Any day now, you can expect Downing Street to announce that there will be a public inquiry into the Third Crusade. Did Richard the Lionheart exaggerate the threat posed by Saladin? Was unreasonable force used at Acre, and what benefit was there to England in any case, when Richard's time could have been better spent attending to outbreaks of scrofula at home?
It may seem far-fetched, but an inquiry into the crusades is slightly more likely than Tony Blair announcing a public inquiry into the publication of the 'dodgy dossier' which foreshadowed the House of Commons' vote on war in Iraq. During his six years in office, the Prime Minister has perfected the use of the public inquiry as a political tool. When it comes to dubious events which have occurred during his own premiership, an inquiry is something to be strongly resisted as a waste of valuable time and money. When it comes to scandals which have occurred under previous administrations, on the other hand, no effort is to be spared in the quest for truth.
All but forgotten by the public, and even by the media, the three-year-old Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday ground on this week at Central Hall in Westminster. A report is expected by the middle of 2004 at the earliest; by which time the inquiry will have swallowed £200 million of public money. However interesting the political and military intrigue uncovered by the exhaustive analysis of events in Londonderry 31 years ago, no matter whether individual soldiers will be found to have acted with excessive zeal, it is certain that the inquiry will come to no better conclusion than that put by Colonel Ted Loden, formerly of the Parachute Regiment's Support Unit, in one sentence to Lord Saville this week: 'If the IRA had not opened fire on my soldiers with murderous intent, no one would have been killed.'
The purpose of the Saville inquiry, of course, is not to examine the actions of the IRA. Republican terrorists giving evidence have been granted immunity from prosecution. Nor will there be any parallel inquiry into the 2,000 terrorist murders in Ulster since 1969 which remain unsolved. Instead, Hugh Orde, chief constable of Northern Ireland, proposed this week a 'truth and reconciliation commission' in order to provide 'closure' for victims' families. If reconciliation is an appropriate route for paramilitaries who murdered in cold blood, why not for soldiers who may have acted recklessly in the course of their very dangerous duties?
Reconciliation, however, would not fulfil the ulterior, political motive of a public inquiry: an attempt to embarrass a previous administration of a different political colour. The instances of when Tony Blair has and hasn't acceded to requests for public inquiries paint an interesting picture of political expedience. He held one into BSE: a scandal which, admittedly, did involve carelessness on the part of ministers and civil servants. But where was the public inquiry into foot-and-mouth, a similar story of ministerial bungling? Nowhere to be seen. The government ordered a public inquiry into the Marchioness riverboat disaster 14 years ago. Yet there will be no public inquiry into last year's Potters Bar rail disaster, which occurred at a time when the railway system was in a chaotic period of administration, thanks to the government's decision to pull the plug on Railtrack.
Whenever there is a chance to put former Conservative ministers in the dock, no matter how long ago the events, a public inquiry follows. When Labour ministers would be the main subjects of inquiry, it is refused. Whatever else might be said about Ted Heath, he did not take the cowardly route followed by Tony Blair and his director of communications, Alastair Campbell, who, besides refusing to order a public inquiry into the dodgy dossier, have been refusing even to appear before a private inquiry by MPs. Lest anybody should have forgotten, there has already been one inquiry into Bloody Sunday, conducted by Lord Widgery shortly after the events in 1972, which, far from being a whitewash, concluded that soldiers' actions had 'bordered on the reckless', but came to the conclusion that terrorists had fired first. Why could that not stand? Why should the government expect a more accurate account of the day by holding an inquiry 30 years later when many of the witnesses are dead?
Bloody Sunday was an important matter at the time, yet in the context of a 30-year terrorist campaign which verged on civil war it is a detail which ought to be the territory of historians, not politicians and judges. The charge that the Prime Minister misled MPs into voting for war against Saddam Hussein by wilfully exaggerating the threat posed by his regime is, by contrast, a serious and immediate affair. If Mr Blair is slithering out of a public inquiry into the dodgy dossier, Her Majesty's Opposition should promise one the moment they regain power.
Mark Amory, our literary editor, has been awarded the Heywood Hill literary prize in recognition of 'a lifetime's contribution to the enjoyment of the world of books'. He shares the prize of £20,000 with Hilary Spurling, who was this magazine's literary editor from 1966 to 1970.