Striking against overweening officialdom

After years of enquiry and further years of postponement, the Chilcot Report into Britain’s part in the invasion of Iraq is due to be released. Sir John Chilcot, a retired civil servant, has already made a short statement outlining the main finding. It is that Tony Blair’s decision to go to war was hasty and ill-prepared. “Careful analysis” and “wider assessment” are required before we go to war again.

The Report is hugely long — 12 volumes! — and a summary of it, 150,000 words, will be made available to the families of dead soldiers and to the media in about half-an-hour from now (7.30am) in a room that will be sealed for two hours before Sir John and his investigatory team will face questioning. Rumour has it that the Report is lighter on Tony Blair than it ought to be but highly critical of a large number of officials, especially in the army and intelligence services.

The Report will elicit renewed anguish from relatives of soldiers and kick up a lot of controversy, particularly about our grossly inept Defence Department. Its repercussions will continue for months and years. For the first time in a very long time it would seem that this has not been whitewashing enquiry as so many in the past have been — such as the succession of those concerning army operations in Northern Ireland — and there’ll be lessons to be learned.

Modern government needs a highly meritocratic civil service. What it doesn’t need is unresponsive officialdom. With luck, Chilcot’s Enquiry will have a salutary effect on the behaviour of bureaucracy when it is in danger of becoming overweening. It is a useful coincidence that it strikes against Whitehall officials within a few days of the electorate having done the same for those of Brussels.

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