The failures of the last decade’s powers-that-be reminds me to find solace in crude Scottish wordplay
by MATTHEW GAULT
The Middle East is on fire and the world wants someone to blame. In the United Kingdom, still reeling from Brexit and its political fallout, the Chilcot report provided an easy target of scorn — Tony Blair.
The too-pretty-for-politics former Labour leader isn’t faring well in the press. Sir John Chilcot spent the past five years investigating Britain’s role in the Iraq War and published his findings on July 6, 2016. The massive report is more than 2.6 million words spread across 12 volumes. The summary alone is 150 pages.
In broad strokes, the report confirmed what the public felt for years — the intelligence case for the Iraq War was bad, the legal basis was flimsy and Blair gussied up both to make a better case for the invasion. Now some in the British public and more than some of the press think Blair should face justice.
Blair isn’t doing himself any favors. In his long response to the Chilcot report, the former leader took full responsibility for the war then immediately explained the mitigating factors of that decision. It looked a lot like taking responsibility while also making excuses.
“Today is … the right moment to go back … and look at the history of that time so that those, even if they passionately disagree, will at least understand why I did what I did, and learn lessons so that we do better in the future,” Blair said.
I remember that time and I remember a few years later when a film came along to perfectly capture the mood. It was a time when some felt war was unthinkable, and others felt it was inevitable.
Tony Blair is no longer In the Loop … but as the Chilcot report rehashes the events of the previous decade and the old politicians come out to to defend themselves, the old feeling of the surreal early aughts comes back.
In the Loop is a 2009 comedy best known for helping launch the American career of Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci. This is the man who made Julia Louis-Dreyfus the world’s funniest Veep.
Before that, Iannucci and his talented crew of writers lambasted the British political class with the T.V. show The Thick of It and its loosely connected major motion picture In the Loop.
The movie takes place during the lead up to the Iraq War, but it isn’t about the major players in the decision. Instead, it follows the lives of the mid-level and lower-level bureaucrats trying to survive the political turmoil of the coming horrible, real war in the Middle East.
Iannucci is a satirist and I desperately want to believe that the worlds he paints in his comedies aren’t real, no matter how hard they make me laugh and no matter how much they feel like the truth.
But Blair equivocating in the face of a 2.6-million page report detailing the many ways he failed to lead Britain during a time of crisis makes Iannucci’s world seem more plausible than is comfortable.
In the Loop starts small and scales up. It begins in 2003 when no one has decided to go to war but the world feels it to be inevitable. Simon Foster, the worthless, cowardly — and fictional — minister for international development goes on a talk show and fumbles.
He uses the word “war” as a throwaway line, referring to something else entirely, and the host uses it as an opportunity to ask Faster if he knows anything about a coming war in Iraq. “War is unforeseeable,” Foster explains.
Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s communications director, listens to the interview and is apoplectic. “In the words of the late, great, Nat King fucking Cole … unforeseeable, that’s what you are,” he says to Foster when he comes to yell at him. “Walk the fucking line … Write this the fuck down. It’s neither foreseeable nor unforeseeable.”
That, in a nutshell, is the position of every government official in the film. Everyone wants to walk the line, their feet firmly planted on both sides of the fence, until the winds of history blow and they’re able to jump in the direction they think won’t get them in trouble.
A visiting U.S. State Department official decides that the foolish Foster is someone she needs on her team. He’s the only idiot in the British government dumb enough to open his mouth and say anything about the war one way or the other. The official doesn’t want the war, and now she wants Foster on her team to “internationalize dissent.”
What follows is 90 minutes of expert wordplay, dark political satire and the man who would be Doctor Who swearing so eloquently you forget he’s talking about horsecocks.
In the Loop is both fun and depressing. No one seems to want war, but they take war as inevitable. No one wants to stop the war so much as they want the public to perceive them as doing the right thing. It’s about petty, personal politics and getting one up on the other poor bastard next to you.
It’s about survival, not about doing the right thing.
Most people fear — and some feel they know — that all politicians are craven and useless creatures given to lining their own pockets and avoiding responsibility. Enough scandals and frauds litter history to tell us that’s true of some.
Iannucci’s work assumes that’s true of all and then sets about exposing them for what they are. He’s good at it. I laughed so hard watching In the Loop I almost forgot the real world implications of policy decisions blithely made by well-dressed suits more concerned with making their adversaries pay than avoiding war.
I don’t believe Iannucci’s world is real. I believe some politicians aren’t evil, callow morons out to cover their own tracks. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy from 1997 to 2003, and the man widely believed to be the inspiration for Malcolm Tucker, doesn’t believe it’s real either.
Campbell battled the press back in 2003 when the BBC reported that Campbell had “sexed up” Britain’s intelligence reports about Iraq’s military capabilities. Campbell fought back, but resigned when one of the reporter’s sources committed suicide.
In the Loop uses Campbell’s alleged dossier doctoring as the climax of its comedy of errors. BBC’s The Culture Show sat down with Campbell when the movie came out … and watched it with him. That’s like watching The Master with L. Ron Hubbard.
“It’s a cartoon,” Campbell told the reporter. Then he opened up on the film with both barrels. “What there isn’t in any of those characters is a belief system.”
“In my experience, most people who go into believe something … are they all a bunch of venal, self serving shits? No. They’re not … that film is trying to portray a vary lazy and narrow view of politics.”
But I remember that the former Labour Prime Minister of the United Kingdom became the godfather of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s daughter and told the world he’s sorry/not sorry for the war in Iraq.
It’s during these moments I remember how The Thick of It ended, with Tucker on the stand, dressing us down as he defends himself from accusations of leaking government secrets.
“Don’t insult my intelligence by acting as if you’re so naive you don’t know how this whole works,” he tells his accusers, but also the audience. “Everybody in this room has bent the rules to get in here. Because you don’t get in this room without bending the rules. You don’t get to where you are without bending the rules.”
“That’s the way it is … How dare you blame me for this. Which is the result of a political class, which has given up on morality and simply pursues popularity at all costs. I am you and you are me.”
It’s not funny, but you have to laugh. Sometimes that’s all we’ve got left.