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The perils of power

Decisions on the Iraq war show that too much control is concentrated in the hands of the prime minister

Jonathan Freedland
Wednesday July 21, 2004
The Guardian


It's happened twice this year. Sceptics about the war against Iraq find themselves shouting at the TV, overwhelmed with the urge to hammer their fists against the chest of a cabinet minister or wondering if they have woken up in an Alice-in-Wonderland country where black is white and white is black.

In mid-winter it was Hutton. In mid-summer it is Butler. The problem then was a Hutton report that seemed blind to the reality the rest of us had seen with our own eyes. The problem now is not the Butler report, which sees the reality clearly enough, but the government response to it. It's as if Tony Blair and friends live on a different planet, where the usual rules of reason and logic do not apply.

So cabinet minister John Reid can go on the Today programme and say - not once but twice - that caveats had to be stripped out of the September 2002 dossier in order to preserve the anonymity of intelligence sources. As if a "probably" here or a "maybe" there would have exposed our secret agents. Of course, it would have done no such thing. But Reid says it all the same.

We have the prime minister insisting that his own good faith cannot be questioned. Most politicians and commentators bow to this demand, too courteous to resist it. But it is a strange kind of good faith that enables someone to read intelligence on Iraq's weapons capability chock full of doubts and qualifiers - and then declare that this same intelligence establishes "beyond doubt" the nature of the Saddam threat. The one thing the intelligence did not do was establish anything beyond doubt - and Blair knows it because he read the doubt-filled assessments in their pre-cleaned-up form. Yet he said it anyway. We cannot ask why because Brutus is an honourable man.

Above all, we hear a former cabinet secretary lay bear a series of failings - in intelligence gathering, in public presentation, in top-level decision-making - which led, in part, to a major international disaster, a war costing many thousands of lives. And yet no one is blamed. Is there another sphere of human activity where this is imaginable? Let's say a public inquiry into a rail accident catalogued errors as copious as those identified by Butler: wouldn't the head of the train company be fired? If a football team had cocked up as badly as our intelligence services, wouldn't the manager be out on his ear? Yet politics is different. It turns out the buck does not stop with Blair or John Scarlett or Richard Dearlove or anybody. Ingovernment, it seems, there is no buck.

The anger and the sense of impotence this induces tend to be channelled towards the prime minister himself. Disenchanted voters decide they can't trust him; some even begin to hate him. This may be therapeutic but it's probably too easy. For what the Iraq debacle has shown is what Whitehall types would probably call systemic failure. It's not just one man who's at fault; the entire system is broken.

First confirmation of that came a year ago, when more than a million Britons took to the streets to oppose the war. Of course, governments should not bend to every public whim. But when close to a majority of the country reaches a settled will on a matter of great import, that surely shouldn't be ignored. Yet the war went ahead anyway, endorsed by a large majority in the House of Commons. Whatever your views on the Iraq question, this surely amounted to a democratic failure: the system did not fully reflect the views of the people it is meant to represent.

The Butler report identifies another structural malfunction: the over-centralisation of power, with too much authority concentrated in the person of the prime minister. So we have joint intelligence committee chairman Scarlett's obeisance to the prime minister and his aides manifested in his willingness to allow the caveat cull that changed so drastically the meaning of the dossier he was meant to "own". Out they came, Scarlett reassuring himself that these were purely presentational changes. Butler lays bare his dim view of this arrangement, even if he is congenitally unable to describe it so baldly.

The same point emerges in the account of the attorney general's efforts to determine whether an invasion of Iraq would be legal. He too ultimately deferred to Blair, seeking in March 2003 Downing Street's view of whether Iraq was in "material breach" of its UN obligations. On this question turned the legality of the war. Yet it was not determined by the attorney general, but the prime minister.

Finally, and most explicitly, stands Butler's description of the way cabinet business is done. Butler depicts government by Downing Street clique, with few papers circulated and only a faint nod towards collective decision making.

What is the common thread? It is that the system puts almost all the cards in a single pair of hands. The four Iraq-related inquiries have only underlined the point. Reid and Blair may call them "independent", but the investigations by the Commons foreign affairs committee, the intelligence and security committee, Hutton and Butler all share one characteristic: they were led by people hand-picked by the prime minister.

This is not a personal point about Blair. It has long been a feature of the British system. Indeed, the "over-mighty executive" may well be a leftover from the days of monarchical rule. But that it lives on, with dire and bloody consequences, has rarely been clearer.

Under our system, the rule is straightforward: if the prime minister wants something badly enough, he gets it. In the Iraq case, his laser-like resolve to stand with George Bush burned through every obstacle: the JIC, the cabinet, parliament, British public opinion. He overcame them all.

What is the solution? I have a maximalist answer and a more modest one. The former would call for a constitutional overhaul, giving this country what most democracies take for granted: true separation of powers. Britain's problem is that there are no rival power centres. The legislature, which should be one, is dominated by the executive. Only a radical new settlement could change that.

The less revolutionary option would be to impose some brakes on the prime minister: placing intelligence under a Commons oversight committee, for example, or putting the appointment of inquiry heads into the hands of an independent body. Or we could simply assert that though, technically, the prime minister controls all the key levers he is still constrained by politics. In a post-Iraq climate it could become politically impossible for a leader to exert the almost autocratic powers he has at his disposal. Corruption of intelligence would become a no-no, along with bypassing the cabinet.

No prime minister ever cedes power voluntarily. The trick is to use politics to wrest some of it from their grasp. The lesson of Iraq, and the poll tax for that matter, should be engraved above the desk in Downing Street, for all future prime ministers to read: "You have vast power, but use it at your peril." Twice in two decades, it has brought disaster.

j.freedland@guardian.co.uk