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Tuesday, February 24, 2009 

A veto to protect himself.

The decision not to release the minutes of the meetings of the cabinet on the 13th and 17th of March 2003 is both unsurprising and wholly reflective of the entire New Labour approach to so-called open government. Ever since the request was put in under the Freedom of Information act in late December 2006 the government never had any intention of releasing the discussions and had throughout opposed doing so, yet it continued to go along with the pretence of there being a possibility that they would nonetheless be released if the continual appeals were granted. This illusion of accountability has long been held out, whether it be through the introduction of the FoI itself, the Human Rights Act or through continual promised inquiries on various things, yet at each time it has been thwarted. Nothing could be more indicative than this than to repeatedly hold out hopes only then to dash them at the latest possible opportunity.

All this said, it's never been exactly clear what was hoped to be gained from the release of these exact cabinet discussions, mainly because we already know reasonably well that there is little of any great interest in them, which is also why it's so perplexing that the government has refused to do so. We already have for instance Robin Cook's book on his resignation and its wider issues, where he went into some detail on the cabinet discussions leading up to the war, and the major disagreements and challenging of the policy all happened long before March 03. By then it was only Cook and Clare Short who were dissenting, and this is further backed up by the similar accounts in Alastair Campbell's diaries, flecked by his loathing and venom against Short. Short herself has said much the same thing, that there was little if any actual discussion of the legality of the war and the change in position by Lord Goldsmith. The real interest is what went on behind the scenes, with many alleging that Goldsmith was extensively lent on to change his opinion, even begged to do so. That he was malleable in his legal opinion was illustrated by his role in the BAE-Serious Fraud Office slush fund inquiry, which makes it even less unbelievable that he relented in the face of such pressure.

Instead the real reason for withholding the minutes might well be embarrassment, as others have also pointed out, regarding Blair's casual form of "sofa government", as it became known, where little was discussed and all the major decisions were left with Tony himself and his inner circle. Cabinet meetings instead became like a perverse version of "show and tell", individual ministers invited to inform the rest of the class of what they'd got up to since the last meeting, with little analysis or debate about the major issues. This is disputed in some quarters, but is certainly the picture that again leaps out from Campbell's diaries, only on rare occasions there being any dissent.

The arguments made by both Straw and the Tories, as well as the Blairite apologist Martin Kettle that the release of cabinet minutes would undermine the smooth running of government by making the confidential discussions which go on a matter of the public record are all false ones. The tribunal itself declared that this was an exceptional case, which is what it was. There is nothing more serious than the agreement to go to war and the discussion of the legal basis for that is of fundamental importance, even if it turns out that very little of consequence was actually said. The fear is that this would somehow lead to a free for all, with Kettle suggesting people would want to know the same about the discussions over the third runway for Heathrow, or that as a result they would say what people thought they wanted to hear rather than what they actually thought, putting all the real decisions completely behind closed doors and not where it will eventually come out. The former is a logical fallacy because the tribunal would obviously not subsequently go back on its word on lesser issues, and furthermore, the claim that the more important the discussion the more important the confidentiality is one that is designed to keep the public in the dark. Secondly, the idea that decisions and the real important discussions do not already occur behind closed doors and in the margins and corridors is laughable: Labour's first ten years in power was characterised by just that. One of Brown's few improvements has been that more decisions and debates do seem to have occurred in cabinet, or at least more of them have been leaked to the press, including the bust-ups and almost violent disagreements which have occurred. That this release would exacerbate the desire for complete secrecy is little more than a deflective measure.

With all this in mind, the decision not to publish is baffling. When there is little chance of there being anything in embarrassing or revelatory in the minutes, why are they should apparently scared of the consequences? The anger about the Iraq war has now long dissipated except amongst a distinct minority, directly correlated to the decline in the number of bodies in bags returning to Brize Norton. It's with a piece with the refusal to hold a full independent inquiry until every single British item is back home, when again the chief perpetrator has now left the building. Brown of course financed the war, and didn't speak out against it, and is therefore complicit, but few are going to throw the book at him on this rather than on other more pressing issues which he was and is at the direct centre of. Instead perhaps this is something to do with Straw himself: he is almost the last relic of the old regime left at the top directly associated with the war. The person who did his master's bidding then, and also instituted the FoI itself, is now very conveniently the person to slam shut the door of openness. They have never been held to account for Iraq, and now they want to ensure that at least while in power itself they never are. The old adage in journalism was to publish and be damned. This government is too cowardly to do the former and determined not to be the latter.

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