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The Chilcot Inquiry: Lords Of The Inner Ring

30th November 2009

Via Samizdata this link to a magnificent address by C S Lewis back in 1944, The Inner Ring (scroll down towards the bottom to find it).

This masterpiece is all about the idea that whever you are - school, work, art, politics - there is always an 'inner ring' of people who are somehow special and all-important:

You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it. There are what correspond to pass words, but they too are spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive man-ner of conversation, are the marks.

But it is not constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the border-line. There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside.

The rest of the presentation describes the moral temptations arising from wanting to be 'in' and even being invited to join:

From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may
be called "You and Tony and me". When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself "we". When it has to be suddenly expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself "All the sensible people at this place." From outside, if you have despaired of getting into it, you call it "That gang" or "They" or "So-and-so and his set" or "the Caucus" or "the Inner Ring".

If you are a candidate for admission you probably don't call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention it in talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you in if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.

What a description of the workings of New Labour, right down to the 'Tony'! Read the whole thing to see a peerless example of profound lucidity from a far gone age when values counted, and were even discussed.

Which brings us to the Chilcot Inquiry on Iraq, where one by one assorted FCO officials have trooped in and dripped scorn on the way the intervention happened. This Observer piece captures the atmosphere nicely:

Yet beneath the equivocation and mandarin-speak, Whitehall seems, in as much as it knows how, to be using Chilcot to wield the scalpel. Throughout the first week the pent-up frustrations of diplomats and career civil servants over the way Tony Blair and George Bush secretly plotted to oust Saddam Hussein, bypassing the "official channels" in which they operate, has been there for all to see.

Chilcot is said to have been warned by his Whitehall friends that many witnesses will be ready to unburden themselves – finally to take revenge. In session after session they have appeared to do that. Blair's reputation has been sliced like salami day after day.

The problem Blair has (and some media reports have already expressed it) is that to drive forward the policy on Iraq he had to choose between trying to drum up strong official and public support or making a high-level power-play.

He no doubt rightly sensed that there would be intense instinctive opposition from within Labour and European ranks on anything which looked like being too cosy with President Bush.

So he went for the power-play, hoping to be Vindicated by History. Which meant keeping large numbers of senior officials and experts in the FCO and elsewhere across Whitehall marginalised, treading bureaucratic water as the 'real' decisions were made by the No 10 Inner Ring. Nudges and hints of insider information and guidance were carefully introduced into the system only where needed, eg to keep the UK position at the UN afloat.

Politicians come and go. Civil servants meander on.

In this case they have waited for a chance to express their disgruntlement with majestic understatement:

... it is remarkable that so much has quietly emerged, given the tenor and tone of the inquiry and the sorts of people being interviewed and, indeed, doing the interviewing. This whole procedure is a little like a very upper-class version of the Channel 4 series Come Dine with Me, with charming, learned and polite knighted people asking the gentlest of questions of charming, learned and polite knighted people, before breaking for lunch.

Yet there is also something creepy about this exercise. It turns out that New Labour's Inner Ring is being held to account by an even more Inner Inner Ring.

And none of them so far have looked at one central issue, namely that Saddam Hussein was one of the greatest mass murdering monsters of our time (his victims overwhelmingly Muslim as it happens), and that his overthrow was a huge victory for human decency.

No doubt Mr Blair will make that point himself in due course. Even if it is not a consideration which all these layers upon layers of Inner Rings usually like to mention?

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