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Iraq: the guilty should face the consequences

blair long nosePolitical commentary is a very different art from history. It is interesting to consider how Tony Blair’s reputation would have fared, were he to have followed the path of the French and German governments, and declined British participation in the USA’s almost certainly unlawful invasion of Iraq.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, principal private secretary to Blair at the time, has apparently negotiated a deal with Sir John Chilcot, so that information disclosed in Chilcott’s inquiry into the Iraq war will be limited to “quotes or gists”. Acknowledgement that this is unfortunate, goes far beyond the ranks of those who actively opposed the Iraq war, as the Standard reports:

Sir John Major, who was Prime Minister during the first Gulf War in 1991, said: “It’s a pity that the papers are going to be withheld.

“Firstly, they will leave suspicions unresolved and those suspicions will fester and maybe worsen.

“Secondly, withholding them is going to be very embarrassing for Mr Blair, not least of course since he brought in the Freedom of Information Act.”

Sir John added that the controversial decision was by the Cabinet Office and the current Coalition Government could not intervene over papers from a previous Labour administration.

But he added: “I suppose the previous Labour government could approach them and say: ‘we would like to overrule this, we think it better if they release those papers’.

“Mr Blair could, the previous Labour government could, and maybe in their own interests they should, think about that because otherwise this will fester and I don’t think anybody wishes to see that.”

Indeed, for many, the issue of Iraq overshadows everything about Blair’s record in government. But there are also two other factors which make it harder to gain a sense of perspective. Firstly, there were two separate threads to Blairism. As I have discussed before, Blairism was only partly defined by its distinct social agenda of boosting social capital while embracing the private sector; because it was also an electoral strategy predicated upon triangulating around the concerns of swing voters in marginal constituencies.

The second, electoralist consideration, meant that the Blair government often underplayed its achievements, where it felt that these would play poorly for swing voters. For example, there was steady progress in improving workers’ rights, including the reduction of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal to one year, the introduction of a statutory right to trade union representation, a statutory route to trade union recognition, the Equality Act, improved maternity rights, the introduction of paternity leave, and the minimum wage. The Blair government was the first since the 1970s to reverse the Thatcherite trend by improving rather than undermining the legal protections of working people. (I recommend “Losing Labour’s Soul? New Labour and the Blair Government” by Eric Shaw, on this). Yet for many in the trade union movement, the Blair government is unjustly seen as a period of continuity with Thatcherite negativity about the unions.

Furthermore, some policies, such as welfare reform, (where there is a strong evidence base that incentivising claimants back into the world of work would increase their individual self-esteem and happiness), were perhaps compromised by the obsession with spin, and an exaggerated faith in the virtue of the private sector. The policies were distorted by the desire to sell them to Tory swing voters as a crack down on cheats, which of course undermined the faith of claimants; furthermore credulity about the value of private sector experts led to the distrusted Freud policy review; and inbuilt conflicts of interest are inherently created by relying upon the profit motive to inspire decisions of who is entitled to benefit.

Another obstacle to evaluating Blair’s legacy, is that he shared a weakness with Hugh Gaitskell of seeing the interests of his own faction within the party as being identical to the wider interests of the party. Tony Blair did not readily embrace the coalitional nature of the labour movement, most obviously in his reference to the public sector trade unions as the “forces of conservatism”.

Nevertheless, the achievements of Blair were solid. Comparing 2010 with 1997 saw 41000 more teachers and 120000 more teaching assistants, 80000 more nurses and 44000 more doctors, and 4.5 million families received tax credits of an average £65 per week. In 1997, NHS spending was at around 5% of GDP, and the conditions had been created by the Tories for an expansion of insurance based private sector; instead NHS spending rose to be around 10% of GDP in 2010. Early years intervention, such as SureStart centres for the parents of potentially disadvantaged young children were a great success; and working tax credit has enormously increased prosperity and independence of parents in work. Labour repealed Clause 28, and introduced civil partnerships; as well as introducing devolution to Wales and Scotland, and peace to Northern Ireland.

So what of the war? Michael Meacher has spelled out that senior Labour politicians were fully aware that the invasion of Iraq potentially violated the UN charter, and that those who launched it could be considered to have committed the international crime of aggression. Mr Blair was explicitly warned of the risk of prosecution for this offence by Labour’s very own attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, who wrote in his advice of 7 March 2003:

Aggression is a crime under customary international law which automatically forms part of domestic law. It might therefore be argued that international aggression is a crime recognised by the common law which can be prosecuted in the UK courts.”

George Monbiot also set out very clearly why the invasion of Iraq was a crime of aggression:

Blair’s cabinet ministers knew it, and told him so. His attorney general warned that there were just three ways in which it could be legally justified: “self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UN security council authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case.” Blair tried and failed to obtain the third.

His foreign secretary, Jack Straw, told Blair that for the war to be legal, “i) there must be an armed attack upon a state or such an attack must be imminent; ii) the use of force must be necessary and other means to reverse/avert the attack must be unavailable; iii) the acts in self-defence must be proportionate and strictly confined to the object of stopping the attack.” None of these conditions were met. The Cabinet Office told him: “A legal justification for invasion would be needed. Subject to law officers’ advice, none currently exists.”

Without legal justification, the attack on Iraq was an act of mass murder. It caused the deaths of between 100,000 and a million people, and ranks among the greatest crimes the world has ever seen.

Significantly, Blair broke the social contract that the government has with the armed forces, by entering into controversial war without winning the democratic mandate of popular support. Although public opinion swung behind the war once it had actually started, this was largely due to loyalty to our armed forces.

The actual course of events demolished Blair’s pretexts for war. No WMD were found in Iraq; The war was a disaster for the people of Iraq; International terrorism grew as a consequence; and participation in the war heightened rather than lessened the domestic risk of terrorism.

What is more, the Iraq War was a terrible blow to the authority of governments, and to the concept of the rule of law.

Democracy is not just about elections, it is also about the mass popular participation in civil society to shape and form opinion, so as to lead to popular legitimacy for the acts of governance. The period leading up to the war on Iraq saw perhaps unprecedented popular debate, to which government responded by firstly explicit dishonesty, such as the “dodgy dossier”, the 45 minute claims, the fictitious accounts of Saddam seeking to buy uranium in Niger, and also implicit dishonesty, that there were plans for civil reconstruction of Iraq, whereas in fact immediate post-invasion Iraq was allowed to descend into anarchy, in contravention of legal obligations by the USA and UK in their capacity as occupying powers.

We simply don’t know whether Blair was a willing partner in crime, or perhaps unable or unwilling to resist American pressure, as Harold Wilson resisted pressure over Vietnam. Indeed, what pressure was exerted by the USA?

What we do know is that, failure to answer these questions, and failure of the Chilcott inquiry to publish the full evidence, suggests that a potential serious crime – and it is hard to imagine a more serious one – might be being overlooked just because those who perpetuated that crime are rich and powerful.

It is a fundamental principle of English constitutionality that no-one is unaccountable to the law. We should have the courage to let the law take its course, and if a crime has been committed, then the guilty should face the consequences.



  1. David Melvin says:

    Ed Miliband has often said that he wants to break from the New Labour past. He should follow Caroline Lucas’s advice in her letter in the Guardian on Saturday and “make clear his desire to overrule the Cabinet Office on this matter in the public interest.”

    As Kate Hudson, CND General Secretary said: “The Chilcot inquiry has been years in the making – costing millions to British taxpayers who rejected the Iraq war in the first place. The sole purpose of the inquiry should be to identity culpability for war crimes and lay bear the process by which the UK ended up in a catastrophic and bloody war of aggression. It has turned into a macabre charade. Discussions between Bush and Blair are fundamental to understand this rush to war.”

    Ed Miliband can do the the right thing and agree with John Major that the Cabinet Office be overruled.

    1. Andy Newman says:

      The interesting question is whether or not there is pressure from the United States government influencing the Cabinet Office’s decision on Chilcott.

    2. Rod says:

      David Melvin: “Ed Miliband can do the the right thing”

      But why should Miliband do the right thing? There is no advantage to be had for Miliband if he (possibly) exposes the misdeeds of the figure who is adored by many within the PLP.

      Miliband will need to keep fellow Blairites on side if he is to bring his plan to dump the trade unions to completion.

      1. John reid says:

        The Collins plan after Falkirk wasn’t about dumping unions, it’s pointing out to individual union members that they are aware about the fact some of their subs goto Labour rather, than not realising and opting out,as for Miliband not wanting to upset so called Blairites in the PLP, and Iraq inquiry being one of them apart from the so called not being pushed by a unite into following their lead,a Blairites have various policies, very few want to cut the union link, some are euro sceptics, some are europhiles, but not finding the truth on Iraq, isn’t. One of them there’s even Blairites like Kate Hoey, jon Denham who were against IRAQ,

  2. Robert says:

    Miliband is a Progress Puppet for god sake, they are now talking of taking Miliband out of the frame, and putting a figure head to do the media.

    They think that Miliband makes to many silly faces and eating the bacon sandwich and him looking like he was going to throw up was the last straw.

    Farage goes on TV drinks down a pint and enjoys it Miliband then ahs a game of pool and sips his pint leaving it almost full , we all know he would rather have a white wine and his snack would be caviar.

    The problem is labour is now run by Progress it’s the largest group within labour and it’s to the right, and sadly labour is now Tory lite.

    Vote Farage no thanks vote Cameron no thanks vote Miliband do not make me laugh.

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