Iraq is our Watergate. Blair must tell the truth

Today is the most important day in Tony Blair’s life since he left No 10 — hence his intense preparation, so desperate is he to clear his name of the accusations against him, and to show that his decision-making over Iraq was flawless in conception and execution. We will know by 5 o’clock today whether he has chosen to conduct himself as his own defence lawyer or as a statesman worthy of the high office he held. At stake is his reputation.

We have never seen a day like this in British history, with a former Prime Minister being publicly questioned about such a contentious policy. Once the Second World War was over, the key figures were not interrogated about the events of the Munich Crisis and the fateful events surrounding the appeasement of Hitler seven years before.

But seven years after Iraq, Mr Blair is being questioned, and the pressure on him is intense. As with Munich over Neville Chamberlain and the Suez crisis over Anthony Eden, so does Iraq cast a deep shadow over Mr Blair’s entire premiership, eclipsing all the achievements in his ten years in office.

Mr Blair believes that he acted morally and wisely, taking decisions in the interests of Britain and the people of Iraq, and also of world security. He will want to dispatch for ever any notions that he lied or behaved inappropriately, asserting instead that he acted courageously in a grave moment in our history.

But at issue is much more than Mr Blair’s personal place in history. Britain’s standing in the world and its moral authority have been stained by Iraq. The relationship between the Government and the British public has also been badly damaged. Trust in politicians has still not recovered from what many see as Britain’s entry into a controversial war on a false prospectus, with the Prime Minister lying to achieve it. This has engendered the pent-up fury with politicians that we saw unleashed last year in the expenses scandal.

Iraq parallels the great scandal across the Atlantic, Watergate, in the yearning of the public to see the leader accept responsibility, not evade it. In the US, President Nixon was in the dock. Now it is Mr Blair. He must not hide behind his traditional plea for clemency: “I did what I believed to be right.”

No one is interested in his own self-estimation. He is a deep and principled man, but he has allowed himself to become a shallow and evasive one over Iraq. His guiding light today must not be to explain or defend himself, but to be totally honest. Deep down, he must know he has been dissembling.

However painful for him personally, and however much he may think (wrongly) it will scar his reputation, he must tell the truth, a truth that he refused to see when he visited the Pope on February 22, the month before hostilities commenced.

The Pope was known to be implacably opposed to the war, but the ever-confident Mr Blair believed that he could convince him. Exhausted on arrival, Mr Blair had been desperately seeking some solace and understanding. The Pope gave him none. He left Rome bitterly disappointed, but even more resolved on his course of action.

The question he must answer is why exactly he was so fixated on the removal of Saddam Hussein. He should admit that the moral argument was more compelling to him personally than the issue of weapons of mass destruction. He should confess that his determination to take on Saddam on moral grounds led to his failure to test the intelligence sufficiently and to exaggerate its solidity, especially the claim that Iraq could launch WMDs within 45 minutes — a claim which many accepted at the time on trust from a man who told us that he was straight and trustworthy.

He should acknowledge that the almost unimaginable pressure at the time led to insufficient consultation with his colleagues and others in the government machine and the military. He should confess that the post-war planning was woefully inadequate, and that he should have done more to ensure that Washington had it covered.

He should accept that his fervour led to Britain being taken for granted by Washington and that he should have done more to influence the Bush Administration while he had the leverage, notably over the Middle East peace process. Finally, he should show deep contrition that his cavalier style of government led to the needless loss of life and injury of many allied soldiers and Iraqis.

Since he left No 10, Mr Blair has sought to be an ambassador for religion. But he has done little to advance the cause of Christianity through his professions of faith, or by his disregard of the views of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many other religious leaders over Iraq. His jet-set lifestyle and his lack of humility since have helped neither him nor the cause of religion.

Yet his motivation for Britain’s participation in Iraq was a fundamentally good impulse, derived from the parable of the Good Samaritan, and his desire not to “walk by on the other side” when avoidable suffering was occurring at the hands of Saddam. But Christianity is also about humility and a fierce determination to be truthful.

Mr Blair has the chance today either to tell us again how honest and principled he is, and how he did everything for the best and with right motives, or to tell us the truth.

Telling the truth may release pent-up fury in Britain and across the world. But it will also allow the still-livid scar to begin the process of healing. He must stop being the school pupil protesting that he was right against all the evidence. He must realise how deep has been the hurt and offence caused by his actions in 2003, and by his seven-year protestations of innocence.

Mr Blair needs to move on. His post-premiership activities will continue to lack credibility and invite scorn until this unfinished business is resolved. The country, too, needs to move on — which only an admission of responsibility for the mistakes will achieve. It will pave the way for a new bond of trust between the Government and voters, whichever party wins the general election.

Many think Tony Blair is a shallow braggart and a deceiver. I do not. Today we will discover exactly what kind of man he is.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College and the author of Blair, the biography.