14 July 2014
The Chilcot Report and Mrs May
Why there must be no general election.
by John Watson
“Cripes!” as the late Boris Johnson might have put it. Oh, no, I’m not sure that I got that quite right. It is in “Game of Thrones” that losing generally leads to violent death. Boris is still alive, Foriegn Secretary no less, destined one day to return to Westeros for a further tilt at the Iron Throne. The twists and turns of British politics over the last week have been so rapid that it is almost impossible to keep up with them. No wonder we begin to get fact muddled up with fiction.
It isn’t just the speed of events, either. It is the simultaneous development of so many interacting plot-lines. For a start, there is the struggle for the leadership of the two main parties, one speedily resolved after an orgy of back-stabbing and betrayal, the other spiralling towards a denouement which could feature litigation and schism but with most of the back-stabbing still to come. You would have thought that this was quite a rich enough diet to satisfy press and pundits, but no, there is also the Chilcot report, itself a topic which would have dominated the front page for a week in the good old days. One of the television stations (I think it was the BBC) showed us their expert, the man who had the job of reading and analysing the full 2,600,000 words. I must say I felt sorry for him. It was going to take him well over a week to read the huge quantity of material accurately and quickly. I don’t suppose it’s a barrel of laughs either, but that is not the worst of it. When he finally emerges, blinking, into the daylight from his darkened room, he will probably find that British politics have moved on so far that no one will any longer have the slightest interest in what he has just read.
Actually that would be a pity, because Chilcot contains an important lesson. That is not that you should not invade countries in the Middle East. We have certainly learned that one, perhaps a little too well. Nor is it that prime ministers are capable of misjudging things badly. Mr Blair, of course, denies that he did, but in any case that would hardly be news. The laws of mathematics dictate that one side or the other regrets the decision to go to war, so there must be about a 50:50 chance of getting it right. No, the important lesson to be gleaned from the report, in terms of immediate relevance to the political process, is the danger of becoming committed.
When Mr Blair made his now famous pledge to support the Americans if they felt it was necessary to invade Iraq, he doubtless did so because he was convinced that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and that the right course must be to remove him. It probably felt like a no-brainer at the time, and he probably believed that if things changed he would be able to dissuade his allies from anything rash. Once that pledge been given, however, he was trapped, and it would have been very difficult indeed for him to change course when Bush took the decision to invade. It is true that the dossier analysing the evidence had yet to be prepared for the House of Commons, but by then the government was committed to its course and so could only accept evidence which supported it. It had become trapped by its own pledge to an ally.
The giving of pledges is one of the bugbears of the British political system. To win an election you have to promise a triple lock on pensions and successive increases in the funding for the National Health Service. Once those pledges have been given, you are trapped with the consequence that cuts in expenditure have to fall on unprotected departments. Perhaps the pledge seemed right when it was given but, if circumstances change, say Brexit makes the triple lock on pensions unaffordable or robotics made health care much cheaper, you are still stuck with it and interested parties (there always are some) will demand that you honour it. Look at how Nick Clegg’s foolish pledge not to put up tuition fees came back to bite him and you will see just how wrong it can all go.
The referendum may have decided that Britain will come out of the EU, but in fact it has only moved the fault line which runs down the centre of British politics. Suppose that we are offered access to the single market provided that we accept the free movement of labour. What will happen then? Allowing free movement might be said to undermine the purpose of Brexit. The exclusion from the market might mean financial disaster, jeopardising the very services which the arrival of immigrants was said to overstretch.
It is impossible to see how debates of this sort will be resolved. Different parts of the country will think differently from each other. There will be other factors which cannot be foreseen at this stage which will dictate the best path to pursue. The government needs flexibility to deal with the position as it changes, and must not get trapped by pledges or “red lines” as Mr Blair got trapped over the invasion of Iraq.
It is for this reason that Mrs May is correct not to call a general election. Elections mean debate and debates mean pledges. However sphinx-like she may be naturally, it would be very difficult to go through a general election campaign without giving some sort of preview of negotiating strategy. That would bring comfort to those negotiating against her – there is nothing harder than to negotiate against someone whose real position you do not really know. Much worse, however, it would result in positions being taken now which could easily be regretted in a year’s time.
The Parliamentary Conservative Party has chosen Mrs May as their champion and, by and large, the press and public opinion seem to accept that they have made the correct choice and that she is the right person to steer us down the difficult road which lies ahead. The next step is to do something we find difficult. We need to trust her to carry out negotiations and make decisions without insisting that they all be disclosed to us beforehand. In an age when we have got used to free flows of information, that is quite an ask. Any professional negotiator, however, will tell you that it is the right course and the one that will maximise the chance of a satisfactory outcome. That, in the end, is what really matters.
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