THIS is what a senior member of Tony Blair’s government told Cabinet colleagues when war in Iraq became inevitable: “We should do the brave thing, not be cowards.”
The context was that slightly sceptical ministers should rally behind the then premier and give him their unqualified support as Britain and America plotted to overthrow Saddam Hussein because he possessed non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
The brave thing?
I totally disagree. Even then, 13 years before Sir John Chilcot’s devastating critique revealed Mr Blair’s serial failure to follow due process, the braver course of action would have been to stand up to the PM and subject his military strategy to the most thorough of scrutiny before sending soldiers to their deaths.
Didn’t Ministers think it was odd that they were not presented with the Attorney General’s legal advice in full – and want conclusive evidence on the supposed whereabouts of WMD?
Didn’t Ministers think to ask whether the Armed Forces had the necessary equipment for desert warfare and consider the Government’s duty of care towards brave young service personnel?
Didn’t Ministers think to question whether the British military had sufficient manpower when the Army was already on active service in Afghanistan?
Didn’t Ministers think it prudent to discuss how to secure the long-term peace in Iraq once Saddam had been overthrown?
It would certainly have taken a “brave” Minister to ask these questions – and many more – given the Blair government’s reputation for control-freakery.
Yet this is supposed to be their job. Yes they have collective responsibility – and the late Robin Cook resigned with honour because he believed that the messiah-like Mr Blair had not pursued all diplomatic options – but they also have a duty to ask probing questions, even more so when it comes to issues of national security.
I’ll make two observations as the country comes to terms with the scale of the Chilcot conclusions which will be a stain on this country’s conscience for ever and a day.
First, modern politics is bereft of those senior statesmen – whether it be Willie Whitelaw for the Tories or Labour’s Denis Healey to name two – who had served with distinction in the Second World War and whose battlefield experience would have helped to shape Cabinet debates. For them, war would have been the last option and there would have been no “I will be with you, whatever” missives to the US president.
Second, the military experience of most decision-makers today is limited to games of paint-ball – or an afternoon chillaxing while playing the boardgame Risk. There is insufficient recognition of the onerous responsibility when troops are sent to battle – and don’t forget 179 British military personnel came home in coffins while 150,000 Iraqi civilians, at a conservative estimate, have been killed since 2003 and millions more displaced. It’s a legacy of the first Gulf War when war, to many, became a glorified video game.
To his credit, David Cameron has already addressed many of the shortcomings highlighted by the Chilcot report. He has set up a National Security Council and Parliament needs to authorise the deployment of troops, as he learned when MPs rejected British intervention in Syria in 2013.
But this still does not excuse the complacency of those members of the Blair government who thought the brave course of action was to kowtow to the wishes of their war leader and his weapons of mass deception.
And before John Prescott, the then Deputy Prime Minister accuses me of taking his “brave thing” remark out of context, I’ll save him the phone call. It’s on page 284 of his autobiography Prezza. My Story: Pulling No Punches.
POLITICAL memoirs from the Blair era are all the more revealing when set in the context of Iraq – and Chilcot.
I’d forgotten that the same John Prescott once took part in a video-link to George W Bush in the White House.
“I was amazed by Bush’s language. It was like cowboys and Indians, the goodies going in to fight the baddies, kicking ass, teaching them a lesson,” wrote Lord Prescott. “It was pretty raw, rough, emotional, simplistic stuff...”
At least recent events on this side of the Atlantic have spared us of the nightmare prospect of Anglo-American relations being in the hands of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.
THE arrogance of the Blair regime is further exposed by Bernard Donoughue who was policy guru to Labour premiers Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan.
Now a peer, Lord Donoughue has given an insight into his role as a junior agricultural minister when New Labour swept to power in 1997.
Called Westminster Diaries: A Reluctant Minister Under Tony Blair, they reveal how Lord Callaghan received a letter, “signed by a child in Blair’s office, asking him to a meeting with the leader”.
It wasn’t even signed by Mr Blair – and Lord Donoughue takes up the story: “Jim said to me: ‘I didn’t reply; that was the right way to handle it, wasn’t it, Bernard?’ Indeed. No history, nor manners.”
It was not the last insult. At the 1997 party conference, Lord Callaghan – 82 years of age – was sent the standard letter saying he was invited to Mr Blair’s main address “but had to get there early and they could not guarantee a seat”.
TOP marks for hypocrisy go to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan.
When pondering a challenge for the Tory leadership, she bleated – repeatedly – that a female candidate should automatically make the final run-off.
Yet having indicated her support for Boris Johnson, she switched allegiance to Justice Secretary Michael Gove rather than endorsing Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom. Talk about unprincipled.
ANYONE concerned about the parlous state of British politics should read Betty Boothroyd’s withering state of the nation assessment. With typical Yorkshire bluntness, the former Speaker told the House of Lords that “many decent people feel that they are outsiders in their own country: forgotten also-rans in what they perceive as a race for obscene wealth by many fat cats in big business, finance and property development” before bemoaning how policy is forged by slogans rather than statesmen. They are words of wisdom that must be heeded.
Betty for PM, I say.