Last time, I wrote about Anjem Choudary and his Islamist gang, Islam4UK. Well I doubt I’ll be writing about them again, because since then they’ve managed to get themselves banned. The government has power to “proscribe” organisations under Britain’s terrorist legislation, and Home Secretary Alan Johnson, spurred no doubt by the controversy over Islam4UK’s suggested Wootton Bassett March, has decided now is the time to ban this lot. It won’t last long: Islam4UK was itself at least the third manifestation of this outfit, and no doubt it will pop up again under another name. Choudary will make it as hard as he can for the government to ban him again. If he turns up in Cricklewood I might escape into the Windmill, which markets itself these days as a sort of gastropub.
Otherwise, I doubt I’ll be going back quickly. There’s no real beer, it plays bad music too loudly, it has a pointless telly and a stark, uncomfortable, trying-hard to-be-hip feel that puts me off. A pity; this is potentially a cracking pub, with some lovely interior features. Much as I love old pubs, if I can’t have real beer I’d rather drink in a relaxed, welcoming space like the bar of the Hampstead Theatre, just near Swiss Cottage tube, than in the noise, gloom and awkwardness of the Windmill.
The Iraq war is of course no news to anyone, but the hearings of Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry is quite a big story this January. There have been a number of inquiries into aspects of the Iraq war: the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the death of Dr. Kelly, for instance, and the Butler inquiry into the government’s use of intelligence. This, though, is the proper inquiry many people have been pressing for for years into the whole thing – the government’s decision to invade together with America, the conduct of the war and the reconstruction of Iraq. Minds here are basically made up: a clear majority of British people think the war was wrong, and perhaps half the country thinks Tony Blair took Britain to war by deliberately misleading the public about Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons programmes. Some even see him as a war criminal. What’s less often reported is that there seems to be perhaps a third of the British public who continue to support Blair over Iraq. That third includes me, I should disclose.
Two weeks ago, Tony Blair’s former press secretary Aliastair Campbell – an enormously influential figure in his administration, and the combative inspiration for Malcolm Tucker of The Thick of It and In The Loop – stoutly defended the government’s public presentation of the case for action in 2002-3. This week, Jack Straw who was Foreign Secretary at the time has been defending his own role. The real action comes next week, though, as Tony Blair himself is called to give evidence in public for the first time, as is Lord Goldsmith, who as Attorney General advised that military action was lawful. Many opponents of the war see this as a sort of trial by ordeal for Tony Blair – a chance to grill him and “call him to account” in public – and hope the inquiry’s final report will damn him irretrievably. I doubt that will happen – it’s bound to criticise him to some extent but I think the worst it might do would be to conclude that the war was contrary to international law, as the Dutch inquiry did recently. I’m not sure it will do that. There’s also a belief among some that the inquiry is an establishment stitch-up, and is bound to end up in a whitewash.
It’s possible that individual performances by the key players could change some minds – I suspect Lord Goldsmith may be able to make a minority reconsider the commonly and often unquestioningly held opinion that the war was clearly unlawful – but I doubt views are now shiftable, really. The real political (as opposed to historical) importance of the inquiry it that it revives the salience of Iraq in the run up to the general election. Will Gordon Brown have to give evidence before then? At the moment he’s not due to, and it’s up to the inquiry itself to decide. But he will hope and pray that he does not. Close scrutiny now of financial decisions he made then about military equipment would intensify the already heavy pressure on him; in any event, he needs to avoid being linked more closely than he already is to the political poison that is Iraq. The timing of his appearance is crucial.
What will please Gordon Brown is that unemployment is down, surprisingly. He needs to be able to argue in May that his policies through the recession have changed jobs and enabled early recovery – and if the figures continue on this trend, he may be able to make that case persuasively. Timing again will be crucial: his last chance, perhaps, is if next year’s budget combined with economic trends contrive to produce some sense of relief and confidence, before the effect of tax rises and spending cuts really bites on the public mind. He has a serious uphill struggle – but don’t count him out completely yet.
Earlier I mentioned the relaxed Hampstead Theatre bar: even better is the bar of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. There’s no real beer here either – which is truly a great pity. Otherwise, though, this is a surprisingly good place for a drink – roomy, relaxed (a customer started playing the grand piano when I was there last night) with lots of comfy sofas and free wifi, which is especially nice for bloggers and anyone who wants to tweet, say, about their visit to London. All in the middle of London’s leading arts centre. I’ll be there again soon – and back with you in two weeks.