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Brian Cloughley: Blood On Their Hands

Blood On Their Hands

By Brian Cloughley
Wednesday, 23 July 2003

Britain has been riven by the suicide of a decent man who apparently found life unbearable after he was insulted and bullied by a bunch of self-important prats whose position as members of the British parliament gives them immunity from similar treatment within the precincts of their building. I have no doubt the affair has been compared elsewhere, or will be so compared, to the mediaeval Court of the Star Chamber of evil memory.

This body was established in the same place, and in my 1902 edition of ' Westminster' by Walter Bezant, is noted as 'being on the east side of Palace Yard' , its name deriving from the roof decoration which, contrary to the inevitable conspiracy theorists, had nothing to do with the Star of David. As noted by Norman Davies in his majestic 'The Isles', the Court was in fact supra-parliamentarian and 'encompassed... both the executive and the judiciary, thereby creating a block of influence' that could dominate parliament itself. Alas, in modern times we see growth of comparable bodies, but these are spawned, populated and encouraged by the very people who should be the guardians of liberty: politicians elected by the people.

There is a curious and far from inconsequential parallel to be drawn between the grubby machinations of the British Parliament's committees and those of the equally squalid and perhaps more devious intrigues indulged in by US Congress semi-equivalents (although the latter exercise much more power). A recent example of the excesses of Washington committees, as reported by the Boston Globe, involved the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a most powerful position which is at present occupied by an ultra-right wing Republican, one William M Thomas, who in the interests of democracy hit on the expedient and far from original wheeze of ambushing his political opponents.

Last week he 'circulated the Republican draft of the pension bill shortly before midnight and scheduled a vote for the morning'. Naturally, some committee members thought it a little demanding that they be required to read 700 pages, excluding references, overnight, and objected to being unable to consult together before the vote. (Not that it would have made any difference, as the committee is of course Republican-heavy.)

Thomas, a thug of little brain but mammoth muscle and political savvy (no Vietnam veteran, although exactly of the age to have been drafted), takes on only the weakest targets, as when he viciously bullied Beatrice Braun of the American Association of Retired Persons who last year went to ask for consideration of 'a strong prescription plan for senior citizens'. The man Thomas berated and humiliated this elderly lady, which was a strange way of carrying on the people's business in Congress.

Different countries, similar bullying. For the horrible Thomas has a true intellectual brother in a fellow called Andrew Mackinlay who is a Labour member of the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. The British committee system is the best chance any third-rate (which is most of them) little politician has of appearing in headlines, just as in the US. One has to read the wonderful 'Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate' by Richard Cato (which I shall review shortly, for it is an outstandingly superb biography) to understand how these extraordinary people think.

The committee process of questioning and investigation is not aimed at establishing truth. It is biased in favour of the ruling party's agenda, whatever that might be, and questioners focus exclusively on establishing a reputation which, given a fair wind behind the billowing mask of self-righteous humbug, might carry the winner of publicity unto greater things. In Britain the case of Doctor David Kelly might have provided such aggrandisement for the filth Mackinlay, had Doctor Kelly not been driven to suicide.

Doctor Kelly was a scientist who was described in his premature obituary as a 'Gentleman', which word can be applied to very few British (or any other) politicians. He was unfortunate enough to have met a journalist with whom he discussed the matter of the British prime minister's farrago of nonsense concerning allegations against Iraq. Then the prime minister's hatchet-men named him publicly as the person who helped the BBC expose the government's lies. Finally he was summoned before the Court of the Mackinlay Chamber.

Doctor Kelly's ordeal was thus, as reported in the Guardian. "Leaning forward and jutting his jaw in the direction of the lone figure seated in the gap of the horseshoe-shaped table, Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay asked aggressively: " Have you ever felt like the fall guy? You have been set up, have you not?" [I saw the film of this episode. Mackinlay was not just aggressive; he was theatrically menacing.]

Dr David Kelly's first answer was barely audible as he shook his head, murmuring: "That's a question I cannot answer." "But do you feel that?" "No, I accept the process that's going on," replied the scientist. Mr Mackinlay, who was Tuesday's interrogator-in-chief, demanded to know who else in the media Dr Kelly had met. "Can you tell me those journalists who you do recall meeting on this timescale. What are their names?" asked Mr Mackinlay. Dr Kelly: "I have met very few journalists."... Mr Mackinlay: "No, no. I am asking you now. This is the moment. What's their names?" [Note the defective grammar of this uncouth bumpkin.] Dr Kelly: "That will be provided by the Ministry of Defence." Mackinlay: "You are now before the high court of parliament and I want you to tell the committee who you met." The 'high court of parliament' forsooth. On what meat doth these pygmies feed that they are grown so great?

The transcript of this intimidating interrogation shows that this perambulating piece of toe-jam demanded "Do you know of any other enquiries in the department to seek the source? None whatsoever? I reckon you're chaff. You've been thrown up to divert our probing. Have you ever felt like the fall guy? I mean, you've been set up haven't you?" The gentle scientist was humiliated at the hands of a pompous, puffed-up, blustering booby. He took his own life.

During his triumphant world tour Prime Minister Blair was asked in Tokyo if he considered he has blood on his hands. Directly, of course, he has not. It is the system he created, with its spin and deceit, that is to blame. Democracy is all very well. But when those supposed to be its main upholders consider themselves above civility and decency and conduct themselves as spiteful persecutors, then democracy is under threat.


- Brian Cloughley is a former military officer who writes on international affairs. His website is

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