Following the total non-shock of Tony Blair’s non-apology at the Chilcot Inquiry, some of the volumes of comment made beforehand look a little odd. It seems certain that the spectacle of the evidence sessions, and the attention they have generated, will mean that even if Chilcot’s panel produce a whitewashed report, people will be able to make their own minds up – much of the evidence has been dynamite. In that sense, the final report, and Blair’s steadfastness in his views, are irrelevant.
One curious feature of many strands of comment have related to “the Establishent” and the idea that Chilcot is somehow an “Establishment figure” and therefore predisposed to find in favour of the Government. Armando Ianucci’s article in The Independent rests firmly on this proposition, for instance. Indeed, it seems to be a stock accusation to level at sometimes very balanced arguments: “that’s the Establishment view, of course…”
This construct of “the Establishment” is largely nonsensical, and a hindrance to clear insight. It is a phrase in which certain assumptions are bundled, as with “the Powers That Be” or, say, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. Those who wish to can, if they desire, play on the differences between those assumptions and the truth: for instance, the phrase “Weapons of Mass Destruction” might be taken by the reader to mean nuclear bombs or inter-continental ballistic missiles, even if the actual weapons being referred to are, say, battlefield munitions such as artillery shells – someone misusing the phrase in this way might protest that even they are pretty massively destructive if you’re on the receiving end, and on a semantic level it’s hard to tell them they’re wrong… These phrases can be used to do the audience’s thinking for them: referring to Saddam Hussein as “Saddam” served to hide the real figure under a demonised persona created by his enemies for their own ends – it might not have been a wholly inaccurate persona, but it put the emphasis on the monstrous and morally offensive rather than on, say, his position at the head of a sovereign state of the sort that ought not to be invaded without the strongest possible justification. Any use of cliche or stock phrases should make the cautious reader alarmed.
And so it is with “the Establishment”. Who are these people? Generally well-educated and materially comfortable people, often those who have served at a high level in the public sector in some sort of influential role. At most, it can be extended to those who are materially wealthy or who are in some other way influential. But does that mean they are somehow a different breed of person? Of course not: among whatever definition of “the Establishment” you choose to settle on, you will find the good and the bad in more or less the same quantities as in any other arbitrarily-selected portion of the population. You will certainly find, among the “Establishment” likes of John Chilcot, people who have much the same concerns as any other human being and who will do their best to do the right thing as far as they are able. Writing such figures off as part of “the Establishment” is not only to do them an injustice, but likely to make the observer draw some deeply wonky conclusions.
But why is the “Establishment” view so appealing? It seems to be the same human instinct that drives people to see the world in terms of a quasi-mythical “Establishment” as drives them to believe in God. It’s an odd combination of the desire for an explanation and an unwillingness to accept that that explanation can truly be known to us. We often seem to need to believe that there is something more: more than we can see with our own eyes; more than we are ever told about; more than we can ever know. An all-embracing explanation that makes everything seem ordered, logical and sensible is appealing, but seemingly tantalisingly out of reach: if only we understood the mysteries of creation, everything would make rational sense, but alas God moves in mysterious ways; if only we were in on the machinations of the “Establishment” then the events that led us to invade Iraq would become readily explicable, but alas we’ll never get to the bottom of it all…
The allure of this idea of an unknowable explanation is especially potent when the real explanations are discernable, but only with difficulty. We are able to explain creation, up to a point, with the Big Bang theory, and science is taking us closer to even greater knowledge: while we might not have got there yet, it seems overwhelmingly likely that existence is susceptible of a scientific explanation. Snag is, such science is very difficult to understand. Similarly with Iraq: the exact reasons for why we went to war are hard to pin down. Was it just to do with oil? That doesn’t quite explain the timing (the US seemed to be driven by a post-9/11 momentum, which wouldn’t have mattered if oil had been the sole motive); was it simply a desire for revenge on Saddam Hussein following the restitution of the Republican regime under Bush II? Well, surely wars are not waged for such petty reasons? Indeed, it seems hard to accept that the UK’s involvement arose purely because one man had his head turned by proximity to power… yet it’s quite possible that Blair’s actions stemmed from no better cause than that. Either way, it seems that most of the facts needed to explain what happened are already known to us; but putting them together coherently is no more easy than understanding the finer points of the physics behind the Big Bang Theory. Most people cannot do it; of those who can, many have better things to do with their time than devote it to such a challenging and ultimately academic task.
So an explanation of unknowable magic still has some appeal: the impulse that drives people to believe in the “Establishment” as a meaningful way of understanding anything is the same impulse that leads some people to believe in God – on close inspection it makes very little sense and there’s very little evidence for it, but in the immediate term it provides a superficially attractive and neat explanation. And, I suppose, if you find that satisfying than good for you – it must make life feel a lot more comfortable.