History is written in terms of winners and losers - but Tony Blair's day at the Chilcot enquiry has come and gone, and the annals will have to call it a draw. It was a Frost/Nixon experience without the collapse at the end: while the questions took us on a tour of the failures of the invasion of Iraq, Blair deftly sidestepped the more scathing accusations and at times made the inquiry panel look rather weak and obsequious. He didn't shine enough to deliver a crushing blow to his adversaries but he was confident throughout and never expressed a hint of regret. Both Blair's supporters and critics will have found plenty to support their arguments, and nobody's opinion is likely to have changed.
Now, although my political alignment is typically 'student' in nature, I've never been the most ardent critic of Blair. For an example of that, have a look at Michael Rosen's Twitter. (That isn't a dig; the man is a legend.) Yet Blair's stint in front of the panel today, the way I see it, leads to a chilling indictment not simply of Blair but of our attitudes towards politics, leadership and the role of government.
The more Blair said, the more it emerged that the main reason the United Kingdom went to Iraq, in a nutshell, was that Blair wanted us to. There wasn't a hidden deal, a conspiracy to rob the world of its freedom and resources - it was the conviction of one person who, not to put too fine a point on it, felt like it. The swathes of empirical evidence, the sigcificant possibility of illegality, the legion of voices opposing the decision, were judged as insignificant; the unilateral 'World Police' attitude reigned supreme. This became clear relatively early on: when talking about his meetings with Bush prior to the start of the campaign, Blair told the panel of his thoughts that, if the US was going to occupy, "we had to be involved", had to be "right alongside" them. That's how most of us think about the FA Cup final or Blur's gig at Glastonbury, not a war that kills thousands. A personal rhetoric, not a political one. 'You had to be there, man, it was the best war of the decade!'
It bears pointing out that Blair did make wildly conflicting statements on this issue where it suited him. While one of his concluding statements was to the effect that he stood by "the decision I took", he earlier shifted a huge chunk of responsibility onto Lord Goldsmith by insinuating that Goldsmith's testimony was the main reason the war went ahead. Anti-Blair voices will certainly find something to raise a eyebrow about in the idea that 'it was Blair's personal decision except when it wasn't'. That's pretty bad, but isn't what I find especially worrying - in a six-hour interview with a politician who was professionally trained as a lawyer, one can hardly be surprised to find a few dodges and logical solecisms. If I was writing to highlight those (and rest assured there are plenty who will), I could be here all night.
No, what gets to me is that one person making a pivotal political decision that governs the lives of countless people is not just the case, but it is an admissible defence, if not at a trial, then to an inquiry panel and to a vast proportion of the public. It seems wrong that it is a possible and widely supported course of action to ignore the mounting (perhaps even overwhelming) evidence that invasion was not justifiable - and, of course, with the news that Iraq didn't have any WMDs, the sceptics eventually turned out to be right on this one - because of one's own borderline-fanatical belief. The official line that Britain has abandoned the old ways of theocracy and autarchy, and embraced democracy, is now another little bit harder to believe.
Right on cue, the Blair supporters were out in force reciting this very mantra. Some comments on the BBC website include calling Blair "a brave man" and "a great leader, who had so many important decisions to make". Of course, for every one of these comments there is another one criticising or vilifying Blair. But why does this debate even take place? In making his personal decision to take the country to war, Blair used reasoning that was specious, cognitively biased and unscientific, but it was still easy for his intentions to be accepted and enacted. Of course, one could reply that as the elected leader of the country, Blair has been chosen by the people to make the decisions and so it is his right to do so. But democracy does not end at the voting booth, and when a decision as incredibly momentous as this is made without consulting (or even fully informing) the people, I cannot help but wonder why the decision was solely his to make in the first place. Why was ignoring the evidence even an option? That is the root of the issue - while there are innumerable commenters with both the pro- and anti-Iraq war leanings, they are seen as two equal sides of an issue to be contested. The people who opposed the Iraq war were, in terms of its initial rationale, proved correct - but they were just one side of a debate, and there's always a debate about government actions, so you can really pick either one and they'll be equally accepted in the end.
That's how it goes with regards to our attitude towards leadership. If there is one idea that applies here, it is the typical left-wing motto that a central part of citizenship is to be sceptical of one's own government. But time and time again it is demonstrated that since we have appointed officials to lead us, we will unquestioningly accept whatever they decide. There was an expert legal opinion that the Iraq war would not be justifiable; there was a public whose support could at best be called 'divided' (and continued to diminish as the occupation dragged on). Why, when the evidence points one way, do we think it's 'just the way things are' when a leader decides to go the other? Why is it not the default norm for a country's actions to be swayed more by scientific, legal, or other expert consensus and the body of public opinion than by one person, simply because we have placed them on the revered pedestal of 'leader'? Blair may have kept his supporters and his 'great leader' image today, but his testimony shows that when massive, worldwide, countless-life-affecting decisions are to be made, our processes need to become far more democratic, not authoritarian.
(A brief caveat: you might find it rather cavalier that I'm focusing on the petty matter of the democratic processes in this country, rather than what you might think to be the real disaster which is the broken country, occupied for oil, that still doesn't have regular electricity. You're probably right, but so many commenters inevitably focus on the aforementioned that I decided be different, to address an issue that had come up for me today while watching the inquiry. This is a personal response, not a holistically political one.)