One of my favourite moments in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness occurs when the narrator Marlow is interrupted by an irritated listener who tells him ‘Try to be civil Marlow.’ It’s a very English request, as Conrad well knew. I mean here is Marlow, recounting a story of the horrific violence and cruelty, madness and delusion of Leopold’s Congo Free State, and one of his listeners insists, like a good Edwardian gentleman, that he should be ‘civil’ because he loses his cool and compares his audience to a collection of circus performers doing their jobs.
I was reminded of that exchange by the furore over Sir John Chilcot’s announcement that his much-awaited report on the Iraq war will not be published before the general election. That war was begun by men who thought very much like Kurtz, for whom each trading station that he established along the Congo River was ‘like a beacon on the road towards better, things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing’.
As Conrad’s readers will know, these expectations dissolved into the ruthless cruelty, exploitation and murder that makes the Congo Free State one of the epic crimes of colonial history. The Iraq war reveals a similarly grievous discrepancy between what was predicted and what actually happened, but the full ramifications of that bloodstained debacle have never really been absorbed and assimilated by British society, and it is becoming increasingly doubtful whether they ever will be.
We have seen in recent years that the British ruling elite is very keen to scrutinize everyone else, and is constantly looking for new justifications for widen its powers of scrutiny over the public, but its members don’t like to be criticized or scrutinized themselves. Fortunately, it has a system that doesn’t really like to criticize or scrutinize them either.
The sexual abuse and possibly murder of young children by MPs and government ministers? Sorry, old boy, seem to have lost the files. Start a war on faked pretences that leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths, military humiliation, the collapse of an entire society, and unleashes a raging wave of civil war and other forms of mayhem that have continue to pour out beyond Iraq’s borders ever since? I know. We’ll set up an inquiry intended to ‘learn lessons’ from that experience in case we want to do it again, and we’ll be ever so careful not to ‘apportion blame’.
Having made that decision we’ll then ensure that our inquiry is made up of trusted mandarins, including a former speech writer for one of the architects of that war. We’ll invite them all in one by one for a polite little chat, and we’ll not say anything to upset them. Like Marlow, we’ll keep it civil. And when the conversations are over, we’ll have a cup of tea and put our report together and ask our interviewees ever so politely if they wouldn’t mind just a teeny weeny bit if we publish documents that we regard as crucial to the ‘lessons’ the public must learn.
If they refuse, we’ll say ‘fine’ and agree to publish the ‘gist’ or redacted versions of the documents we want, because we don’t want to upset anybody and we must be civil. Now if it so happens that we really cannot avoid making a few critical observations about some of the people and institutions responsible for the ‘mistakes’ of the Iraq war, we’ll agree to ‘Maxwellize’ the whole process, and give them as much time as they need to rebut or come back our conclusions BEFORE WE EVEN PUBLISH THEM.
Because, after all, old chap, the people we are criticizing, like Robert Maxwell, are powerful people, and they can’t be treated as if they were just anybody? And we must be civil, and so we’ll allow someone like Sir Jeremy Heywood, civil servant and cabinet secretary and former cabinet secretary under Tony Blair while the war was being planned, to decide what documents our inquiry can or can’t publish.
And then why not create a special ‘channel of communications’ between senior aides of Cameron and Miliband to explore potential ‘common ground’ over the report’s publication, just to make sure that we can manage the whole thing to everyone’s best advantage?
Because we don’t want to upset people, and we want to be civil even if, as Marlow observes ‘ We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.’
It was, but it seems that we don’t want to think about it too much in case it upsets us. And so we prefer to wait for Sir John to publish what he likes, whenever he likes.
And if anybody gets a little hot under the collar about this, just remind them, as Marlow’s listener reminded him, to try to be civil.