sunday herald 26/3/05
A crime of aggression”, such was the devastating assessement of the Iraq war by the former deputy legal adviser to the foreign office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst. It came from her resignation letter, censored sections of which were finally published last week. That’s how she believed an invasion, without a second UN resolution, would appear to the international community. And, she might have added, to posterity.
Those four words are likely to resonate long after people like Andrew Gillian and Alastair Campbell are forgotten. There was much talk last week of a “smoking gun” after it emerged that the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had changed his mind twice about the legality of the Iraq invasion. But the real smoking gun was always Ms Wilmshurst, whose resignation on the eve of conflict blew a gaping hole in the government’s credibility.
Elizabeth Wilmshurst sounds like a character straight out of John Le Carre - a fastidious, conservative career civil servant, thirty years in post, who finds she can no longer support her country, right or wrong, and sacrifices a job she loves on the alter of integrity. However, she doesn’t sell her career lightly.
Wilmshurst carefully protected her dignity and relative anonymity after she fell on her sword. She didn’t prostitute herself to the media, write instant books or start appearing on anti-war platforms. Her silence made her all the more deadly. Now she works for the internationally renowned think tank “Chatham House” - whose famous rules of confidentiality govern what is said off the record among civil servants and ministers in Whitehall.
We can be pretty confident that her assessment and account of what happened in Downing St.. on the eve of the war has been dissemminated the length of Whitehall. Her views certainly influenced the Butler Report on the “seriously flawed” manner in which the government went to war.
Her example has led to more and more ex-civil servants speaking out to BBC programmes, like last week’s Panorama. It revealed that at a meeting chaired by Blair in July 2003, MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove was on record as saying "the facts and the intelligence" had been "fixed round the policy" by the administration of US President George W. Bush. It cited numerous reputable sources and also confirmed that the foreign secretary, jack Straw, had great reservations about the legitimacy of the war.
Now, Labour MPs have claimed this and other programmes have been motivated my malice - and maybe they were. The BBC lost its Director General, the much-loved Greg Dyke, and its chairman, the ex-New Labour insider, Gavyn Davies over the war. But both Dyke and Davies seem to have found themselves on the right side of history. Their resignations over the infamous “Today`” broadcast, which effectively accused the government of lying, has somehow damaged the government more than it has damaged them -even though even the reporter, Andrew Gilligan, accepts that the specifics of his story weren’t true.
But that’s not the point. There can be very few people outside the Labour front bench now who seriously believes that the government didn’t sex-up, over-egg, hype, flam, exaggerate or distort the intelligence on Iraq. Dr David Kelly, the late weapons inspector, certainly believed that - even though he also believed that Iraq had a WMD programme.
Like Wilmshurst, Kelly could also have been one of Smiley’s People. The portrayal of Kelly by Mark Rylance in Peter Kosminsky’s dramatised documentary "The Government Inspector" was not only a brilliant performance - it immortalised him. Rightly or wrongly, Kelly is now an icon of probity - a good man crucified on political expediency. Flawed, yes. But someone who paid the ultimate penalty when he realised he couldn’t reconcile his passion for the truth with the the political machinations of Number Ten.
But why go over all this again? Isn’t it all yesterday’s news? Shouldn’t I be writing about the election campaign - the real issues, like the resignation of the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party over those £45 bn in spending cuts?
Well, actually, I am writing about the election; about the context in which voters, those fifty percent or so who will bother to turn out, will be making their choice on May 5th. We are wrong to assume that voters act purely as passive consumers, responding to the latest cash bribes from politicians. Voting remains essentially a moral act; it involves a much wider judgement on the conduct of the people in power.
And integrity still matters even in the age of spin. People who believe so strongly in truth that they are prepared to lay down their jobs and lives carry moral weight, historical clout. Honourable people don’t often write history, but they always shape it. Blair’s people may have clung on to their jobs, but they have lost their grip on the real prize - their reputations.
Lord Hutton gave the government a hasty face-lift, erasing the worst of the stretch-marks on its credibility - but the key players have already been sent down in the court of history. Just make an mental comparision between Dr David Kelly, with his fetish for truth, and his tormentor, Alastair Campbell with his fetish for spin. It tells you all you need to know about how important Iraq is for this election.
Or take the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith. How will he go down in history, now it has emerged that he changed his legal opinion on the war more often than Barbara Amiel changes her handbags? It seems that the government’s senior law officer was so confused about the legtimacy of the forthcoming war that he had to be sent across to America for a bit of constitutional re-education. On his return, he put his name to a single sheet of A4 which seems to have said: “Whatever you say, Prime Minister”.
Of course, Labour are confident that most of this goes way over the heads of the electorate. Voters don’t care about legal opinions and lawyer-speak about casus belli, habeas corpus, freedom of information. They have lost track of the endless reports from select committees, the dodgy documents, the accusations of cover up. So what if sections of Ms Wilmshurst’s letter had been censored? Ninety percent of the electorate don’t even know her name.
But the politicians are missing the point. Actions always speak louder than words, and the actions of the respective players in this drama have lodged an indelible image in the public mind. It is, as Alastair Campbell himself realised in his private diaries, this massive issue of trust. It will hang over this election campaign like a cloud. Iraq will rarely be raised formally as an issue, but it is what is in the backs of voters minds when they come to put their crosses on the ballot paper that really matters.
There is a predisposition to disbelieve the government, and Tony Blair in particular, which has registered on practically every recent opinion poll. Friday’s poll in the Daily Telegaph showed 63% believe he govermneet to be untrustworthy or dishonest. Labour needs still to be worried. When people lose trust in their government they can no longer be relied upon to vote in a predictable manner. Anything could happen in the forthcoming general election campaign and probably will. But if it comes to giving the benefit of the doubt to one side or the other, Labour has a massive handicap.
It is a sobering thought that there are nw some countries in the world to which Tony Blair would be unwise to travel to because he could, Pinochet-style, be hauled before a court for war crimes. I am not saying that the Mr Blair is a war criminal. But the charge that he colluded in a crime of aggression will haunt him for as long as he remains Prime Minister.