Sir John Chilcot, who has died aged 82 of kidney disease, was the quietly spoken mandarin famous for his excoriating verdict on the conduct of the Iraq war, begun in 2003. It changed the perception of one of the most traumatic episodes of recent times.
His seven-year-long inquiry into the conflict ruined the reputation of Tony Blair, Labour’s most successful leader since Clement Attlee, by exposing his subservient relationship with the US president, George W Bush, and confirming that the UK and the US had not exhausted the peace process when they went to war to topple the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
That decision cost 179 British lives, and the death of around 150,000 Iraqis. The wrecked country subsequently saw the rise, and later fall, of the terrorist group Islamic State, and is still suffering from the impact of the war today.
Until his verdict on the Iraq war in 2016, Chilcot was seen as an establishment figure and a safe pair of hands who people thought would not rock the boat. He had previously been part of an inquiry under Lord (Robin) Butler of Brockwell, the former cabinet secretary, that exonerated the Blair government in 2004 over the “sexing up” of the “dodgy dossier” on Iraq, which said that the UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus were within 45 minutes of an attack by weapons of mass destruction. It concluded there was no “culpable negligence” in the intelligence sources.
Chilcot was appointed by Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, in June 2009 to head what was expected to be a year-long private inquiry. In the event, the inquiry took seven years to be published and Chilcot decided to hold as much as possible in public, including getting Blair to testify.
Far from being a soft touch, Chilcot began a forensic analysis of what went wrong and was involved in a bitter battle with Whitehall to get hold of the evidence he needed. The most serious struggle came over the release of the 30 notes between Blair and Bush over the conduct of the war, which delayed further an already late-running inquiry for 13 months. Successive cabinet secretaries, Lord (Gus) O’Donnell and Lord (Jeremy) Heywood, did not want them handed over to the inquiry, and Heywood initially refused to do so.
But eventually Chilcot won and got hold of the notes. This resulted in one of the most damaging revelations in his report.
Chilcot released a letter from Blair to Bush, in July 2002, in which he stated: “I will be with you, whatever.” It was a private promise that suggested that he would support under any circumstances an American administration determined to achieve regime change, undermining his own public preference for a UN-backed route to war. Blair himself never admitted he was wrong. The nearest he got was an admission to Chilcot: “I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe.”
The Iraq inquiry marked the apex of Chilcot’s long Whitehall career. He held his nerve despite widespread criticism of the long delay in publishing it and fears that it would be a whitewash. When the report did appear the impact was all the more devastating, as it refuted his critics’ expectations.
Born in Surrey, John was the son of Catherine (nee Ashall) and Henry Chilcot, an artist. From Brighton college (1952-57) he won an open scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied English and modern languages, and of which in 1999 he became an honorary fellow.
In 1964 he married Rosalind Forster, an artist. The previous year he began his Whitehall career at the Home Office, and from 1966 was an assistant private secretary to Roy Jenkins, a considerable reformer as home secretary. He later became private secretary to Merlyn Rees and Lord (William) Whitelaw. Between Jenkins and Rees he was private secretary (1971-73) to William Armstrong when he was head of the civil service.
His next major role came while he was permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office (1990-97). In 1993 John Deverell, then head of MI5 in Belfast, took a message said to have come from Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin. The note said: “The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close.”
Chilcot then advised the prime minister, John Major, and the first steps towards what became the Good Friday agreement of 1998 under Blair were taken. A large part of the work leading up to the agreement – including the testing of whether the ceasefire was genuine – was undertaken by Chilcot. He continued working after his official retirement from the Northern Ireland Office in December 1997.
That year Chilcot was reunited with his first ministerial boss, now Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, to undertake a review ordered by Blair, to see if changes were needed to the voting system. It recommended introducing the alternative vote, but nothing came of the idea.
He also maintained an interest in the intelligence services. From 1999 to 2004 he was staff counsellor to the security and intelligence agencies, “dealing with private and personal complaints from members of the intelligence services about their work and conditions”.
Chilcot was knighted in 1994 and appointed GCB in 1998. He became a privy counsellor in 2004. For two years from 2007 he chaired a sensitive committee on the use of intercept evidence in criminal cases.
His interests included opera, music, travel and reading, and he lived in Dartmoor with Rosalind.
She survives him.
• John Anthony Chilcot, civil servant, born 22 April 1939; died 3 October 2021
• This article was amended on 8 October 2021. John Chilcot’s appointment as an assistant private secretary to Roy Jenkins came in 1966 rather than 1963. The “dodgy dossier” on Iraq said that it had chemical and biological weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes, and had constructed a new engine test stand for the development of missiles capable of reaching the UK Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus; but not that “the UK was within 45 minutes of a nuclear attack” as an earlier version said.