Boris Johnson, Coronavirus, COVID-19, COVID-19 Public Inquiry, Democracy, Inquiries Act 2005, Iraq War, Keir Starmer, Opinion, Politics, The Chilcot Report, The Grenfell Tower Fire, The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, The Macpherson Report, Tony Blair
Already these people are starting. Already it is creeping into discussions within the media and it is being viewed increasingly as a dead cert. One of the weirder kinks of the political elite is this compulsion that they have to continuously hold public inquiries. For them, the solution to any scandal is a public inquiry. As they see it, a public inquiry should not merely measure and analyse some scar on the nation but it should in itself come to exemplify the healing process. According to the Inquiries Act 2005, one of the purposes of a public inquiry is “catharsis” and “an opportunity for reconciliation.”
Supporters of the public inquiry are never remotely discouraged by the abject failure of every previous public inquiry. Now, with COVID-19 providing a wonderful opportunity to hold yet another public inquiry, the faithful are already groping their way back to their morbid ritual and its moth-eaten solemnity. We must have a public inquiry!
There is, in fact, lobbying currently underway for two separate public inquiries. One will, as the wording of the petition puts it, “confirm what decisions were made around preventing the spread of the coronavirus and protection of the UK population, and how this was balanced with the level of health care services available and effects on the economy.” The other, which is backed by the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, seeks to account for the higher rate of deaths from COVID-19 among the BAME communities.
Somebody who has never seen a public inquiry in action might think that the idea sounds well worth while. A bunch of clever lawyers and experts, with the ability to flush out and cross-examine distant, secretive officials, should be surely able to establish all of the facts about a particular scandal and to knowledgeably apportion blame for it. But every previous public inquiry shows there to be a vast chasm between this ideal of an expert intervention and the reality. And indeed, the public inquiry has managed to miraculously survive failure after failure because its rituals gratify a persistent fantasy about expertise. Where the public inquiry grows compulsive for its supporters is in its anti-democratic implications.
First one needs a scandal. The significance of this scandal is that it is meant to overwhelm the insect efforts of regular politicians, who will prove so squalid and infantile and fundamentally limited precisely because their authority issues from us, the people. Once power has been wrested away from elected members of parliament, the public inquiry can begin and it begins with the fantasy of a glamorous outsider who is galloping in on a white horse. This will be a fine lord or “a retired judge,” somebody who is cool, impartial, with silver hair and a grey suit. The grey suit is probably the most important element here for, as with public manifestations of the Chinese Communist Party or the European Commission, a grey suit always instantly denotes expertise.
The inevitable problem is that the individual who fronts the public inquiry is supposed to arrive from outside the establishment, whereas in reality they can be only summoned from deep within it. They are meant to be one of the angels who had visited Sodom but they are also, unavoidably, a Sodomite. Some public inquiries get this paradox jammed in their throats from the outset. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, for example, is now on to its fourth chair. The first two had been made to resign after being thought to be too close to the establishment; with the third, Dame Lowell Goddard, the public inquiry had gone to the absurd lengths of importing a judge from New Zealand. This fantasy that a wise anti-establishment outsider could be beamed down from the stars eventually shattered, with (contested) accusations that Dame Lowell had used racist language about sexual abuse in the UK’s Asian community.
With the Grenfell Tower Inquiry – almost certainly the worst, the stupidest and yet also the most characteristic example of a public inquiry – the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick as its chief executive similarly brought to the surface all of the impossible expectations surrounding a public inquiry. At a public meeting in July 2017, following Sir Martin’s appointment, he and his team were condemned and they were told that they “don’t represent the community” and that they “do not look like any of us.” Sir Martin replied that “I have spent 20 years as a judge, looking into the sort of problems that have to be considered in relation to this fire.”
One struggles to picture the kind of spectacular individual who could acceptably lead the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. In having the standing within the legal establishment to be appointed to such a prestigious role, whilst in the same measure enjoying the confidence of a severely marginalised community, such a candidate would need to defy all of the normal laws of the class system as breathtakingly as Superman had done with gravity. In any case, the community couldn’t nominate an alternative judge and so they became stuck with Sir Martin. Yet if one doesn’t wish to be holistically reconciled with the establishment, as part of a transcendental healing process, then it is best not to engage with a public inquiry in the first place. Many of Grenfell’s bereaved and survivors were searching for more disruptive response to the disaster than a public inquiry.
Sir Martin had admitted at the community meeting that his public inquiry had “no power” to direct criminal prosecutions and that it was little more than a fact-finding jaunt. One might think that academia in the UK is bloated enough to fully incorporate everything that is happening in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Nonetheless, the very landscape of the public inquiry usually tilts it towards obfuscation in ways that would generate distress even within academia. This is because the public inquiry seldom straightforwardly attributes blame to individuals but it instead tries to make out that a broader “culture” or some kind of institutional malaise is mysteriously responsible for the scandal in question.
Perhaps this had begun with the Macpherson report in 1999 and its evasive notion that there was “institutional racism” within the London metropolitan police force. This racism was apparently expressed in everything about the police – it was present in the photocopiers and the coffee cups and the paperclips – so that it became in the end little more than “sick building syndrome.” In what the writer Jennie Bristow has derided as “racism without racists,” individuals were no longer actively responsible and they were instead being passively wafted along with the racism. Still, the obfuscation that is so typical of the public inquiry really found its voice and learned how to talk during the public inquiries into the Iraq War.
Any child can see what had happened in the Iraq War. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, took it into his head to join the USA’s invasion of Iraq. The only person who could have stopped him in this was his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who for a while experimentally signalled his disapproval of the war but who then decided that it lay in his political interests to back it. In 2003, Iraq was visibly one of the poorest and most demilitarised nations on the planet, but this did not prevent a majority of the UK’s parliamentarians from persuading themselves that it was somehow a security threat. The results, as could be expected from helping to take custody of a nation that we knew next to nothing about, was an explosion of devastating violence.
Although it was carelessly written in less than two minutes, the previous paragraph probably offers a better precis of the Iraq War than the millions of words from the Lords Hutton, Butler and Chilcot. Their own reports crept up on the Iraq War, rather like in a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps, with Chilcot finally pouncing energetically on the subject in 2016. Blair claimed vindication after each report and even following Chilcot’s appraisal he was maintaining that it “should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit.” By 2016, Blair was safely out of power and his party had detoxified itself of his influence, but he did not face any personal legal consequences either.
The hilarity of these public inquiries is that they last for years, they cost millions of pounds, they interview countless witnesses, and yet when they announce that they are complete they will take up a few hours in that day’s news cycles before disappearing without a trace. Chilcot’s was no exception.
Each report had stopped short at an analysis of the “culture within government,” rather than studying the power politics behind the war. Perhaps, though, it was better this way. These reports should have never set out to rumble Blair or to scrutinise his political motivations. This would have been an impertinence and as illegitimate within our democracy as the House of Lords overriding the executive. Blair had won a general election after the Iraq War and, politically, he and his henchpeople had got away with it. Those such as me, who had marched against the war, were history’s losers, as indeed were all of the people who had died in it.
This is the cruelty of politics but, by contrast, the public inquiry is simply escapism. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry fulsomely demonstrates the folly of replacing active politics with a judicial excursion. Once this public inquiry had been set up, the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn could no longer raise Grenfell Tower at Prime Minister’s Questions. He had essentially consented to surrender promising political ground to an unelected judge.
Soon the logic of the mysterious creeping “culture” had reliably set to work and, in bizarre and deeply offensive scenes, firefighters who had been merely reacting to the Grenfell fire were being interrogated and publicly humiliated. In the course of its stately progress, the public inquiry implied that these firefighters were part of a wider cultural malaise, which supposedly went beyond individual culpability and into deeper societal failings that we all ultimately share in. Even when Sir Martin was reprimanding the firefighters, he specified that they had lacked the “training” to respond to the fire, as a result of “systematic failings,” and hence that it was the culture, rather than them personally, that was to blame.
Public inquiries only ever get worse and worse. It is as if this institution is trapped in a nightmarish process wherein the more venerable and esteemed it becomes, the more senile its antics. After the public inquiry has made such a disgrace of itself with the Grenfell and the Child Sex-Abuse debacles, only the most twisted of minds could devise a case for another public inquiry. Rather encouragingly, one prominent sceptic of public inquiries is the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Last year, he had grumbled that, “you, know £60 million I saw was being spaffed up a wall on some investigation into historic child abuse.” In the coming months, as calls for a public inquiry into his COVID-19 response become a clamour and a cacophony, this issue will interestingly test his character.
For just as a public inquiry is suddenly scuttling crabwise onto the political scene, the opposition has acquired, in Sir Keir Starmer, a talented performer at Prime Minister’s Questions. The alternative to holding a public inquiry would be for Sir Keir to forensically interrogate Johnson, week in and week out, on the government’s performance and its record. This would entail far more active scrutiny than the public inquiry; it would be punchier, messier, more unpredictable and greatly more democratic. The trouble is that Johnson might turn tail and come to see the public inquiry as offering relief from this pressure. In such circumstances, the COVID-19 public inquiry would become – in a pattern familiar from every other public inquiry – a means of depoliticising a controversy and postponing a reckoning with it.