When it comes to British complicity in torture and rendition, for some years the Labour Government has put up stolid, rearguard action against the truth. Those who thought of Labour as the party of human rights will, perhaps, be sad that it has taken a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to announce an inquiry.
Not a moment too soon. As Richard Nixon taught us during Watergate, no matter what the crime, the cover up often does more harm. Significantly, if we suppress evidence of crimes, we also make it far more likely that the same offence will be committed in future: You cannot learn from history unless you know what that history is.
In 1999, Geoffrey Howe set out some of the purposes of an inquiry: establishing the facts, learning from events, providing catharsis for the victims, rebuilding public confidence, and accountability. Doubtless the Coalition also recognizes a political element: an inquiry wipes the slate clean, so that a new administration is not visited with the sins of its predecessor.
Learning from the past is the most important goal. It is perhaps inevitable that a future tragedy will provoke a future government to panic. It transpired that Labour’s instincts were built on quicksand, and ministers abandoned core British principles. “It is vital to remember that torture does not help us defeat terrorists,” Hague wrote before the election. “It helps them to try to justify their hostility to us." Rules must be in place to remind future politicians of this.
We must also learn from earlier inquiries. Questions were raised about Lord Hutton’s leanings towards the government, and this undermined his credibility before he began. The impact of Chilcot was dulled when weaselling witnesses were allowed to avoid the tough questions.
It is important that the inquiry give value for money. An inquiry can ease, rather than increase, the pressure on the Exchequer. One of my hobbies of late has been to begin to assess the amount of money that Labour has spent defending the indefensible: using our tax money to pay legions of Treasury solicitors, supported by silken-tongued barristers, to argue that official American and British crimes should remain hidden.
Under Labour, I estimate that the cost is already over a million pounds, and many more chickens are headed home to roost in the judicial henhouse. Vast sums would be frittered away under the Labour’s Maginot Line strategy. Better, surely, to spend less money to expose more truth.
Finally Lord Howe speaks of accountability. This does not have to mean sending people to prison. The American experience proves that once the criminal lawyers get involved, the search for truth evaporates into a miasma of paranoid suspects. If Witness B – the now-notorious MI5 agent who interrogated Binyam Mohamed and others – was ordered by his superiors that he should not expose the truth about prisoner abuse, it is hardly fair to hold him criminally responsible. Those who made up the rules are the politicians who allowed the horrors of rendition. However, if the Tories and LibDems seek to prosecute every Labour minister up to Tony Blair, the truth will be lost in a quagmire of politics.
Far better, surely, to seek truth and allow reconciliation.