In the wake of the long-awaited publication of the Chilcot inquiry in the decision to invade Irawq, the newspapers in the UK today are full of stories of government failure. Perhaps the most biting is the linking of the decision to invade with that of the generals of World War One – the suggestion that we are ‘Lions led by Donkeys’.
Chilcot has laid bare the decision-making style of the Blair government. We are left with the view that the decision to invade was made well before the government ever admitted it, and that the intelligence upon which it was based was deeply flawed. The report suggests that the invasion was premature, with other options still being available. It suggests that the process by which the legality of the invasion was established was not a good one, and asks questions about how Cabinet government was organised more generally. It expresses the strong view that there was no credible plan of what to do after the invasion.
Perhaps we need to locate this story in some context. First, the Blair government had done some pretty extraordinary things by 2003. Blair had intervened personally to get the Northern Irish peace process on track, and secured an historic agreement. Blair had also used his influence to get Clinton (and NATO) to get involved in the war in Kosova, and we should not forget that, even though that intervention was too late, Blair’s intervention saved many lives. After this, of course, came the election of a new US president who Blair appears to have been concerned to be seen to be working with. And the horrific events of 9/11.
One story of context, perhaps then, is of Blair, on the back of his successes in intervening abroad (and closer to home), coming to over-estimate his abilities. By 2002/3 he was not short of confidence, with foreign policy success to point to and a dominant electoral position at home. He was also establishing a relationship with a new president in a complex foreign policy environment. This was the era of policy ‘delivery’ – of being seen to get things done.
The factor I think that is most concerning though is the ability of the Blair government to be able to make foreign policy largely as it saw fit. The is a structural feature of the UK Parliamentary system – with a large Parliamentary majority, the government has considerable power to do as it likes. We have few checks and balances (the Queen can in theory refuse to sign Bills, but to do so would provoke a constitutional crisis, and the House of Lords can be eventually over-ruled if it objects).
I’m afraid the decision to invade Iraq is the most awful representation of a more general problem. Our governments, if they have any kind of majority, are able to pass really dreadful legislation and put in place really awful policy. Parliament isn’t good at stopping bad decisions because the whip system forces MPs to vote in line with their parties rather than really scrutinising the proposed changes. Equally, we push far too much business through Parliament for decisions to be subject to sufficient scrutiny. My own research suggests that the debates that do take place are not deliberative in the sense of trying to actually work to find the best policy solution. Instead they are often partisan and superficial.
The decision to invade Iraq did not involve legislation, but was debated in Parliament. The debate was held at the last minute, and, we now know, the decision to invade was based on poor intelligence. It is hard to see how this resulted in good decision-making.
The more general problem then, is that government is often able to pass poor legislation which isn’t scrutinised well. Governments aren’t made to work through the available options. They aren’t forced to for research evidence. New Secretaries of State often push through hugely expensive changes and reorganisations with little other than faith underpinning them – look at the changes to the NHS, to the benefits system, and to schools. These have cost billions and billions and were changes often based on little more than someone in power having a big idea.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps we need to reverse the logic of our legislative system. One approach would be a precautionary one where any changes would have to be shown, through research, to be necessary beyond any reasonable doubt, before being legislated for. Another approach would be to restrict government to a limited number of Bills per year, but to structurally ensure that they were debated fully, based on research based on pilots, and with free votes for MPs who were expected to not only engage with the debates, but show that they did so through their contributions. That would move us rather closer to something approaching a deliberative process.
Such processes would almost certainly have avoided the invasion of Iraq. But they would also save billions of pounds in careless and reckless changes to public services and the country, very little of which actually results in much by the way of benefit.