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Grist to the conspiracy mill

Good news: Tony Blair is to receive a medal, £100,000 and the thanks of a grateful nation.

Not, sad to relate, this nation, for reasons that no doubt continue to baffle our former prime minister, but you can’t have everything. Just the

£20 million accrued since ­exchanging public service for self-service.

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The Liberty Medal is being bestowed by the Americans, who like our Tony. They have admired him ever since discovering that he can tell lies in perfect sentences. Blair, for his part, has always seemed happier on the far side of the Atlantic, where they better understand that a man has to do what a man’s gotta do. Especially when he claims to be doing something else entirely.

The gong is to be handed over by Bill Clinton, which is nice, on behalf of Washington’s National Constitutional Centre. Presumably George Bush has a prior engagement on a golf course. Bill says: “It was a privilege to work with my friend Tony Blair to help end 30 years of sectarian violence and broker a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, to stop the killing in and mass exodus from Kosovo, and to develop policies that would improve living conditions for people in both our countries.”

But hang on a minute, Bubba, one thinks. Isn’t there something missing from that citation? Wasn’t there one of those “lasting peace” situations – it’ll come to me in a minute – that our Tony would want on his ­statesman-for-hire CV? It used to be a big deal.

Many of Blair’s former intimates would rather it were not any sort of deal. Each of the men bidding to become Labour’s next leader has discovered – just in time – that the Iraq war was a bit of a mistake and yet, somehow, nothing to do with them. David Miliband, for one, has urged that we all “move on”.

This is the same Miliband who, as Foreign Secretary, rose in the Commons to state categorically (and indignantly) that MI5 had not, and would never, involve itself in the torture of prisoners. He had better hope that the forthcoming Government inquiry into the issue is also happy to “move on”.

Still, one outrage at a time. Just as it was announced that Blair is to be feted for his humanitarian habits, the Chilcot inquiry arose last week from its post-election slumbers. More paperwork – David Cameron must have hesitated for all of two seconds – has been released. Its import is either tragic, hilarious, or both:

you decide.

Remember how we were all dismissed as mad conspiracy nuts for ever believing that an august personage such as England’s Attorney-General could debase his high office by twisting every principle of international law just to suit Blair’s purpose? That was true.

Remember, also, how we used to be accused of puerile anti-Americanism for believing that Blair had set aside any duty to his country just for the chance to say, “Yes, George, right away, George”? It was all true. Seedy, sad, near inexplicable, but true.

As it transpires, the then Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, told the then Prime Minister the same thing over and over. The advice scarcely justified a fancy salary, given that it was founded on the basic principles of international law, but Goldsmith attempted, for a while, to do his bit.

To wit: you can start a legal war for one of three reasons. Either you are under attack, an attack is clearly imminent, or the UN has authorised your actions for the common good. Goldsmith even went to the bother of pointing out that Saddam’s alleged interest in weapons of mass destruction was not, of itself, good enough evidence of “imminence”. He also said, repeatedly, that UN resolution 1441 had failed to give explicit authorisation for bombing the entrails out of Iraq.

But there was a problem. As though in a deleted scene from a Godfather movie, Blair had already given his fealty to Bush. Parliament didn’t matter, then or afterwards. The British public – yes, all that marching was hard on the feet – certainly did not matter. And the advice of the law officer charged under our sketchy constitution to keep government in the vicinity of the straight and narrow was the least, say the declassified documents, of Blair’s worries.

Goldsmith changed his mind. It amounts to an actually fabulous episode in the annals of governmental gall. Subjected to no pressure whatsoever – for that would be horribly illegal – the Attorney-General realised that Blair had been right all along. Bombing Iraq, as Bush had planned since his first weeks in office – the journalist Bob Woodward’s account has yet to be refuted – was perfectly fine. Such was m’learned Goldsmith’s advice.

Philippe Sands QC, professor of international law at University College London, put it best last week. The new paperwork, he observed, “lays bare the fact that Lord Goldsmith effected a 180-degree change of direction in less than a month, and that he did so in the total absence of any new facts or legal considerations”.

But facts: who needs them? It is certainly a fact that those involved in the assault on Iraq wish we would just drop it. Give it another generation and some other columnist will be writing – perhaps tweeting briefly – about the lies being told about Afghanistan. All that our governments ever seek in these catastrophes is breathing space, the chance to duck, run, quit office, and hold an inquiry. Nothing ever happens – this is by design, not accident – when it needs to happen.

So do you remember how we were mocked for calling Blair a war criminal? Such an absurd notion. But the Goldsmith papers, as we must now call them, are beyond ­rebuttal. The Government’s lead lawyer, backed by a host of Whitehall types, stated the fact: a war would be illegal. Ergo, those who waged that war would be engaged in a criminal act. Blair simply thought: better find me another opinion, then.

Only one part of the jigsaw remains to be found. Why was Blair so determined, despite all the risks to his government, his career and his reputation, to serve a foreign power? It’s a little rich, I think, to blame a whisper from God. It is frankly implausible, meanwhile, to claim that news of Saddam’s psychotic habits was hot from the presses. Why are our prime ministers suborned so easily – Obama can barely keep a straight face – by men in the Oval Office?

But there I go: conspiracies. The need to reach for extravagant and irrational explanations for mundane events; the refusal, deleterious to discourse, just to take things at face value. Then it turns out that common sense was right all along: Blair was lying, lying in plain sight, in full knowledge of the meaning of his perfect sentences, at every step in the adventure. A warrant for his arrest is long overdue.

Last week there surfaced another claim concerning Dr David Kelly, the man who knew all about Iraq and WMD. That individual ended his life, they said, because foolishly he encouraged a BBC journalist to question Downing Street’s claims. Now it is argued seriously that Kelly was physically incapable of cutting his own wrists.

More conspiracy nonsense? Considering what we know now about Blair’s war, I offer one piece of advice: don’t seek an opinion from Lord Goldsmith.

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