Boris Johnson

How not to run a country

In the first interview since he delivered his report, Lord Butler tells Boris Johnson that Britain suffers from an overmighty executive bringing in ‘a huge number of extremely bad Bills’

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In the first interview since he delivered his report, Lord Butler tells Boris Johnson that Britain suffers from an overmighty executive bringing in ‘a huge number of extremely bad Bills’

If you, like me, had gone charging up the stairs of The Spectator last Tuesday afternoon, and if you had rounded the corner to see the noble profile of Lord Butler of Brockwell, silvery, craggy, radiating patience and integrity as he sat on the sofa, then it might suddenly have occurred to you to wonder — as I did — why this monument of discretion, who served as secretary of the Cabinet and head of the Home Civil Service under three prime ministers, from 1988 to 1998, and who is generally accounted the safest pair of hands in Whitehall, had come to this den of journalism and you might have asked yourself why, for the first time since he had delivered his famous report on the discrepancies between British intelligence, government rhetoric and the pitiful reality of Saddam’s weapons programmes, he had consented to an interview. Why talk now, Robin?

In a way that is both inspiring and exhausting, Lord Butler of Brockwell, 66, has all the manly virtues. He took a first in Greats. He has a rugby blue, and he does not bother to list either distinction in his Who’s Who entry because he also possesses the virtue of restraint. He has consecrated his career to the impartial service of government, Tory or Labour, and all that time he never offered a single public opinion about the way that government was carried on.

The glow-worm politicians came and went, with their ludicrous antics and slogans, and Butler was there to pick up the pieces. He buttled on and he buttled for Britain. He was there in the Cabinet long before Thatcher was slain, and he was still there, trusted and admired, after Blair came to power.

So I think we can agree that it is no desire for publicity that causes him to open his mouth, and we can more or less discount the ostensible grounds for the interview: that he is repaying a debt incurred by a speech I gave to undergraduates at University College, Oxford, where he is the Master. No: this is a man who has spent his life negotiating the exact semantics of Cabinet minutes, and who was most recently charged with arbitrating in the case of Tony Blair and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, an issue of truth and meaning that turned out to be considerably more toxic and explosive than Saddam’s own capabilities.

Frederick Edward Robin Butler, KG, GCB, knows the importance of weighing your words, and he does not speak to the media unless he has something to say.

I begin by asking him whether he is happy with the way the report was received, and he says that by and large he was, though he didn’t like the suggestion in the London Evening Standard that it was a whitewash. In fact, as our conversation goes on, it becomes clear to me that he wants to dispel that impression. Butler’s purpose in the report was not to draw the moral and political conclusions of his findings — that, he says, should properly be left to Parliament and the press.

But he thinks his findings were important, and not favourable to the government. The nub of his criticism is that it was wrong to present the September dossier, to Parliament and public, as the round, unvarnished whole of the wisdom of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and yet to leave out the caveats and saving clauses that went with the original intelligence. ‘When civil servants give material to ministers, they say these are the conclusions we’ve drawn, but we’ve got to tell you that the evidence we’ve got is pretty thin. Similarly, if you are giving something to the United Nations and the country, you should warn them. You should give the same warnings to the public as were given to ministers.’

So why, I ask, didn’t the dossier contain these warnings? Butler couldn’t be clearer. It was about politics, and selling a message. ‘One has got to remember what the purpose of the dossier was. The purpose of the dossier was to persuade the British people why the government thought Iraq was a very serious threat.’

And if those warnings had been included, would that have undermined that purpose? ‘Would it have undermined it? I think it would have. I think it would have weakened it. What the government was saying is, we really think this guy is a threat, because he’s got this terrible stuff, he’s a very bad man, nobody’s got any idea what he may do with it, and then if you say that we’re only drawing this conclusion on the evidence we’ve got, and the direct evidence we’ve got is thin because Iraq is a very difficult country to penetrate — that would have weakened it.’

I now ask Lord Butler to stand back from the case, weak or otherwise, and say what he thinks of the war. Did he support the attack on Saddam? ‘I had a view on that before the war, and I had a view on it, you know, afterwards. And my view on it was not really much affected by what happened. I am not actually going to say what my view was because I haven’t said it publicly, and I’m not going to put it on the record now. But in my view the best argument for it was not what was believed to be there, but the argument that was made on 18 March 2003 [when Blair made a case for regime change, on humanitarian grounds].’

And since the humanitarian case for war has been pretty comprehensively demolished, I have a hunch that this answer hides a Douglas Hurdish dislike of the war. If so, it must be all the more painful, for him, to be accused in some quarters of a whitewash.

‘The thing I found that concerned me most after the report was published was that I got letters from people saying, we lost a son and you say there were faults in the government’s presentation of the evidence, and nobody in the government is paying any price. Those are the most emotionally difficult things. I knew beforehand that was likely to be said.’

But don’t these critics have a point, I wonder. Isn’t it mysterious that he should make these criticisms of the dossier, and yet that no heads should roll?

At this point in the interview I try for ages to get Butler to blame someone, and I have to admit that I fail. He accepts that it was right for the BBC to report the concerns of the intelligence services. He accepts that John Scarlett, the chairman of the JIC, made changes to the dossier at the behest of Alastair Campbell, but says they were ‘justified’. He says that John Scarlett would have been ‘toast’, had not his committee specifically recommended that his job be spared.

Yet he continually insists that it was not his function to point the finger, only to serve as midwife to the truth. ‘I feel strongly that this is something that is part of a much bigger issue on which people are entitled to reach their own conclusions, and I think we have given them the material to reach that conclusion. We have told them all they need to know, and that’s what I get satisfaction from.’

I try all sorts of tacks. Wasn’t it a fearful gamble for Blair to go to war on the basis of what he really knew about WMD, and the risk that they might not be there? ‘As you know, when you are in government, you’ve got to decide, and all decisions are a gamble.’

But isn’t he bound to be gentle on his chums in Whitehall, given that he was for so long their shepherd, and they his sheep?

‘Had I found that one of my chums had really done something rather disreputable I wouldn’t have hesitated to say so ... if I may sort of blow the trumpet of my own profession who are now again being asked to do inquiries.’

And then I try and try to get him to accept that some sort of culpability must be ascribed to Campbell, or Blair, or someone, for the way the intelligence data was hardened up — not l east the claim that Saddam could be ready to fire WMD against British interests in 45 minutes — and though I get some tantalising answers, I do not really succeed.

Because I realise, as the evening starts to rub its back against the window panes of Doughty Street, that Robin doesn’t want to talk about the detail of his report, not any more. He wants to make some general and far more important points — but with implications for the WMD fiasco — about the way Labour governs the country.

It’s not that he objects per se to the proliferation of political appointees in Whitehall; it’s just that this can lead to sensible procedures being ignored. ‘It isn’t wise to listen only to special advisers, and not to listen to fuddy-duddy civil servants who may produce boringly inconvenient arguments.’ You mean, I say, boring and inconvenient arguments like, ‘The evidence is inconclusive, minister?’

‘Good government in my view means bringing to bear all the knowledge and all the arguments you can from inside and outside, debating and arguing them as frankly as you can, and to try to reach a conclusion ... I mean, it’s clear that politically appointed people carry great weight in the government, and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if it’s done to the exclusion of advice from civil servants, you tend to get into error, you make mistakes.

‘I would be critical of the present government in that there is too much emphasis on selling, there is too much central control and there is too little of what I would describe as reasoned deliberation which brings in all the arguments.’

If you were Blair what would you do about that?

‘I think I would restore open debate in government at all levels up to the Cabinet. The Cabinet now — and I don’t think there is any secret about this — doesn’t make decisions.’

But wasn’t that also the case under Mrs Thatcher? ‘She was much more formal about this than her reputation is. She certainly wanted to get her own way, and she was very dominant, but she certainly took the view, as Harold Wilson did, that important decisions should be taken by Cabinet.

‘I think what tends to happen now is that the government reaches conclusions in rather small groups of people who are not necessarily representative of all the groups of interests in government, and there is insufficient opportunity for other people to debate, dissent and modify.’

Does he think that on the whole the country is well governed?

‘Well, I think we are a country where we suffer very badly from Parliament not having sufficient control over the executive and that is a very grave flaw. We should be breaking away from the party whip. The executive is much too free to bring in a huge number of extremely bad Bills, a huge amount of regulation and to do whatever it likes — and whatever it likes is what will get the best headlines tomorrow. All that is part of what is bad government in this country.

‘And the other thing that has happened, of course, is that all decisions are delegated by politicians — because they don’t want to take responsibility for them — to quangos, and quangos aren’t accountable to anybody. You know, all these commissioners who give out the lottery money; the Bank of England are now responsible for interest rates. Now what can you really hold a politician responsible for in domestic policy?

‘I do think Britain is worse governed by the fact that the executive has got so free of any inhibition that is imposed either by Parliament or the public.’ No, says Robin, he doesn’t think it right that Labour should invoke the Parliament Act to overrule the Lords on foxhunting. ‘I don’t think that is what the Parliament Act is there for.

‘It is extraordinary and shameful that the House of Lords, which I am proud to be a member of but which is an unelected body, puts the inhibition on the will of the government (on Labour’s law and order agenda) and it is a shameful thing that the House of Commons doesn’t.

No, he says, of ID cards, ‘I don’t think the benefits will justify the cost,’ and he ends with a reminder of his own amazing achievements at the helm of Whitehall. ‘When the Tories came to power in 1979 the Civil Service was 735,000. By 1983, because of Margaret Thatcher’s diktat, it was down to 635,000. By the time I left the Civil Service, in 1998, some 15 years later, it was down to 450,000.’

For those who have not noticed, the public sector has expanded by some 530,000 since Labour came to power, and last year alone central government grew by 14,800, roughly the population of Ilfracombe.

Perhaps it is time for Blair to recall Butler, not to apportion blame in the matter of WMD, but to turn his great mind to the increasing misrule of the country.