12 August 2013

Robert Lewis's 'Dark Actors'

After Dr David Kelly, the government scientist, died in 2003, Lord Hutton was asked to investigate the surrounding circumstances, his report appearing in January 2004. Hutton concluded that Dr Kelly took his own life. In 2007, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who has since become Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport in the coalition government, published The Strange Death of David Kelly and concluded that Kelly’s death was due to hands other than his own. David Aaronovitch in his 2009 book, Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History, devoted a chapter to debunking Baker, Mr Pooter Forms a Theory, which ends:
In conclusion, it is worth referring to the preface to the English edition of Fritz Tobias’s book on the Reichstag fire, in which one great British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, quotes another, Sir Lewis Namier: ‘There would be little to say on this subject, were it not for the nonsense that has been talked about it’.
Now, 10 years after the tragedy, Dark Actors, The Life and Death of Dr David Kelly by Robert Lewis has appeared. Is it worth reading? The opening chapter describes the events of the day of Kelly's death. The choice of its title, An Inspector Falls*, sets the tone. To establish the reader's enthusiasm for ploughing through what follows, or even to induce the book’s purchase in the first place, Lewis sets about raising expectations, eg on page 5:
And then the official account turns abruptly hysterical.  
If there was anything more substantial than her husband’s suddenly stricken visage that caused her to become ill with worry, she has never revealed what it was.  
So some nameless, unspoken crisis appears to have quickly descended.
but gives the impression that his heart isn’t in it:
So the scene of death was demonstrably disturbed by individuals that [sic] had nothing to do with Thames Valley Police, for reasons that remain unclear, one of whom was very likely an unaccountable intelligence officer whose very existence has been denied – to the extent that several witnesses claimed he was a uniformed police officer, while his Special Branch liaison, DC Coe, maintained for seven years he was never there at all. (page 14)
The next eight chapters are chronological, most of them concerned with Kelly’s professional life after joining the Ministry of Defence at Porton Down. Then, despite the attempt to pick loose ends at the start, in the final chapter Lewis concludes that his subject did indeed commit suicide. Any value that the book may possess therefore largely depends on the quality of its account of Kelly’s life. To be fair, the reader has to recognise the problem presented to Lewis by the confidentiality surrounding much of Kelly’s government work. But remembering that it was said of Kelly that “he had such an eye for detail that nothing got past him” (page 39), at least one can try to assess how Lewis dealt with those matters of detail which he could be expected to get right. With a far from expert eye, I came across the following:
Page 37: Terence Taylor is described as “… a former weapons inspector who went on to direct the Institute of Strategic Studies” – he was an Assistant Director at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.  
Page 184: The same individual is referred to as Lantos, Santos and Lantos within seven lines of text.  
Page 249: “The new UNSCOM … with its own (foot high) communications mast …”.  
Page 379: “Harris, Robert and Jeremy, Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing London 1982”.
which could all be dismissed as trivia. But more disconcertingly from a writer who expects to be taken seriously:
Page 282: “Bill Clinton f****d a 22-year-old White House intern …” [the asterisks are mine].
and there are digressions like the one on page 189 about the controversial book Bravo Two Zero by Chris Ryan (aka Colin Armstrong) from which Lewis has to return to topic with a crashing non sequitur:
Desperate to extricate himself from Iraq, Colin Armstrong would cross one hundred and eighty miles of hostile terrain. And years later David Kelly would walk three thousand yards of Oxfordshire countryside.
not to mention his proneness to off-the-point platitudinising:
All the members of the household have gone their separate ways, as modern families generally must, if they are to live the life that is due to them. (page 338)
Rather more worrying is the way Lewis uses notes and references. It can be argued that a non-academic work has no need for them, or that they should be kept to a bare minimum. In the case of this book, it’s their unevenness which is the problem. The second chapter, Dai, which takes Kelly from birth to the age of 40, is supported by just three notes whereas Chapter 8 has 120, nearly two per page. To see why this matters, take the following example from Chapter 2:
Another contemporary of Kelly’s at Leeds was Jack Straw [**], who was elected chair of the university’s Labour Society in 1966, whereupon he rebranded it the Socialist Society and then withdrew its support for Labour because the party was insufficiently left-wing. Straw gained further notoriety on campus when the British Council selected him to go on a student trip to Chile, where, instead of building a youth club, he spent his time quarrelling with his colleagues, posturing as an insurgent communist, and demanding an audience with the opposition leader Salvador Allende. All of which he made up for in later life, when as Foreign Secretary of the Thatcherite New Labour party he helped ensure safe passage home for Allende's murderer Augusto Pinochet at a time when Spanish relatives of the Chilean 'disappeared' were demanding he be tried in the Hague for crimes against humanity.  
To his credit, Kelly had as little to do with Straw as possible.  
‘He won't remember me; he later told his half-sister, 'because I wasn't a political animal, but I remember him.'  
And so it proved. Kelly and Straw met professionally for the first time in 2002, when the former supported the latter in a hearing before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee about UK foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. The Foreign Secretary made a point of complaining to his department that they had sent a nobody along to accompany him. The following year, when Kelly became drawn into the farrago over the government's claims of an Iraqi WMD arsenal, Straw was a part of the Downing Street cabal that secretly exposed him to the press and then belittled him in public.
There are various assertions about Straw here, none of them ascribed to a source. This, in itself, doesn’t mean that they aren’t true, but they present a problem for the reader, particularly when Lewis could have made reference to Straw’s autobiography, Last Man Standing, published (and posted about here) last year. One has to accept that Straw, a lawyer turned politician, may well have been economical with the truth about his student days, and he wouldn’t have been the first person to have moved to the political centre after graduating. Straw makes no mention of rebranding Leeds University’s Labour Society as the Socialist Society, but does state:
The Labour left at Leeds University worked as part of a broad front with the CP [Communist Party] and we spent much of our time fighting the destructive politics of the various active Trotskyist groups.*  
*These included the Socialist Labour League, led locally by lecturer Cliff Slaughter, and Tory Cliff of the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers' Party). (LMS, page 65)
Straw also provides an account of the NUS delegation to Chile which is somewhat at odds with Lewis’s (LMS page 69). He devotes a whole chapter to the Pinochet affair during his Home Secretaryship (A Dictator Calls – Straw, too, could have done better) and reveals that he:
might have met Allende at a reception in Santiago de Chile, perhaps even shaken his hand, but I’d had no other dealings with him whatever. (LMS, page 255-6).
But these are not particularly significant issues, unlike the following:
If I was asked which single individual most influenced my view that Saddam did pose a serious threat to international peace and security, my answer would be unambiguous: Dr David Kelly, who tragically died in July 2003.  
Dr Kelly was a microbiologist who started his career at the UK’s Biological Weapons Establishment at Porton Down, and later became a weapons inspector. As a member of UNSCOM's staff, he made thirty-seven trips to Iraq during the nineties. I met him just once, in September 2002, when he accompanied me to give evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. At the hour long 'pre-brief' I was struck both by Dr Kelly's depth of knowledge and understanding, and by the clarity of his belief that, if diplomacy failed, then military action would have to follow. (LMS, page 368)
The reader with sight of both accounts is forced to conclude that either Straw is breathtakingly hypocritical or that Lewis’s unsourced version (‘The Foreign Secretary made a point of complaining to his department that they had sent a nobody along to accompany him’) is wrong. I’m afraid that I’m inclined to the latter view. Lewis never goes on to mention Kelly’s appearance at the Select Committee in 2002, a fairly important and public event. But then he makes no reference to Kelly’s being awarded the CMG in 1996. He also informs us that:
The debate over why we invaded and occupied Iraq has rumbled on for over ten years. Unless Tony Blair can deliver a plausible answer, which would require him to experience an actual spiritual [sic] journey, unlike the pathological levels of self-justification that comprise his autobiography, it will be argued over for the rest of my life.
but omits any mention of the Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry (report forthcoming) or Lord Butler ‘s 2004 Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction. There are no links (ie URLs), by the way, in Dark Actors, to Lord Hutton’s Inquiry (as in the opening sentence of this post) or to anything else. This seems rather old-fashioned given the age of its author. Blair’s A Journey is not in the Bibliography.

Given that Lewis doesn’t challenge Lord Hutton’s conclusion that David Kelly committed suicide, it is legitimate to ask what his book has to offer - “Is it worth reading?” If someone is looking for an insight into the lives of weapons inspectors operating inside a hostile Middle Eastern regime, it may be. As a source of information about the career of Dr David Kelly in particular, I’m doubtful. The errors and weaknesses in Dark Actors, apparent even to a casual reader, undermine its authority. Judged by Kelly’s own standards it isn’t the book he deserved but, perhaps more than anything else, he and his family deserve to be left in peace.

*Kelly was a weapons inspector who committed suicide. In JB Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls, a mysterious ‘inspector’ interrogates a wealthy English family about their responsibility for the suicide of a young working class factory girl. An Inspector Falls seems a facile and misleading title for the content of the chapter concerned.

** Straw, born in August 1946, was an undergraduate at Leeds from 1964 to 1967 (LMS, pages 9, 62 and 69). Kelly, born in May 1944, was an undergraduate from 1963 to 1967 (DA, pages 26, 33 and 35). That Kelly’s degree took four years and that he entered Leeds a year later than might be expected from his birthdate, are points not addressed in Dark Actors.

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