fetched. Those critics of Blair who looked to Hutton to do their job for them have achieved the opposite effect. By building the inquiry up and overreaching themselves, they have pulled off the remarkable achievement of making the New Labour government look good.
Some of those now crying ‘whitewash’ appear suddenly to have discovered that Lord Hutton is a member of the British establishment (you might have thought that the ‘lord’ bit would have given them a clue somewhat earlier). His ruthless record of jailing the British state’s enemies, while sitting alone as both judge and jury in the Diplock courts of Northern Ireland, might also have suggested that Hutton was unlikely to be keen to bring down the system of government at their behest. It is the height of naivety to look to such a pillar of the state for support, and then be shocked when it falls on you.
But there is a far bigger problem to confront here than a judge’s personal politics. The Hutton debacle is the consequence of reducing political debate to the narrow question of government sleaze. Since the exhaustion of the old programmes of both Left and Right, politics is no longer centred on a debate between alternative principles, or a clash of competing visions for the future of society. Instead the contest between politicians has been whittled down to more petty questions of ‘personality’, character and their (dis)honest intentions.
That obsession with sleaze was the framework within which the inquiry was set up by the government and run by Lord Hutton. The central question to which all sides demanded the answer was not ‘Was the Iraq war right?’, but ‘Are Blair, Alastair Campbell and Geoff Hoon liars who deliberately misled the nation about the infamous 45 minute claim?’, as suggested by Andrew Gilligan’s BBC report. Unless he had been handed signed confessions by the accused, it is hard to see how the law lord could have been expected to find the prime minister guilty of such a serious charge of dishonesty.
Hutton’s one-sided presentation of his findings was certainly surprisingly unsubtle (perhaps a little too unsubtle even for some in the government). But that does not alter the fact that, however even-handedly one might dress it up, this sort of empty charade is what you should expect when you shrink politics to the question of sleaze. The Hutton Inquiry often looked like the political equivalent of those celebrity gossip magazines, endlessly dissecting the details of who said what to whom in private messages. It would be ridiculous to expect such a circus to settle major public issues.
Now many who hoped that Hutton would harm Blair are protesting that there are ‘wider issues’ to do with the war that he did not address. Indeed there are. But that complaint is a bit rich coming from those who have spent the past 10 years paving the way for Hutton, by helping to turn allegations of sleaze, lies and dishonesty into the dominant issue of British politics.
Debate has become increasingly focused, not on what people do but on their alleged motives for doing so. The last Tory government was brought down in a hailstorm of corruption allegations. The New Labour government has repeatedly been accused of failing to keep Blair’s promise to be ‘whiter than white’. The sleaze standard has become the kitemark against which all politicians and political issues are judged. That goes for those ‘wider issues’ about the Iraq war, too. So the central allegation raised by the anti-war movement has been that ‘Tony Bliar!’ cheated with the evidence – thus turning the war into another question of his personal integrity, and ignoring the bigger debate about the rights and wrongs of a political-military occupation of a sovereign nation.
By overreaching themselves over Hutton and sleaze, Blair’s critics have allowed him to walk away claiming to have been fully vindicated. So what do they want now to put right their mistake? Yet another inquiry, this time into the story behind the war. Even if their wish were granted, such an inquiry would be little more than another grand judicial soap opera, complete with more emotional testimonies, private revelations and backstabbing, while we the audience sat quietly in our armchairs waiting for another judge to pronounce on ‘the truth’. We could do with fewer circular inquiries into whether the government lied about some details to do with a war, and more open debate about New Labour’s honestly held belief that Britain has the moral right and responsibility to save the world by invading it.
What now? In one sense it did not matter much what conclusions Hutton reached. As we argued all along on spiked, the result of such an inquiry could only be to intensify the paralysis of political life, making politicians on all sides more obsessed with playing safe and appearing squeaky clean.
To get a glimpse of the degraded state of politics to come, look at the exchanges between Blair and Tory opposition leader Michael Howard on the day that the Hutton report was published. The two most important party leaders in Britain simply took turns quoting different paragraphs and sub-paras of the report at each other, hiding behind Hutton as if competing to see who could be his most effective ventriloquist’s dummy. It appeared that they did not have an original idea or argument between them. The whole Labour-Tory debate over Hutton soon degenerated into an infantile contest to see who could most loudly accuse their opponents of being liars.
Blair has good cause to be pleased with Hutton, and the recent excited talk about a Tory revival has been brought to a sudden stop. But those who are now suggesting that Blair is back on the moral high ground, and well placed to ‘make a fresh start’, are as far wide of the mark as those who thought he would be finished this week. In a broader sense, the process of the Hutton Inquiry has further undermined his authority.
Ours is an age of public disillusionment and cynicism in which popular opinion is always inclined to place the most politics-bashing interpretation on events.
The fact that the government felt obliged to appoint a senior judge to investigate its own innermost workings only confirmed the widespread view that something was amiss and being hidden. The fact that the judge exonerated the government and bashed the BBC is now being interpreted as evidence of another cover-up.
Early polls suggest that the majority of people still believe the BBC version of events more than the government’s. This arguably has less to do with the BBC’s historical record of fair reporting, than with its current tendency to act as a powerful voicebox for public cynicism about politics. In this context it might come as little surprise that the Kelly-Hutton affair should have centred on a report for the Today programme. BBC radio’s flagship morning news bulletin has often seemed to be pursuing a news agenda dominated by the hunt for fresh scandals, and the populist conviction that all politicians always lie. For those of us interested in a proper debate about political issues, that is no more helpful than the obfuscating blather of Blair’s propaganda machine.
There are legitimate fears now that Hutton’s harsh criticism of the BBC will make its journalists and editors more cautious about criticising those in authority. The best response might be for them to raise their sights, and try putting politicians on the spot over their political thoughts and deeds rather than their personal motives.
Before Hutton reported, spiked suggested that if Blair was brought down by the crisis it would be nothing to celebrate, since it would be a victory only for the Cynicism Party – the enemy of all who want to win active support for political change (1). By the same token, however, Blair’s ‘victory’ is nothing to cheer either. The real issue is not which side Hutton should favour, but why the business of democratic debate should be reduced to a spot-the-liar contest and handed over to an inquiry led by a law lord in the first place.
To alter the political climate and put a discussion about ‘wider issues’ of social change back on the agenda is a big task. But it will never happen so long as we expect an official inquiry to do our job for us. The lesson of Hutton is that we could do with fewer inquiries and more open arguments; less shouting of ‘liars!’, and more honest thinking about political alternatives.
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