An inquiry into inquiries

Tony Blair’s second appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry to ‘discuss’ Iraq met with somewhat limited public enthusiasm. That’s probably because chances are nothing will happen to him or anyone else involved in the dubious legalising of that particular war. Frankly, Sir Chilcot would have more luck of squeezing blood from a stone.

Public Inquiries are a great British tradition. While other countries let heads roll we gather together our establishment figures for a friendly chat. In fitting with our historic love of avoiding confrontation we blindly hope that groups will confess to their faults and then punish themselves for their wrongdoings. Unfortunately our inquiries differ from democracy, cricket and real ale in that we don’t do them very well.

Here’s a quick history of great British enquiries. In 1847 ‘The Treachery of the Blue Books’ investigated education in Wales, and concluded that the Welsh were idiots. Poor Wales was also the subject of the first ‘real’ enquiry; resulting from the Aberfan Disaster of 1966, where a mountain of coal-waste collapsed onto a primary school. It took the tragic deaths of 144, mostly children, to propel the government into action and after 76 days they finally concluded that the National Coal Board was at fault. In a reflection of things to come no-one was sacked, while the grieving parents were offered £500 per child, on condition they cleared up the mess themselves. Maybe worse was one of the UK’s darkest days, the horrific events of Bloody Sunday, which necessitated Britain’s most famous inquiry, the legendary Saville Inquiry of 1998, which is still continuing. It took twenty-six years for us even to agree to properly investigate the killing of thirteen civilians by British ‘peacekeepers’ and the resulting proceedings has cost around £400 million, according to the Telegraph. In comparison the questioning of Mr Blair and his divinely-inspired foreign policy seems minor indeed.

Are our inquiries fundamentally flawed? The past doesn’t give much ground for optimism, unless you happen to be a lawyer. Public ignorance can’t help. Apart from the legal profession most people don’t know what actually goes on during an enquiry, they just argue over the report. For all we know, the weakness of our inquiries could well lie in their execution.

Lets investigate how inquiries work (or don’t). They usually start with the government being involved in some sort of cock-up, and on that front it appears we’re spoiled for choice. However you’ve got to persuade the media and authorities to take an interest, which generally requires an event to be tragic and easily preventable. Often you’ve got to prove without doubt the government is at fault even before the investigation, as with the case of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander to the G20 protests who died from a police beating. The video evidence of the attack forced the Metropolitan Police Force to make their token disciplinary hearing public.  Many incidents never received a public inquiry because the authorities charged with investigating them wanted to avoid the hassle.

You’ve then got to wait ‘for the dust to fade’ while the media loses interest and you lose the will, and often money, to continue. The July 7th bombings Inquests took 5 years to appear, while the Chilcot Inquiry came 6 years after the invasion. What the delay does is give the majority of us the opportunity to become apathetic. I’m sure many reading this article would like to let bygones be bygones and get on with their life. Yet imagine a Germany without Nuremberg or South Africa without the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Occasionally you have to punish people, whether they be frogmarching Nazis or inept social workers.

If somehow your case jumps through these hoops, an investigative panel will be assembled and the terms of reference determined. This is the crux of the matter. As an irate history tutor once told me ‘you can’t just answer the questions you want to answer!’ Yet The Government is largely able to do this. While the chairman of an enquiry can reject the government suggestions, the temptation for public figures to avoid long drawn out courtroom dramas must be considerable. The Hutton Enquiry, concerning the death of David Kelley, who was a weapons inspector in Iraq, is an example. It told us more about the BBC’S editorial incompetence then of the official intelligence blunders. Clearly, getting the government to confront its problems is easier said than done.

The public hearing should represent the culmination of the above efforts, a triumph of sorts for the victims and public interest. Nevertheless ‘Public Hearing’ is a fairly misleading term in this case as an inquiry may not be public and the final report may not be published.  The given excuses for this are multiple, including concerns over the frankness of witnesses and of course the national security issue. Yet one must wonder why an inquiry produced by a presumably high level of public anger would want to suppress the results, a move sure to embolden conspiracy theorists and dishonest hacks.

Punishment and retribution following inquiries is obviously a hugely divisive issue. On one hand the victim’s family will rightly desire retribution and at least the sacking of officials concerned. While this is perfectly reasonable, we must keep in mind the purpose of an inquiry should be to learn lessons from mistakes and it is not a prosecution. Often the most useful evidence comes from guilty parties. Nonetheless, failing authorities highlighted by the inquiry should be put under considerable pressure to put their own house in order. They should also take notice of public opinion, as banking leaders failed to do in 2008, when they resigned to watch over vast pensions.

Despite the sea of incompetence which surrounds inquiries we must not abandon them completely. This is because they occasionally work. Almost twenty-two years ago 96 Liverpool football fans were literally crushed to death by a combination of police mistakes and stadium design better suited to animals. The Hillsborough disaster, as it is now known, led to the Taylor Inquiry. Despite a national atmosphere highly critical of the victims themselves (the Sun shamefully claimed fans robbed the dying) the inquiry found South Yorkshire Police guilty of serious misconduct, although it could have gone further. More importantly the report recommended the conversion of stadiums to all-seaters. The report’s findings ushered in a new era for football, free from hooligan violence and police brutality. It demonstrates how an inquiry can genuinely change things for the better.

Nothing is going to change the fact that Iraq happened. Nor are the children of Aberfan going to rise from the grave. Yet unless we are able to learn lessons from these disasters they are bound to happen again. The government needs to view public inquires as standard protocol and not leave it until the media has whipped up public hysteria. Investigations need to be more powerful, unreservedly critical and conducted in a reasonably short time-span. Finally the authorities have to realise their own implication in the mistakes they investigate means that the public must be allowed to judge the conduct of the proceedings. Only then will we restore trust in the system.

This article was originally published in Volume 58 on the 10th February 2011

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