The British political class is in deep crisis. Its promises are not trusted, its words are not believed. The people who are meant to be our leaders no longer get any real purchase on the public mind.
Many of them know it. Oliver Letwin, one of the few political voices who retains the calm and quizzical tone of a normal human being, alluded to it last Monday morning. The political class needs rescuing from a predicament that poisons the life of the entire country.
The agents of such a rescue are, in fact, to hand. But they lie outside the political class, and the government, befitting its own blindness to the problem, seems determined not to recruit them.
The Hutton inquiry looks like one form of rescue. Enter the independent judge. He is assigned to drain the heat of partisan battle out of the appalling death of David Kelly. Judges are trusted as politicians seldom are. Lord Hutton, who spent years on the Northern Ireland bench, knows what it is to pick a way between some of the most unforgiving partisans in the world. He may break free from his narrow terms of reference, and plunge into the minutiae about the infamous September dossier -- the 45-minute deployment time for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and all that -- that brought about this bloody mess. It will be, after all, hard to divine what Kelly told Gilligan about what Campbell did or did not do without getting into that. The ball of wool is bound to unravel some of the way.
But that's not what the government wants. It wants the threads kept tightly furled. In that respect, Kelly's death is a kind of lurid convenience. It demands inquiry. There has to be a judge. The apparatus of judicial reassurance can therefore be wheeled in, giving a perhaps unwary public the sense that the politicians have subcontracted what bothers people to this agent of untarnished credibility.
However, they have not. The Kelly tragedy is a pimple on the hide of a bigger elephant. Why did British Prime Minister Tony Blair go to war? Was there a discrepancy between his stated reasons and his real reasons? Did he and his people distort intelligence assessments for propaganda (an issue now dogging US President George W. Bush and receiving serious Congressional inquiry)? Was the country manoeuvred into war on a false bill of goods, drawn up sincerely or otherwise? These questions have attracted much more scepticism after the "victory" than before.
They've also been more openly discussed. The intelligence world now has its own briefing methods, which open the sacred veil of silence that has seen off the demands for inquiries in the past.
Defending its refusal to let another judge in to examine the big picture, the government points to the foreign affairs committee and the intelligence and security committee of the Commons. But the one was kept away from key witnesses, the other meets in secret and reports only to the prime minister.
There were times when this might have satisfied a trusting public. Now it runs into the political class problem. Nobody will easily trust the words of political insiders, often not very eminent, reporting to the Supreme Insider and awaiting any acts of censorship it suits him to perform. What the questions need is examination and answer by an outsider, whether a judge or (if such a person exists -- another decline produced by 20 years of partisan politics) a former mandarin of the status of Lord Franks who did the job after the Falklands war.