What with the Iraq war report and a new, unelected prime minister, a week really has been a long time in British politics
It was a Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who said that a week is a long time in politics, by which he meant that a lot can happen in political life within a short space of time. He was also the prime minister who refused to commit British forces on the side of America in the Vietnam war, in contrast to Tony Blair who embraced America’s war in Iraq. Both were in play last week in Westminster.
On Wednesday July 6, 2016 the Iraq Report condemned Tony Blair for joining America in a war of aggression in Iraq on the grounds that it was not a war of last resort. By Wednesday July 13, 2016 David Cameron was out and Teresa May became prime minister undemocratically for want of an opponent.
According to ex colleagues she ‘is a bloody difficult woman’, but little is known about her except that she wants to withdraw from the European Human Convention on Human Rights and leave the Council of Europe. As if leaving the EU were not enough of an exit. Whatever next? Stop the world, Little England wants to get off!
I don’t think people realise how fundamentally undemocratic it was to lose a prime minister who had won a general election as recently as last year. But to have lost him on the altar of a narrow referendum result to leave the EU inspired by innumerable falsehoods and racial prejudice, takes the biscuit. Quo vadis Brittania?
The good news of the week was that Angela Eagle and Owen Smith will challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. Sensing that parliament may decide that both democracy and the national interest require a general election, the Labour Party is hungry for power at last.
By all accounts May is a cautious woman and unlikely to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to leave the EU without a general election, which gives the country time to kick this bunch of divisive incompetents out.
Unfortunately, Corbyn cannot kick a ball into an open goal so he must go now. We have had enough of losers voting out, we do not need a loser for leader of Her Majesty’s opposition.
With a general election in the air I began to hark back to the last time when the Tories were tottering and Tony Blair was about to deliver the knockout blow that would keep them out of power for thirteen years. It was 1997 and I attended a Labour fund raising dinner at the trendy River Cafe in London. It was very New Labour and embarrassingly expensive. The food was unremarkable and the wine cheap plonk.
I would have preferred ‘beer and sandwiches’ myself but Helena Kennedy – now Baroness Kennedy QC – prevailed over members and former members of chambers like myself to attend this champagne socialist do and I thought it was a historic moment that I should not miss.
In the event I was not disappointed because I sat next to Peter Goldsmith QC – who as Lord Goldsmith was the attorney-general during the Iraq war in 2003 – and opposite, two seats to the left, sat Tony Blair in person, on the make and on a high. It felt exhilarating just to be there. We did not talk much as he was in great demand, but near the end I teased him with a mischievous question whether he would return to the Bar if he lost the election. He smiled, rolled his eyes upwards, and went off to canvass the bar staff leaving me to talk shop with Peter Goldsmith, who to my surprise did not know Blair well at all at the time.
But I was able to observe Blair at close range even though he did not stay long. I have to say I did not feel I was in the presence of an evil war criminal in the making. What struck me most about Blair were his eyes. They looked very blue and he switched them to infinity mode while seeming to look one in the eye. I remembered this when I heard him say the other day that he can look the nation in the eye and say he had not misled it about WMD. Not misled the nation, my foot!
But Tony Blair’s eyes are not the eyes of Caligula – President Mitterrand’s description of the eyes of another British prime minister. Tony Blair was quite good looking in 1997. He appeared tall and slim and looked cool and made Britain feel cool too for a while, although the blue jeans industry will never forgive him for making blue jeans uncool by wearing them in middle age.
The trouble with putting him on trial as a war criminal, apart from the lack of any law to hinge a case against him, is that there is nothing of the night about him. Tony Blair lacks the sadistic smile of a Stalin; or Hitler’s lunatic fringe; or Saddam Hussain’s macho walk. Evil can of course be normal and banal but there is nothing in Blair’s background to suggest an evil war criminal.
His father was a barrister and he attended the equivalent of Eton in Scotland called Fettes College in Edinburgh. He read law at Oxford and after he was called to the Bar he became a pupil in the chambers of Alexander Irvine QC at 11 King’s Bench Walk. It was the stable for many progressive Scottish advocates from Glasgow who ventured south of the border, including John Smith the much respected Labour leader whom he succeeded after Smith died suddenly in 1994.
Blair made Irvine Lord Chancellor when he became prime minister and together they steered the Human Rights Act 1998 through Parliament that changed the face of English Law and government for a generation. He also introduced devolution in Scotland and was responsible for bringing peace to Northern Ireland by persuading Dr Ian Paisley and the IRA’s Sinn Fein to sue for peace. Dr Paisley’s ‘time for war and a time for peace’ speech still makes my hair stand on end.
Since leaving politics he has been engaged in trying to broker peace in the Middle East. His appointment as peace envoy was likened to a mosquito trying to cure malaria which is an amusing aphorism, although in fairness it was his success in Northern Ireland that landed him the job. These days he spends his time in the healthy pursuit of money.
Britain is in a strategic alliance with the USA. If the president of America says jump the British prime minister says how high because America provides Britain with a protective nuclear umbrella and an impregnable shield. It was in recognition of this reality that Blair wrote to Bush saying he would support America ‘whatever’.
The strategic defence of Britain therefore always requires a British prime minister to stand shoulder to shoulder with America. It is true that Harold Wilson resisted sending troops to Vietnam but that was many years before 9/11. Logically the right question to ask is whether Harold Wilson could have resisted supporting America after 9/11.
Pax Americana commands respect and loyalty. Other states in the West are not as loyal but that is because they are not in a special relationship with America. They are not as kith and kin. They do not have a common language and the common law.
Tony Blair looked and behaved like Rory Bremner’s caricature of him. He was what the Turks call a bit of a Karagioz – the cartoon thespian loved by Turks and Greeks for his glib responses to the absurdities of life. Indeed it has been said many times that it was the thespian in Blair that made him such a successful politician.
For Tony Blair all the world was literally a stage. But the thousands upon thousands who died in Iraq did not die on stage. They died real brutal deaths as a result of operation ‘shock and awe’ which we all know was planned prepared initiated and executed by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Blair had a cameo walk-on part but his role was de minimis. In fact, we now know that the momentum had gathered apace much earlier on account of contingency planning by the British military jointly with their American counterparts that could not be contained by Blair and his advisers.
On the evidence presented in the Iraq Report Tony Blair has a case to answer but he also has an answer. First, courts of law tread very carefully when evaluating things done pursuant to the strategic interests of nations because such matters defy legal analysis. Second, although the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg 1946 decided that ‘resort to a war of aggression is not merely illegal but criminal’ rendering leaders of states personally liable to criminal prosecution, the leaders involved in Iraq were Bush and his cabinet not Blair, who after all did seek to persuade Bush to go down the UN route.
Finally, the US has neither signed nor ratified the Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court and there is no law or court whereby Bush et al can be tried.
As Blair said at the end of his last speech to parliament ‘that is that.’ There is not going to be any justice done to those responsible for the death of so many innocent people this side of the grave. Shame on the world.
Alper Ali Riza is queen’s counsel and a part time judge in the UK