Light at the end of the Chilcot Inquiry

Sir John Chilcot announced this morning that he expects to complete work on his long-awaited report into Britain’s war in Iraq by 18 April 2016. Allowing some time for checks to ensure nothing in the report undermines national security (which, at this stage, it really shouldn’t), he anticipates a publication date in June or July 2016, before parliament rises for the summer recess.

Chilcot always maintained he would produce a timetable as soon as he was in a position to do so. That meant three things. Firstly, it meant reaching agreement with Whitehall officials on what materials could safely be made public, and what could not. Memos exchanged between Tony Blair and President Bush proved a particular point of contention. It took some years to come to acceptable terms, which allow for some publication and some paraphrasing. That is the principle reason why the report has taken so long. Secondly, it meant completing the Maxwellisation process, a legal requirement whereby those criticised in a report are warned in advance and given a right of reply. Chilcot does not have to change anything unless additional evidence is produced that proves his criticisms are unfair. Finally, it meant having a clear idea of the size of the task. For some time reports emerging from the Inquiry have suggested its Report will be over one million words long. Chilcot confirmed this morning it will in fact exceed two million words; the length of twenty PhD theses, back-to-back. He is clear that he and his committee can complete this magnum opus by 18 April next year.

On one level, the public pressure Chilcot has faced to get on and publish is unfair. He didn’t want to sacrifice completeness by publishing without being able to refer to the crucial Bush-Blair memos, and that was the largest single cause of the delay, accounting for as much as two years of the Inquiry’s seven year total running time. He also didn’t want to miss the opportunity to provide the most comprehensive account of the conflict possible, which is why the text is so long, which in turn is why it has taken so long to write. He was legally obliged to go through Maxwellisation. Public inquiries are not exempt from libel laws, meaning anyone criticised could sue Chilcot if they are not given at least the opportunity to produce evidence refuting his criticisms. Maxwellisation takes time anyway. It takes time to write to people, to give them a reasonable window to respond, and to read and (if necessary) act on their responses. Maxwellisation also produces additional problems. It can point to new evidence, previously thought unimportant. It can also lead the inquiry to shift a criticism from one individual to another, meaning another round of letters have to go out. One reason why it took so long in this instance was that the Report apparently criticises a large number of individuals.

For those interested in the truth about Iraq, in other words, the delays to Chilcot may be no bad thing. As I have argued previously, Chilcot’s willingness to resist such pressure, including from the Prime Minister himself, hardly supports the media caricature of a man bending to the will of political elites. At the same time, I don’t think it has been the worst thing in the world. Inquiries need to strike a balance between perfection and efficiency, as all public services do. They need to do the best possible job, it’s true, but also to do it as quickly as possible. If the pressure on Chilcot has made his report less comprehensive, less accurate or less critical than it might have been, it has been a bad thing. But if all it has done is ensured he published as quickly as he possibly could, it has been more positive. He may even have found it useful in his negotiations with the Cabinet Office over the documents to be published, though the same could be said in the other direction.

I do think Chilcot could have been more upfront about the specific factors likely to delay his work from an earlier stage. He may not have been able to give a precise timetable, but he could have said what was within his control and what was not. It would have helped manage the media speculation to some extent.

But what will matter in the end is the quality of the report. Peter Oborne, with whom I will share a stage at an upcoming LSE event, has completed his own assessment of what the Report is likely to say. I don’t entirely agree with his judgement (but that’s for another post). But I do think it will have to raise issues with how openly the government described its decision-making, with the way it presented information publicly, with the planning process for after the invasion and with the question of legality. We’ll see.

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