The human tale in Court 73
We may never know why David Kelly died, but we can act now to prevent more deaths in Iraq
Exit Lord Hutton, pursued by plaudits. Already, his inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly is being trailed as a benchmark in detective work and a milestone of democracy. Part Inspector Rebus novel, part Magna Carta, the Hutton report will distil tragedy into a code of best practice for national life. Maybe.
The transcripts over which Lord Hutton now mulls are generally acknowledged to be extraordinary. But many of them only prove the obvious. Ministers dissemble to save their skins. Radio reporters do not all possess perfect shorthand, or even Biros. Some BBC line managers may not be fit to run a whelk stall. Dossiers were egged-up, or over-sexed, and intelligence got mistaken for information. We knew most of that, or assumed it. What's so shocking?
Clearly, the death of the inquiry's subject. But many of the trials Dr Kelly faced are not unusual, either. The country is full of vile employers, nefarious colleagues and 59-year-old men fearful that their jobs are precarious and their pensions unsafe. The normal forum for postmortems into these problems is the office water-cooler, not the mortuary slab and the Royal Courts of Justice.
The oddity in the Kelly fiasco lay in the three-way collision of a bullying administration crossed on a critical issue by a man close to breaking point. The resulting inquiry often looks less like a noble quest for truth than an outbreak of the national disease of hysteria. This is the ultimate political peepshow, billed as the conduit to a shinier public life. Its real revelation, so far, has been to twitch open the net curtains on private grief.
That is not a criticism of Lord Hutton, who has behaved with the dignity praised by Dr Kelly's widow, Janice. Even so, he must sometimes wonder what sort of judicial soap opera he is directing. The script contains a bit of Dangerfield, a slice of Holby City, a touch of Midsomer Murders, while the central characters so fail to fit the hero and villain roles allocated to them that even the indefensible Geoff Hoon inspires no real fury.
Dr Kelly is a grey figure who told people differing stories, or none. Frank with the journalists who ultimately contributed to his demise, he confided little to his wife about his job, his travels and his conversion to the Bahai faith. In contradiction to the orgy of openness unleashed by the inquiry, Dr Kelly was only patchily free with information. Instead, he appears so secretive that there were some things he could not confide, even to himself. It only struck him belatedly, for example, that he might have been Susan Watts's source.
The care with which he dusted his own fingerprints from his life and death is part of what makes Lord Hutton's task impossible. The central question, of what drove Dr Kelly to die, may remain locked in some private agony, never shared. Though he killed himself, this fact does not satisfy those who, equating omission with commission, decipher the prints on Dr Kelly's old Scout knife as those of the Prime Minister. This charge has been debunked, however inadvertently, by Janice Kelly's honest testimony.
If the Hutton inquiry has produced fewer bombshells than we imagine about how Britain is governed, it has provided an unexpected portrait of how it lives. The marriage unveiled by Mrs Kelly sounded far from the rural idyll of newspaper pastiche. She described a husband who travelled abroad at weekends, so as to clear the week for work he barely discussed, and who never mentioned the letter suggesting that he might be nominated for a knighthood. There were few holidays until the forced exile to Cornwall, where Dr Kelly, on the run from the press, gazed at the tourist beauty spot his wife took him to visit with the blank eyes of someone who may, by then, have been staring at his own death.
Implicit in her evidence was a man whose self-esteem was bound into his work and who could not cope when his bosses berated him as if he was a small figure, before throwing him into the public gaze. There may be other, undisclosed factors that prompted him to leave his daughters and wife, without farewell or explanation. But the very fact that Mrs Kelly can supply no clues hints at the unfathomable nature of someone whose life had become derailed from any tolerable future. Already we know enough about why Dr Kelly died.
Certainly, there are important issues left for Lord Hutton to explore. But, all the time, other corpses pile up. In the weeks that we have been staring at the crumpled body in the woods, better men than Dr Kelly, and worse ones, have died unelected deaths. Four car bombings in Iraq wiped out victims, including the UN representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Ayatollah Hakim, and more than 100 of his Shia disciples are dead, along with around 80 US and British soldiers, as well as charity workers and uncounted civilians
The public view of mortality often follows the Stalinist precept. The more bodies there are, the more comfortably they translate into statistics. Once again, the focus on an individual death has distorted reality. The exaggerated suggestion that Mr Blair has Dr Kelly's fate on his hands blots out the more indelible stain of other people's blood. Mr Blair bears much responsibility for those who die daily in Iraq, in the wake of the war he prosecuted. The dodginess of his dossiers and the flaws of the intelligence services are yesterday's issues, and tomorrow's. Lord Hutton may, hopefully, have useful things to say about such byproducts to his inquiry.
For today, there are more vital matters. But, as the aftermath of the war the Prime Minister sponsored grows bloodier, Britain has settled down to a macabre variant of Cluedo. Who killed Dr Kelly? Was it Mr Scarlett in the kitchen with the egg whisk, or Mr Hoon in the meeting room with the naming strategy? In the focus on one tragedy, others disappear.
As for Dr Kelly, he is, despite his martyr status, a bit-part player at his own inquiry. Bigger reputations than his are on the line. The Prime Minister will almost certainly survive Hutton. There will be a change of Defence Secretary, a few BBC executives will be kicked upstairs, and, if we are unlucky, the new, simpering, Hello!-style Today programme will be here to stay.
In the meantime, fixating on the past is pointless. The callous treatment accorded to a dead scientist cannot, regrettably, be rescinded or battles unfought. The immediate issue is not why Mr Blair got into war but how he now plans to get Iraq out of conflict. The last, best, tenuous hope of peace is to persuade the UN to comply with the hopes of a frightened US President.
If that is to be achieved, the Prime Minister will need to broker international deals with the enthusiasm he once accorded to the 45-minute claim. Maybe British politics have really grown less cruel. If so, the test will be not be in the confessional of Court 73 but in the ravaged cities of Iraq.
©Copyright 2003, Guardian (UK)
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