Iraq and Mr Blair: "If treason prosper…"? – a dialogue

My old friend Peter Harvey has posted the following thought-provoking comment on the two-part entry below about Iraq and the question of the legality of the war in the light of the Attorney-General’s advice. My own reply to Peter follows. (I haven’t been able to achieve consistency in font sizes: sorry!)

From Peter Harvey:

Your essay is an excellent description of the situation, and your point about the French ‘veto’ is well made. I well remember at the time how ironic it was that overwhelming Spanish public opinion should be represented so accurately by a French President of very dubious character and politics.

There is one point that I would like to develop. You say that ‘The extent of the flimsiness of the intelligence and the qualified nature of the legal justification were concealed from parliament and the country, and probably even from the rest of the Cabinet, in order to secure endorsement of a decision which Mr Blair had actually taken a year earlier at his fateful meeting with President George W Bush,’ and you speak of ‘the reality that it was Bush who took the decision to remove Saddam Hussein, and did so, with Britain acting in a purely subordinate role.’ Putting these two together we see that the situation is not one of a Prime Minister getting together with a few senior ministers to plot the invasion of a foreign country and bouncing the Cabinet and Parliament in the process, which would have been bad enough. What apparently happened is that a PM committed the armed might of the British State to serve the ends of a foreign power, thus subordinating the sovereignty of the UK to that power, when there was no threat to the security of the UK, and concealed the fact that he had done so from the Cabinet, let alone Parliament and the public. It is the concealment here that is the point at issue; a public treaty or other open military agreement is a different matter.

My question is: Does such an act not constitute treason?

From Brian Barder


Thank you for your kind remark about my regrettably lengthy essay on the Attorney-General’s advice and opinion on Iraq. I thought the importance of the issues justified a thorough commentary, and I’ve never been any good at brevity.

I see your point about ‘treason’. But I suggest that there are several reservations which need to be made. Whatever one might think of Tony Blair (and I have a low opinion of him, to put it as mildly as I can), I would accept that he genuinely believed the preservation of Britain’s alliance with the US to be in Britain’s interests and that it should rank very high indeed in Britain’s foreign policy priorities. This has been, after all, a cardinal principle of the foreign policies of successive British governments ever since the Suez fiasco in 1956. He also genuinely believed, if and when he gave his virtually unqualified commitment to Bush in 2002 to support him in getting rid of Saddam, that Iraq possessed WMD (and he was in very good and extensive company in believing that then): that sooner or later Iraqi WMD would fall into the hands of international terrorists: that this would sooner or later present a real threat to western countries including Britain: and that the longer the west delayed action to pre-empt this threat materialising, the higher would be the human, diplomatic, military and financial costs of dealing with it. And he would also have believed that it would be impossible to remove the potential threat from Iraqi WMD and international terrorists as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq, so that the WMD disarmament and régime change objectives will have seemed indissolubly linked. If you put all those (perfectly rational, defensible and honourable) beliefs together, you can see how Blair would have judged it to be in Britain’s interests to give that commitment.

With hindsight, of course, one can see the flaws in much of it. In particular, one can and does regret (as Blair probably now does) that he didn’t make his commitment strictly conditional on formal and explicit UN approval for any military action against Iraq. But it probably never occurred to him that it would turn out to be so difficult – indeed, impossible – to get UN approval for a course of action which must have seemed to him so obviously necessary. Once the commitment had been given, the cost of welshing on it in terms of UK-US relations and Blair’s own standing with the White House and the Congress, not to mention US public opinion, must have seemed unthinkable.

There remains the issue of concealment. Here Blair must have been worried by the likely difficulty of persuading UK public opinion, not least in his own party in parliament and the country, that military action involving deaths and destruction could be justified to deal with a potential future threat as distinct from a current and actual one. He might also have feared that if he went public about his commitment to Bush over Iraq, he would be represented as Bush’s poodle, acting “to serve the ends of a foreign power, thus subordinating the sovereignty of the UK to that power” (as you put it), whereas in his own perfectly defensible view he had acted throughout in what he believed to be the best interests of Britain. His solution to this problem was to [mis]represent the threat as being immediate rather than potential, a solution which looks deeply fraudulent now but which would have seemed much less so at a time when almost everyone was convinced that Iraq possessed WMD and was actively developing more, and more horrible, kinds of weaponry, including eventually nuclear weapons.

As to the illegality of going to war without a second resolution, (a) he had a thin cover of sorts from the Attorney-General’s eventual opinion of 17 March 03, and (b) he had got away with the same illegality over Kosovo, widely if erroneously regarded as a great moral and political success, and no doubt thought he could do so again.

And finally, I doubt if there is sufficiently hard evidence, of a kind that would stand up in a court of law or in impeachment proceedings, that Blair did in fact give that unqualified commitment to Bush in 2002, although a lot of circumstantial evidence does point in that direction, and many of us are convinced that he did. The truth about this will probably come out in the end, whenever the end might be. But it hasn’t done so yet.

Against this background I don’t think a charge of treason could be made to stick. Blair would be able to claim convincingly, and probably truthfully, that he had acted throughout in what he reasonably judged to be Britain’s best interests, and even if a court or impeachment tribunal disagreed with that judgement, such disagreement couldn’t constitute grounds for a conviction. Courts are notoriously (and usually rightly) reluctant to substitute their own judgement for those of the elected government on issues which are primarily or wholly political.

One last point: none of us should underestimate Blair’s capacity for self-delusion, seriously aggravated by his inability to make proper use of the resources of the public service or to practise proper procedures of consultation and collective decision-making – defects that I think are largely attributable to his inexperience in government when he became prime minister, without ever previously having managed a government department or having had to defend his department’s policies and actions in parliament or to the media as a junior or even senior departmental minister. The resulting lack of political and administrative discipline has in effect destroyed him. The tragedy is that it has destroyed so many others too, in very many cases literally.


30 April 05