I have the feeling that nobody cares very much about Lord Butler’s report into the use of Iraq war intelligence. The public has made up its mind that the government misled us all deliberately — and issues of sloppy working practices at No. 10 seem, by comparison, small beer indeed. It was the former minister John Denham who summed up the whole business most succinctly last autumn: the government decided to go to war with Iraq and then commissioned reports and dossiers to support that decision. It should have been the other way around. From that point, all else follows. The government needed those dossiers to support its case and quite clearly went about ensuring that they did so.
It is less the ineptitude of No. 10 Downing Street that bothers me than the reflexive dishonesty of the office and, by extension, the Prime Minister. Are we really expected to believe that Tony Blair did not know the full details behind the claim that Saddam could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, as he appeared to assure us last December? Is it conceivable that he didn’t know that this claim related only to very short-range battlefield weapons (which, in any case, did not exist)? If he didn’t, he is staggeringly incompetent and should go. If he did, then he’s been lying.
Meanwhile, Iraqis continue to bask in their ‘eternal spring’ (© William Shawcross, May 2003). The death toll from this criminal — and wildly counterproductive — adventure now stands at just under 15,000 people, which, supporters of the war quietly assert, seems a reasonably small number, especially as most of the dead are Iraqi civilians rather than Coalition troops.
But still we are instructed on an almost daily basis to look at politicians anew and shed the cynicism from our hearts. It is an argument advanced for the most part by politicians, but it has increasingly been taken up by some sections of the media, particularly the BBC. The public will not be so easily fooled again. On Any Questions? in Wootton Bassett last Friday the audience rightly responded to Fiona McTaggart’s defence of the war in Iraq with prolonged and noisy cynicism. They were even noisier in their cynicism when Ann Widdecombe did the latest Tory thing of having her cake and eating it — by supporting the war and somehow attacking the government for starting it in the first place. In what possible way is the Conservative party’s stance on Iraq not self-serving and deserving of cynicism?
Here at The Spectator, meanwhile, we await the delivery of ten tons of horse manure, a parting gift from my estranged wife, Rachel. She won it in a raffle and rather kindly assumed that I would like it. She claimed, in a downmarket tabloid newspaper, that it had already been dispatched, but we’ve seen no sign of it in Doughty Street. I’m beginning to wonder if she’s had second thoughts and actually wants to keep it for herself. I don’t think that I’m in a very strong position, morally, to complain if this is indeed the case. In fact, morally and metaphorically, I’ve been up to my neck in rather more than ten tons of manure these past two weeks. Her promised delivery seems somehow superfluous.
My late father used to entertain himself of an evening by contradicting the newsreaders. He would sit in his armchair and when Robert Dougal said something like, ‘Another 100,000 American troops returned home from Vietnam today,’ my dad would shake his head and say, ‘No they didn’t.’ I think it cheered him up to disavow every single thing on the news, whether or not there was direct evidence staring him in the face. Perhaps in my middle age I’m becoming more like him, because the other morning I started contradicting the seemingly retarded young women who present BBC Breakfast news. One of them, I forget which, trailed a forthcoming item with the following statement: ‘Snakes are now more popular as pets than dogs.’ ‘No they’re not,’ I said to her from my armchair. Luckily, in a later trail she cleared things up. ‘Snakes,’ she said, ‘are now Britain’s most popular pets.’ And then added: ‘For some people.’ Aaah.
So, my dignified silence continues. Kevin Filth and Jemima Muck from the Daily Mail are camped outside the back door, begging for a line about the — and I quote — ‘tragic break-up of your marriage to Rachel Royce’. And they add, ‘We just want to hear your side of the story, Rod. Plus a photograph, if possible. With Alicia.’ Alicia is the woman with whom I love-ratted, if such a verb exists. Some of them — the hacks — have asked Alicia to do a photograph without any clothes on, or at least not many clothes on. Nobody’s asked me for that, yet. There’s no accounting for taste, is there? But in any case, the answer would be no because I’m maintaining a dignified silence, as you may have gathered.
I’ve been here before, mind. There were reporters camped outside the back door a little under two years ago, when I resigned from the BBC having written an article about the Countryside Alliance to which the Corporation’s bosses took exception. So there’s a very neat symmetry being observed. Back then I left a noble institution on a matter of profound principle. This time I’ve left a noble institution through, I suppose, a total and profound lack of principle. Back then I didn’t keep a dignified silence; I barked about it all over the place. So maybe this time around it isn’t a dignified silence but a somewhat hypocritical silence. Anyway, forgive this uncharacteristic introspection please. It’s the strain of trying to remain dignified and silent for ages. It’s beginning to get to me.
Friends ring from time to time. Most of them try to console but end up howling with laughter and reading me chunks out of the Daily Mail. Alan Coren, my sparring partner on Call My Bluff, suggested we run away together, for which offer I’m supremely grateful. The editor of this magazine rang with what I eventually gathered was a nice pastoral chat. The last time he gave me a nice pastoral chat I ended up buying him lunch. This time the nice pastoral chat was regularly punctuated by hearty guffaws. And then Andrew Gilligan rang. Listen to me: when Andrew Gilligan calls you to commiserate about the press vilification you’re experiencing, you know you’re in big trouble.