So why should we care?

Gosh – just discovered this, kicking around in the archives. Cast your mind back to early February, and remember that Hutton had just announced his “whitewash”, and the Butler enquiry had been set up but not yet started, let alone finished. And I was a bit pissed off with waffle. There is a serious point, hidden at the end, about letting politicians, as with any professional, do their fucking jobs. But it’s not as good as the hyperbole about world disaster, so I guess no one will notice …
The Hutton inquiry is now over, but around the corner comes the Butler inquiry, and then of course there’s Hutton’s inquiry into the leak of the Hutton inquiry, the coroner’s inquiry into the death of David Kelly, and then perhaps an inquiry into why the Hutton inquiry transferred away responsibility from the coroner’s inquiry in the first place. And, for good measure, an inquiry into why we sold arms to Iraq in the first place, because we haven’t had one of those for a while.

However the real question is: why are we bothering having all these inquiries anyway? This morning, Michael Howard said quite clearly that if you don’t agree with the findings of an inquiry, you don’t have to accept it. So what is the point of having an independent inquiry at all? With that kind of attitude, we start running down a slippery slope that allows anyone – and particularly the government – to ignore any independent or expert pronouncement it chooses. Worse, by encouraging people to have opinions about everything, how are we ever going to get any real work done?

At a somewhat cynical level, you could consider all public inquiries to achieve little more than closure on an issue. The country pays for a feeling of catharsis, and moves on. It’s even possible to argue that this is the principle reason for having them, and that even if they achieve only that much, it was still money well spent. A report is issued, perhaps some recommendations are made, and everyone feels that something has been done. But when we are encouraged to disagree with the findings, there can be no closure: the end of the inquiry is merely the middle of the process of getting over the problem. Something has to mark an end, because otherwise the debate will drag on. A good inquiry calms the emotions, but a good debate can keep them running high for ever.

In the case of Hutton, we’ve thrown a couple of million and a judge at a contentious issue, and come away with less agreement than we started – mostly because in the course of the inquiry we gained such a huge amount of public information that now everyone has their own opinion. Can we really hope that any future inquiry will provide anything more useful? And if they keep on being run like this, isn’t there a concern that the country will start drowning under completely unnecessary levels of detail? If the Hutton inquiry, by its narrow bounds and disputed findings, spawns a whole series of other inquiries, we may be risking not only the credibility of the government and the BBC, but also our ability to function as a country. “I’m sorry, I can’t possibly work today; I have to read through evidence from Philip Stevens.” But he’s a typist at the Department of Agriculture – and you’re a cardiovascular surgeon. “Yes, but this concerns us all.”

No, it really doesn’t. We have inquiries to look through mind-numbing levels of detail for much the same reason we have scientists to build huge telescopes, peer through them, and tell us what it all means. We can’t be experts in everything: there’s just too much of everything out there. Plus most things, to most people, are incredibly dull. I don’t want to spend ten years watching wasps in a laboratory somewhere in the south of England, and the scientists who do probably don’t want to do my job either. And neither of us wants to wade through thousands of pages of testimony looking for the interesting bits – so we have judges, and clerks, and journalists to do it for us. The same basis allows our democracy to work – the electorate can’t be expected to form a useful opinion on every issue of government, so we elect representatives to do it for us. Anything else and our entire way of life would grind to a halt.

So yes, by all means let us have another inquiry. But, with the aim of still having a functioning economy in the summer, let’s get it right this time. Make sure all parties are happy with who is running it. Make sure all parties are happy with its scope. Make sure there is the time to do it properly. And then until it’s finished, please, for the love of God, let’s talk about something else.

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