Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Cabinet War Minutes: A Democratic Tragedy

So Jack Straw has vetoed the release of the Cabinet minutes, requested under the Freedom of Information act, regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq?

The dual justifications that have been offered for this unprecedented move are as spurious as they are contradictory.

First off, we are told, to release Cabinet minutes would be to severely impinge on the functioning of our democracy. In the wake of public exposure, future Cabinet discussions would see ministers afraid to talk frankly, in case those minutes were also one day thrown into the public eye. The openness of debate would be stifled and unpopular opinions would be muted: no one would want to look like a villain should the minutes, once again, fall into the ‘wrong’ hands of the blame-hungry public.

Then we are told that Cabinet minutes aren’t all that useful anyway. They are not complete records of the discussions held, merely generalized accounts made vague and superficial. They wouldn’t be much help for investigators trying get to the bottom of the questions they have about Iraq anyway, and to release them would therefore be an unwarranted violation of Cabinet privacy.

So to recap: the minutes can’t be released because they will expose the views and arguments of the participants to a public scrutiny so severe that it will inhibit future Cabinets from being able to speak freely again. And yet there would be absolutely no information worth hearing in them anyway because the views and arguments of individual participants are not recorded in these generalized and vague bureaucratic accounts.


Beside the overt case of logical incoherency in the position, there are other flaws to be found. Not least of all in the huge conflict of interests shown in the fact that the man making the decision to place the veto – Justice Secretary Jack Straw – is himself a member of the Cabinet in question – as former Foreign Secretary – and thus stands to be damaged should the minutes get out and prove unflattering. In other words: a man who knows exactly what was said and would, himself, be on the revealed record, has decided that it would better if we didn’t know what went on that fateful day.

And, of course, current Prime Minister Gordon Brown would also have been in Blair’s cabinet at the time. Would he, perhaps, be worried too at letting the public hear his views in the build-up to the invasion, now he has spent so much time trying to distance himself from his predecessor’s war?

Apart from this seemingly criminal conspiracy to cover up the deliberations that led to an unjustified war with no basis in international law and in which – at the very least – over ninety thousand people have died, the argument that such confidentiality is needed to protect the functioning of the Cabinet, and of our democracy, is merely a smoke and mirrors appeal to Parliamentary procedure that obfuscates reality and turns truth onto its head.

Yes, in some cases, the privacy of certain meetings arguably is a crucial factor in their ability to work successfully. People want to know that when discussing important life and death issues, they can ‘think out loud’ without risk of censure or reproach, exploring all the options available regardless of their public popularity or political expediency.

But at the end of the day, truly democratic government is – above all else – meant to be accountable to the people, and in the case of our democratically elected government’s decision to go into Iraq in 2003, the people want to know why such a catastrophic decision was made when there was no evidence for Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, no basis for the invasion in international law, massive opposition to war coming from the citizenry, legal council from the Attorney General at the time advising the government that the war would be illegal, and the vehement disavowal of the attacks from a former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, which led to his resignation.

This is not a case of invasion of privacy, or of impeding the function of democracy. This is a demand to our elected government that they take account for their decision to send our citizens off to die in a war that did not need to happen. This is a call for an explanation as to why we have the blood on our hands of nearly a hundred thousand innocent Iraqis after an invasion took place on a tissue of lies.

As there was enough intelligence at the time of the invasion for people like me, a university undergraduate with a library card and a laptop, to know that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the United Kingdom or America, and as the subsequent war which these Cabinet discussions put into action has been a prolonged and murderous affair, to see the minutes of that meeting is to try to understand, in the shadow of our suspicions, the basis by which such a deadly decision was made.

On Iraq, the facts are quite simple: we were either taken to war through blind idiocy, or we were taken to war on an intentional lie. If anything, the strength of our democracy is more threatened by the idea that our government could have absolute immunity when it comes to committing such war-crimes, than it ever could be by our simply finding out that our government is merely stacked with idiots.

The demand to see these minutes was not a demand to set a legal precedent denying Cabinet members the privacy of free and open discussion. It was a demand to set a legal precedent for accountability when demonstrably flawed decisions lead to deadly and destructive results. Jack Straw’s self-serving decision to veto this request, therefore, should be seen only for what it is: yet another duplicitous move in this ongoing democratic tragedy.

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