To my amusement I read today that the Labour Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, is calling for Tony Blair to serve time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Nicked, banged up, locked away.
I have little time for Blair and remain distressed by my own attraction to him as a leader. Common sense is different to soundbites and he’s mastered disguising the latter as the former. I became politically aware in 2003, he was the first British prime minister to which I grew up under. If it stings that his promise was wasted and I was only nine when he is elected, then my heart goes out to those who realised that the “new dawn” was a painted set piece like at the end of the Truman Show.
But like many others, I know we could never bring ourselves to say that he should be impeached or arrested for the Iraq War. It goes beyond the question of whether or not there was a just case for the invasion and touches upon whether anyone really wishes to see a British Prime Minister in the dock.
Anthony Eden is the closest we’ve ever been to it because of his involvement with the Suez Crisis. When Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalisation of the joint British and French controlled Suez Canal, military attacks were launched by Israel, France, and Great Britain. Israel launched first, and the British and French issued an ultimatum for a ceasefire before launching their own attack on the pretext of protecting the canal from both the Israelis and Egyptians six days later.
Accusations that the UK and France had worked in collusion with Israel to seize the Suez Canal prompted accusations that Eden had lied to the House of Commons and he resigned in 1957. In his final statement to the House of Commons as Prime Minister on 20 December 1956, Eden told MPs “there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt.” However, papers released after more than 50 years reveal that the entire British Cabinet had been informed of the plan on 23 October 1956. This is what survived: Cabinet documents were literally being shredded by the Cabinet Office at the reluctant behest of Sir Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary.
The point of this is that history is both cruel and vainglorious. Some would argue that Eden had the vision to see a Western backlash against rising Middle Eastern nationalism as a good thing; something which might have stemmed so many dictatorships and allowed the West to retain a taming influence for the next half century. Others might say he was a liar, whose machinations rightly lead to his resignation and, for all of his reputation, he should be thankful social media wasn’t around to neck brace his shame.
Yet, for all the debate, Eden’s reputation survives. His career was long enough and his service as a Churchill acolyte and staunch anti-appeaser buoys him enough to move beyond Suez. He is still acknowledged as a prime minister, and for all his mistakes, history and the country affords him due respect by including him without caveat within the canon of office bearers of that high office.
Blair suffers the same problem as Eden but his retirement from public life can’t let him off the hook. The consequences of Iraq are so grave, the media and social media so relentless, and questions surrounding the decision to go to war so numerous that the issue can never settle in the mind of the British public. This is to say nothing that the conclusions of the country’s best hope for substantive answers, the Iraq Inquiry, has been delayed yet again. Yet he’s a prime minister and no one can rightly bring themselves to flat out say that he should be in chains because the man is more than the office.
The purging of New Labour from the Labour party represents a real opportunity to disconnect the man, as a statesman, from the office once and for all. The election of Jeremy Corbyn and the voluntary and no so voluntary removal of Blairites from his Shadow Cabinet is the cutting of the chord. Those who hold the Labour banner have nothing to do Blair anymore and rather than a haunting ghost, he’s a piece of living history with no active legacy left to protect his reputation. His connection to government is finally over and his statesman-like aura, the outcome of serving as prime minister is at an end: Britain sits at a crossroads for how we deal with him. He’s a non sequitur, the odd one out in a history of largely decent and honourable prime minsters.
So do we do as the Shadow Chancellor suggests and put Blair in a pillory in a way that our American cousins wished they’d done with Richard Nixon, or do we indulge our collective amnesia, and do a Gerald Ford and pardon him and cast him aside as a lesson learned?
There is some irony in that the Americans aggressively criticised Eden and Suez as a colonial excursion wrapped in chicanery and politicking. They even threatened massive financial repercussions against Britain if it continued the aggression. That one of their own presidents was caught in the criminal conspiracy of Watergate and was marred by accusations of illegality in attacking Cambodia during the Vietnam War is a tough lesson to learn.
Nevertheless, the response is a good example. Ford is latterly credited as saving the American presidency by pardoning Nixon and restoring the American’s public faith in the institution. Not many thought it at the time, but even as Senator Ted Kennedy admitted, it was an act of political courage which allowed the nation to heal.
So do we do as McDonnell suggests and arrest Blair? Or do we do as former foreign secretary David Owen suggests and charge Blair with contempt of Parliament? More likely, and to get the justice many think the Iraq Inquiry is going to reveal anyway, Blair would have to be impeached. Called before Parliament, an accuser makes his case and if the House determines there is a sufficient evidence, a motion on the accusations would be put before it and debated. Articles of impeachment would then be drawn up by a parliamentary committee. Crucially, the proceedings would not be limited by parliamentary term limits. They could, and would most likely, go on for years.
If there is to be a procedure of justice against Tony Blair, this is surely the best solution: we do it ourselves, by the highest legislative body of our land and dispense justice accordingly. We bypass notions of Blair being shipped off to the Hague as Robert Lindsay’s satirical drama, The Trial of Tony Blair, envisioned.
Between now and the time the Iraq Inquiry report is released (estimated for 2016), this is the process that should be on people’s minds when they consider labelling Blair a war criminal. If there is evidence to raise criminal proceedings, it should be down to the House of Commons.
American presidents are paradigms, once they’re gone they’re gone and they make the odd appearance at fundraisers or become elder statesmen. Prime ministers have no luxury if their adherents are still practising politics or carrying the torch. Corbyn’s election represents an opportunity for the public consciousness to deal with the Blair legacy, once and for all: there are no longer ties that bind. Richard Nixon had an unpopular war to his name, but Blair even more so has to answer for the antecedents of that conflict and await the outcome of an inquiry to determine whether or not his actions were just and informed on a sound basis.
In the meantime, while the Shadow Chancellor might be calling for Blair’s arrest, it is up to us as a public to decide whether or not we really want to see a former prime minister disregarded to the dustbin of history or whether we could like to see Mr Blair put on trial for what he did when holding the mantle of the highest office of this land. The answer is not immediately clear, but we need to get ourselves into a mental place where we know when all the facts are made available.