Thursday, 30 July 2009

Almost right, Sir Michael

In the Guardian this morning Michael White writes;
Whitehall optimists hope Chilcot will deliver lessons for the future, as the 1904 Esher inquiry did after the Boer War fiasco. What critics want is blame, expressed in tabloid language, not opaque Whitehall-ese. If Sir John wants to escape the "whitewash" verdict on Lords Hutton and Butler, he should sharpen his prose.
Almost right, Sir Michael. There was no Esher inquiry. The 1902 inquiry into the shortcomings of administration over the Boer War was a Royal Commission chaired by Ld Elgin and known as the Elgin Commission. Viscount Esher was a member of this commission, but dissented from its findings. In 1904 he successfully lobbied to chair an internal War Office committee - not an inquiry, or a commission - called the War Office (reconstitution) Committee. This became known as the Esher Committee. It didn't deliver a verdict on the Boer War - this wasn't it's job. There is no parallel between the work of the Esher Committee and the Chilcot Inquiry at all. It certainly didn't 'deliver lessons for the future' as Sir Michael believes.

However, what the Esher Committee achieved was far more important. It reorganised the management of the British army, establishing the Army Council and the post of Chief of the General Staff, and a structure that remains in place today a century later. And perhaps now no longer an appropriate governance structure for the MoD and the army.

It is not the political corruption behind the launching of the Iraq War that needs a new Esher Committee, but the military shortcomings in Afghanistan.

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