Last week saw a significant set of milestones. Alistair Campbell resigned. Mrs Kelly gave us the human face of the tragedy of Dr Kelly. And senior representatives of Defence Intelligence told us that the dossier was ‘over egged’ and that ‘the spin merchants’ had too big a role.
In my view all of these events are related. They reflect the disease that has corroded the integrity of the Blair government. We have a Prime Minister so focused on presentation that there is inadequate consideration of the merits of policy. At the same time, there has been a massive centralization of power into No10. And beneath the smiling demeanour, a ruthlessness that is accompanied by a lack of respect for proper procedure a willingness to be ‘economical with the actuality’.
Much of the commentary on Alistair Campbell’s resignation reflected how deep the disease has gone. Political journalists seem to think that presentation is politics and therefore Alistair Campbell a central figure. But history is being rewritten. Labour was set to win the forthcoming election under John Smith’s leadership. There was clear evidence from authoritative sources that Tory decline and Labour’s restoration of trust – including on the economy – meant that we were very likely to win. John Smith also had views on presentation which ring loud with wisdom. John said that commercial organizations do not ask what products they should sell. They are committed to soap powder or beans, then they ask advice on how best to present their product. Similarly, the Labour Party must not confuse presentation with policy. But we must work hard to seek advice on how best to present our values and policies in order to win public support. If only we had remembered this distinction.
It is untrue that Labour was unelectable before Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell took over. Most of the most difficult reform had been taken forward by Neil Kinnock and many of us who served on the National Executive Committee. Expulsion of the Militant MPs and revision of much of the policy on which we fought the 1983 election, including unilateralism, was complete before Blair joined the National Executive. It was also clear that the Party was imposing discipline on itself. It was ready for power and determined to be united and disciplined. I have no doubt that Blair and Campbell’s ruthless focus on presentation increased our majority, but it is untrue that they were responsible for preparing the Party for power.
My conclusion is that much of the success of Labour’s first term came from Labour Ministers implementing Labour policy – full employment, the minimum wage, devolution, tax credits to make work worthwhile, improved income for poor pensioners, a strong commitment to debt relief and development, improved achievement in all schools, improved public spending and so on. Spin was a problem as initiatives and new expenditure were announced and reannounced so that people began to doubt the truth of the announcement. But overall we did reasonably well and were re-elected to a second term.
But in the second term, hubris started to take over. The Cabinet has not functioned as a decision making body at all since 1997. There was a bit more discussion in the second term, but it was always short and never authoritative. By the second term people were promoted only if willing to bend the knee to No 10. I understood Charles Clarke to be against top up fees before he became Secretary of State for Education. And Patricia Hewitt promised she would help block the disgraceful sale of a defective and unaffordable British Aerospace air traffic control system to Tanzania. But then she said she couldn’t “because of No 10”. If you toe the line, No 10 briefs favourably. If you run your own department and stick to the merits of policy and refuse to kowtow, they brief against. And journalists write up the anonymous briefings and this is how people are seen to be rising or falling. It has nothing to do with competence or achievements in the real world. Alistair Campbell and almost all our political journalists were joined at the hip on spin. It only works because journalists co-operate and this becomes our political discourse.
And this brings me to Dr Kelly. He like many of us believed that Saddam Hussein was committed to programmes to develop chemical and biological weapons and had been defying the UN for too long. He like many of us believed that action was needed. But it seems that he, like others in Defence Intelligence, was attached to accuracy. He objected to the exaggeration of the threat from Saddam Hussein’s programmes and the falsity of the 45 minute claim. It was part of his job description to brief journalists. He – amongst others – let those views be known. They appeared in many press articles and it is now clear that the Today programme story was fundamentally true. In my view, the BBC would have been at fault if they had not broadcast it. But our Prime Minister told Hutton that once Alistair Campbell was mentioned it became “no longer a small item”. And then No 10 went to war with the BBC. The issue was presentational. There was no policy or national interest at stake. And yet once Dr Kelly came forward and said he had talked to Andrew Gilligan, the power of the state was focused on using Kelly to get Gilligan. His wife has described, in her loving and restrained way, what this did to her husband. We politicians volunteer for the role, but when the press is after you and No 10 briefing against you, life can be hell. And I am sure that the briefing that this dedicated international expert was merely a middle level technical officer hurt him to the quick. My conclusion is that power was abused to use Dr Kelly to get at the BBC. And that Dr Kelly found the pressure of No 10,the MOD, the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the threat to his pension and job and ‘being treated like a fly’ too much to bear. I think most people would break under that strain.
But the Prime Minister has told us that the claim that he had knowingly exaggerated the threat from Iraqi chemical and biological weapons would be a resignation issue. It is now clear that the threat was exaggerated. And that John Scarlett – Mr Campbell’s fig leaf – had gone native with the No 10 entourage. If he did not know members of the intelligence service were unhappy with the dossier, then he wasn’t doing his job adequately.
And all of this came before we were misled on the promised second UN resolution. And on top of this, there is the total negligence of failing to prepare for the inevitability of a speedy military victory. Many, many lives have been lost and are being lost in Iraq because of this incompetence.
This sorry tale shames my Party, Government and country.