Like Jeeves, this Butler's first language is Euphemism
Translate his report into English, and it is devastating for BlairMatthew Norman
Saturday July 17, 2004 The Guardian
If the ancient saw that you can judge a man by his enemies is correct, the reverse should be just as reliable. And so to Thursday's edition of Mr Tony Blair's greatest tabloid chum for its typically rigorous appraisal of the Butler report.
"Two things are now beyond dispute," began the Sun's editorial. "The prime minister did not lie to the nation before the war on Iraq. And the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein." The second part may be ignored as a pointless statement of the bleeding obvious, and far beyond Lord Butler's remit anyway.
But what of the first? Given that Rupert Murdoch, perpetual puppet master of British policy on Europe, regards Mr Blair as his most useful idiot, and that Rebekah Wade is a regular Chequers weekender, it is tempting to dismiss this sycophancy with the same contempt.
It is a temptation worth resisting, though, because the Sun is not alone in giving Mr Blair the benefit of minuscule doubt on any issue pertaining to his honesty. Most papers, this one included, have done so almost from the day New Labour came to power. From Bernie Ecclestone's million via Lakshmi Mittal all the way to the £500,000 splurged on those Bristol flats apparently without his knowledge, the PM has fallen back on the classic old lag's last defence. Yes, there were 700 DVD players in the garage, and yes, I must accept that they were hooky. But hand on heart, yer honour, and may I be struck down if it ain't the God's honest, I haven't a clue how they got there in the first place.
In a court of law, a titter goes up from the jury and the judge adds six months to the sentence. In the court of media opinion, however, it works every time. It is as if the media were one giant Jewish mother and Mr Blair her lovably roguish first-born. Every time he's caught lying, leader columns in even the less adoring newspapers carry the ritual disclaimer: he may have made mistakes and he may have been naive... but the one thing you cannot question is the prime minister's integrity.
Well, at the risk of committing a breach of form, I think you can and I think you must. And I think that this is precisely what Lord Butler, in his deliciously opaque way, has done.
Fatiguing as all the "What the Butler saw" headlines have become, perhaps it's worth fleshing the pun out by summoning the most celebrated butler in English literature. Pedants will point out that Reginald Jeeves was merely a gentleman's gentleman, but he remains a useful role model as we seek to penetrate his lordship's intent.
When Jeeves told Bertie Wooster that the white smoking jacket he bought in Monte Carlo was "perhaps a trifle bold for London, sir", he meant that it was an abomination that would cauterise the retina at 20 paces. And when he advised Bertie that a brainwave to rescue Bingo Little's latest romance was "perhaps a touch ill-advised", this translates to "total bloody lunacy".
Thanks to his own long career in service, English is now Lord Butler's second tongue. His first is the heavily inflected Whitehall dialect known as Euphemism, and in this he is devastating. When he says, for instance, that intelligence about WMD was "fading" as war approached, he accuses the PM of suppressing the gravest doubts as savagely as his exquisite politesse permits. When he says that "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear", he means that Mr Blair and his gang of flamsters conflated weak hearsay evidence to a disgraceful degree. And when he accepts that Mr Blair was influenced by George Bush rather than the intelligence, he accuses him of abrogating his duties to this country to ingratiate himself with another.
Forget the conclusions that on a literal reading absolve everyone of an iota of blame. Or rather, don't forget them, but imagine the mischievous grin on Lord Butler's face as he wrote them, anticipating how easily they would be translated by those with even an A-level in Euphemism. For so far from being a whitewash, this was a more lacerating assault on Tony Blair than anyone could have anticipated.
In an ideal world, we would pump Butler full of whatever new truth serum the CIA developed under poor old George Tenet, whose career could not resist the earthier language of Washington. Then he would tell us plainly what he thinks of the prime minister and his gruesome cabal of unelected sofa-hoggers for turning the heavily qualified and luminescently diffident offerings of MI6 into the kind of apocalypse-speak that slots so neatly into Mr Murdoch's Sun.
Whether he could answer the most vexing question, I'm not so sure. But then who can really claim to know why Tony Blair was so desperate to drag a reluctant Britain into this demented war. My own theory, for what little it's worth, will be familiar to readers of the Guardian Diary, but I reprise it all the same. Tony Blair's entire public life has been devoted to winning the admiration of the crowd. Exhibitionist toddler, king of the Fettes drama club and lead singer in a college band, he left the branch of the law that supplies an audience for the ultra-histrionic world of party politics.
Always, always, always, there has to be a stage. And what greater stage could there ever be, what greater chance to feed an addiction for self-dramatisation, than marching alongside the leader of the free world in what he would have us believe is a fight for the very survival of western democracy?
This may strike you as thin, crude and painfully simplistic. Yet if there's a more credible explanation for the rush to war when already weak intelligence is "fading" I've yet to hear it.
Given his grasp of semantic nuance, it's sad Lord Butler will never go before a Newsnight camera to explain the precise difference between, on the one hand, lying, and, on the other, distorting the facts (or the non-facts) to persuade the ill-informed of what any sane person with access to the evidence knew to be wildly misleading.
And so it is left to those who are not bilingual to use the rude four-letter English word that dare not speak its name on the lips of our ineffably civil servants. If only the leader writers had done so over Ecclestone, and called Tony Blair a liar, perhaps this calamity might have been avoided. After all, when a man is continually punished for telling whoppers by having his honesty celebrated in more trustworthy newspapers than the Sun, how could he not come to believe that he can get away with murder? Or if not murder, then, to dip into the English/Euphemism dictionary once more, with a monumental amount of needless collateral damage?