Chilcot needs to ask why a small island with a stretched military budget contemplated a Middle East invasion in the first place
Brexit and the looming break-up of the United Kingdom are largely consequences of how Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher handled the stark reality that a Britain which had once ruled a quarter of the world’s land surface had neither the money nor the power to retain its global status.
Telling an imperial people their age of greatness is gone forever is bad politics and both Thatcher and Blair found a way to avoid it – finance-fuelled growth at home and a bromance with the United States abroad.
The Chilcot Report is the tombstone for that era.
Tossed into the febrile atmosphere of post-Brexit recrimination and remorse, Chilcot will be a message not just for Tony Blair but for all of us, the British people, whoever we actually are if we are anything at all: The game’s up.
Chilcot is a reckoning for all of us for we created Blair just as surely as we created Thatcher. Not all of us but enough of us were seduced by the virility of money and missiles, luxuriating in the glow of Cool Britannia. Chilcot is our reckoning too.
What will the report say? Possibly that the prime minister lied. More likely that he and his cabinet were ‘economical with the truth’ when it came to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the free world.
The American neocons wanted this war, they convinced George W Bush to want it, and he appears to have convinced Blair. That it has turned out to be a catastrophe for international order is evident everyday in ISIS attacks and the desperate plight of Syria’s wretched of the earth running from and dying under the mass murderer Assad.
Will Tony Blair be charged with war crimes? Highly improbable. He has already been convicted politically of taking the country to war under false pretences, his name now a byword for mendacity and spin. He refuses to accept this.
He argues ‘it was worth it’ and still touts himself as an honest broker in the Brexit debate. If there is any hope of his rehabilitation, Chilcot is likely to be the stake through the heart of what remains of his public reputation.
Will any British service personnel be held to account for atrocities committed during the war in Iraq?
Unlikely too, although the lengths the UK government is going to to ensure that any crimes have been thoroughly investigated is a positive not a negative about the Chilcot-International Criminal Court world we now inhabit.
The only legal consequences that are likely to arise will involve civil suits against Blair for the deaths of soldiers and citizens for which their families hold him responsible.
Even if the small likelihood that this will result in some form of legal or financial penalty for Blair is realised, the desire for retribution – for making someone pay for the invasion of Iraq and its casualties – will not change the basic reality that since 1979, through Thatcher, Blair and now Brexit, the UK has been raging against the dying of the imperial light.
It is this fact about ‘us’ that needs to be faced.
Chilcot needs to ask: Why was a small island with a stretched military budget contemplating invading the Middle East with the Americans in the first place?
Why was Blair, his cabinet, but also a sizeable chunk of the British population prepared to believe not only that Saddam was a threat to international peace and security but that it was our responsibility to remove him?
Blair, like many of us, was easily charmed into the role of a major player in the battle between good and evil.
Sucking Blair into the role of great white saviour was doubtless the easy bit. Flattery will get you everywhere with a lonely great power desperate for one last dance.
As Brexit shows, that baying nationalism still smoulders in these small islands; across the political spectrum, left and right, dreams live on of Britannia astride the waves.
Theresa May has made speedily renewing Trident one of her campaign pitches for Tory leader. The struggle to create a more egalitarian social democracy that is a lot more wary about bombing other countries is the road we need to travel.
If Chilcot’s 2.6 million words achieve anything, it must be to nudge us one step further on that journey.
To do so, we must not pin the costs of our delusions of grandeur on Blair alone or we’ll have learned nothing as a society.
Stephen Hopgood is Professor of International Relations at SOAS, University of London. He tweets at @SteveHopgood
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