Chilcot: Lessons learned from the fall of 'Brand Blair'

"You can't win an argument." The famous line from Dale Carnegie's seminal How to Win Friends and Influence People seems particularly apt in light of the Chilcot report.

Tony Blair, PM at the time of the 2003 war with Iraq, responds to the Chilcot report (pic credit: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Tony Blair, PM at the time of the 2003 war with Iraq, responds to the Chilcot report (pic credit: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Considered a damning indictment of the UK’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, much of the blame lies at the door of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

Blair was the most successful politician of his generation. He is the only Labour leader to have won three general elections. 

A significant part of his success lay in his formidable skills as a communicator. Blair was a master of the soundbite ("education, education, education"). 

But he was also good at winning arguments and persuading others. He helped bring a sceptical nation round to university tuition fees. He brokered the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. And, fatefully, he secured parliamentary backing to go to war in Iraq.

Blair won the Iraq argument by using three powerful comms tools. 

He used simple and memorable phrases – think "45 minutes from attack" - that proved fertile content for the media. 

He made the most of influential advocates, with the Joint Intelligence Committee’s dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a central plank of evidence.

Thirdly, Blair used all of the passion, determination and conviction he was famous for. 

As he stated when responding to Chilcot’s report: "I took [the decision to invade] in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country."

It is the last of these three that looks to have been Blair’s undoing. 

Chilcot’s assessment is unequivocal: Blair "exaggerated" the threat of Saddam Hussein and "was more certain than could be justified" in arguing his case to Parliament. 

The report refrains from explicitly accusing Blair of manipulating evidence to fit his argument, and it does appear that he genuinely believed he had sufficient evidence to argue for an invasion. 

But it does beg the question of whether Blair allowed confirmation bias to distort his judgement – in other words, only seeing the evidence that supported his argument and beliefs and ignoring all that didn’t. 
What lessons can we learn from the fall of this great communicator?

Passion, conviction, soundbites and delivery all really matter. But when trying to make an argument of significant importance, with far-reaching consequences, evidence matters more than all of those. 

Otherwise, the risk is that the argument simply falls apart when scrutinised. And that evidence must be used rather than abused. 

Corporates need to be wary of 'groupthink', where one charismatic leader dominates discussion, by encouraging devil’s advocates to challenge their interpretation of evidence.

Whatever intent or convictions drove Blair’s decision – something only he will really know – it was one with far-reaching and tragic consequences. 

For Brand Blair itself, the ultimate impact is surely a legacy and reputation tarnished. 

Jon Bennett is managing director at Linstock Communications

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