Gus O’Donnell is right
More work for the Rebuttal Service. My colleagues in the LBLM&C (London-based liberal media and culturati) will be excited in tomorrow’s newspapers about Sir John Chilcot’s exchange of correspondence with Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary (below), which the Iraq Inquiry published today.
Sir John says he is “disappointed” that Sir Gus won’t agree to the publication of memos between Tony Blair and George W Bush, which the Inquiry committee has seen.
For the LBLM&C, there is only one way to interpret this, which is that the dreadful secret of how Blair signed Britain up in blood and oil to do whatever the idiot Bush wanted is being concealed.
You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.
In other words, when Blair said in conditions of utmost secrecy in front of the cameras in Downing Street on 11 September 2001 that Britain stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the US, he meant it — and he would try to persuade his Cabinet, Parliament and people that the change in the calculus of risk after 9/11 meant that Saddam Hussein’s WMD ambitions could no longer be tolerated.
So we know what Blair thought because he told us at the time, and will no doubt tell us again on Friday.
But on the principle of disclosure, the interpretation of the exchange of knightly letters that will not be expressed in tomorrow’s newspapers is that Sir Gus is right to refuse to publish the notes; indeed that he has a constitutional duty to refuse publication. As he says in his last letter:
Exchanges between the UK Prime Minister and US President represent particularly privileged channels of communication, the preservation of which is strongly in the public interest. Even where immediate sensitivity may have passed, disclosure of the material could still prejudice relations by inhibiting future exchanges.
The argument could be made that if both Blair and Bush agreed to the publication, that would be fine, but even that would create an expectation that could have an inhibiting effect. If a prime minister or president thought that he or she might come under pressure in the future to agree to the publication of his or her words, it might stifle frankness.
It hardly applies in this case, but when you consider that so many of Blair’s critics accuse him of riding roughshod and other clichés over constitutional principle, this is one important constitutional principle with which they seem remarkably cavalier.
Photograph: Getty ImagesTagged in: chilcot, iraq inquiry
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