Finally, after inordinate delays, the Chilcot report on the Iraq War is close to publication. Myself, I’m not holding my breath. After years of lies and obfuscation, why expect it to provide a genuine critique of the process that led us into an illegal war? Nevertheless, I went along to the Lowry Studio in Salford to see Chilcot, Richard Norton-Taylor’s dramatisation of some of the exchanges during the Iraq Inquiry hearings.
Richard Norton-Taylor, who writes for the Guardian on defence and security, has done this kind of thing before, writing several plays based on transcripts of public inquiries including Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry, The Colour of Justice, based on the MacPherson Inquiry into the conduct of the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry, into the death of David Kelly, the biological warfare expert and former UN weapons inspector in Iraq.
This time he has filleted the transcripts of the hearings into the Iraq war presided over by the career civil servant and Privy Councillor John Chilcot, which – amazingly – began in July 2009. Seven years later – on 6 July 2016 – he will finally publish his report.
The remit of the Iraq Inquiry was broadly to identify what lessons can be learnt from the Iraq War, launched by Tony Blair on 20 March 2003, by examining the period from the summer of 2001 to July 2009. In selecting passages for dramatisation, Norton-Taylor covers the key issues and gives voice to a balance of views, though his editing leaves no doubt about where he feels blame and guilt should be apportioned.
In Studio 1 at the Lowry, things are arranged as if we are attending a tribunal hearing with the audience seated either side of a rectangular space: at one end a single desk for the witness giving evidence faced – with the studio’s length between them – the five members of the inquiry panel. TV screens above the actor’s heads relay the proceedings or video footage from news reports.
Six actors portray a range of characters, speaking the words of government ministers such as Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, Alastair Campbell, Clare Short; Lord Boyce, Chief of Defence Staff at the time, and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5. Now and again the actors also portray a range of characters whose experiences tell of the human impact of the war: a surviving British soldier and the grieving parents of one who did not return tell how soldiers died because their vehicles lacked protection, while Iraqi civilians describe the bombing of Baghdad, massacres and torture by American soldiers.
Norton-Taylor focuses on evidence that raises serious questions about the judgement and accountability of ministers and others involved in leading the country to war. The issue of whether the invasion was legal is explored, in particular whether Blair had committed the British government and armed forces to regime change, illegal under international law. Witnesses recount how the political need to conceal the planned invasion resulted in the military being under-prepared – with the result that the lives of ill-equipped soldiers were lost unnecessarily.
There’s a reminder of the issue of the ‘dodgy’ intelligence dossier, used cynically by the government to justify going to war, and evidence of the disquiet among the military top brass and the intelligence community about the way in which their opinion was being ignored by Tony Blair. There’s a striking moment when Eliza Manningham-Buller tells the Inquiry:
Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people – not a whole generation, a few among a generation – who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack upon Islam.
Asked by a member of the inquiry, to what extent the conflict exacerbated the threat from international terrorism facing Britain, she replies: ‘Substantially.’
Clare Short, International Development Secretary at the time, defends her decision not to resign at the time of the huge demonstrations against going to war (when Robin Cook resigned) with the suggestion that she had been kept out of the loop by Blair and a small coterie of his closest advisers:
The House of Commons is powerless. When you add secrecy and deceit, the system becomes positively dangerous. I’m still shocked that Britain could do what happened in Iraq.
In fact, the main impression – at least from Norton-Taylor’s selection of the evidence – is of how little information was circulated to ministers about the preparations for war, and how little discussion there was, even in cabinet. Certainly, a succession of ministers, including Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Defence Minister Jeff Hoon, seem to have used Chilcot to clear their consciences by implying that they were not privy to all the details.
The decision by the Blair government to support the American invasion of Iraq in order to oust Saddam Hussein was one of the most divisive moments in modern British history. This play – a joint production by Lung theatre company, the Lowry and Battersea Arts Centre – reminds us that it proved to be the biggest foreign policy disaster of modern times, and is now widely acknowledged to be the root cause of ensuing state collapse and continued brutal conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the birth of ISIS.
Without stating in so many words, Richard Norton-Taylor’s skilful editing of the source material and Matt Woodhead’s spare direction, leave the audience to draw the obvious conclusions. Recently Richard Norton-Taylor wrote in the Guardian that the publication of the Chilcot report should not be the end of the story:
The publication of the Chilcot report, of more than 2 millions words, four times the length of War and Peace, describing events that took place more than a decade ago, must not be the end of the affair. It must be digested and its findings debated. And those held responsible for the most disastrous British foreign and military adventure of recent times – one that has caused more long-lasting damage than Suez – must be made to answer the case against them.
Somehow, I doubt it.
- ‘A kind of tragedy’: why we turned the Chilcot Iraq inquiry into a play: Richard Norton-Taylor (Guardian)