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Clare Short: Blair will never be forgiven for Iraq suffering

Short, who quit as international development secretary after war, says Tony Blair has lost the plot and will never escape 'crimes against peace'
Clare Short attends the Iraq Inquiry in 2010 (AFP)

Tony Blair will never be forgiven for “terrible suffering” unleashed by the invasion of Iraq, Clare Short has warned in a fierce intervention in advance of the publication on 6 July of the long-awaited Chilcot report, the outcome of an inquiry into the UK's role in the Iraq war.

In an interview with Middle East Eye before the release of the report, the former Labour cabinet minister, who quit her front-bench role over the conflict, launched a broadside against the former prime minister for his “crime against peace,” and said his recent attempts to justify the war showed he had "lost the plot".

She also said that:

  • She expects Blair to be heavily criticised in the report, and that other senior figure will also face censure
  • But that she fears the 12-volume report will fail to address the root cause of the government’s failure
  • She also says Blair had “lost the plot” in his ongoing attempts to “spin” the media in advance of Sir John Chilcot's findings
  • She also revealed that she held meetings with Gordon Brown in early 2003 calling on him to oppose the conflict.

The former international development secretary at first supported Blair’s plan to invade Iraq, then resigned in protest in 2003 after British and American forces became occupiers. 

Short, who said she had not spoken to Blair since she resigned from his cabinet, told MEE: “We all know Blair will never be forgiven, both for his deceit but also for the terrible, terrible suffering he has brought on the people of Iraq.

"That can never be put right. He can never be sorry enough, and he’s not even sorry. I don’t think there is anything I could say to him.

“I think he’s lost the plot. He thinks the sort of spin that [was] used when he was prime minister before Iraq will still work."

Short added that “anyone serious” knew the invasion could be directly linked to the rise of the Islamic State group and the turmoil in Iraq today.

Blair, alongside former senior generals and former foreign secretary Jack Straw, is expected to face fierce criticism in the Chilcot report. Short is also expected to face criticism over how her department handled the aftermath of the conflict.

Short also repeated the charge that Blair had “lied” to cabinet in the run-up to the war and withheld crucial legal and planning documents that, she says, could have swayed MPs against the war. “We never saw the legal documents,” she said.

She also warned, citing sources close to the report, that Chilcot might fail to land a strong blow on Blair if it attempts to spread blame and criticism too widely.

“I have heard that virtually every permanent secretary, every secretary of state, every senior person in Whitehall is being criticised, which makes me worry that if you blame everyone you don’t hold anyone to account.

“And also, that is just not the truth of what happened. What happened was that there was complete deceit in the run-up to war.”

During the wide-ranging interview, Short also revealed that her cabinet colleague Gordon Brown, then the chancellor of the exchequer, had considered resigning in the run-up to the conflict.

“I was trying to get Gordon to try and stand against [the war] because then we could have stopped it. And he would listen. He’s a cagey, calculating human being and never said that he would, but it seemed like a possibility.”

Protest cards left outside the Hutton inquiry in August 2003. Short faced criticism for her support of the Iraq war, and quit months after the invasion (AFP)

Short said the two often met for coffee to discuss their concerns over Iraq and other Labour policies, and that it was a “tragedy” the pair had not joined together to oppose the conflict.

She added that if the pair had been able to join former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned in the run-up to the war, and had “stood together” they would have been able to stop Blair, in a move that would have likely brought down the government.

In the end, she said, Brown favoured the “special relationship” and despite being alienated from Blair decided to back the conflict.

Much of the attention over Chilcot has focused on Blair and his senior colleagues, but Short says she hopes the report will also focus on the “failure of cabinet government,” which allowed Blair to push through “such ill-informed and dishonest decisions”.

She said: “There is no question that Blair took advantage, in a cynical way, of how power could be wielded in Britain. I think everybody knows it. There is no question. 

"There really was no cabinet government under Blair. He did everything informally and outside of cabinet. Cabinet meetings were very short. They was no decision making, it was just a confection.”

The former Birmingham MP, who now works on various causes from Palestine to corruption in the oil and gas industry, has called for the attorney general, who provides legal advice to the cabinet, to cease to be a political appointee of the prime minister.

She also called for members of the House of Commons to have access to independent legal advice and a formalisation of what papers cabinet members are entitled to see.

“The real question is how can the British government be so informal and faulty that such ill-informed and dishonest decisions can be made. This is the second time this has happened; it happened in Suez as well. This is a very serious constitutional crisis for Britain.”

The Iraq Inquiry, informally known as the the Chilcot report, which was set up by Gordon Brown in June 2009 while he was prime minister, will report on the way decisions to go to war were made and to identify “lessons that can be learned”.

Much of the report will focus on the reconstruction phase after the invasion, when Iraq was beset by sectarian conflict and militant attacks.

Short has seen parts of the report under a Maxwellisation process, which allows individuals facing criticism an opportunity to respond. According to Short, she faced “unfair criticism” over her role in overseeing the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

She said: “Whoever drafted it didn’t understand the difference in international law between immediate humanitarian needs ... and the reconstruction of the country, which requires a separate UN resolution because you are not allowed to interfere in the institutions of a country as an occupying power without a Security Council resolution, which was something I was arguing for throughout.”

She added that this was the reason she eventually resigned from Blair’s cabinet. She said: “I was very conscious that I was not going to let my officials to work in breach of international law, to carry out actions that would not be legal.”

Clare Short's 2003 resignation letter

Short added that that the criticism was “ignorant” but that she has responded and the final version “may well have taken that on board”.

However, she agreed that the reconstruction phase was a “complete and utter disaster”.

“The motives were dishonourable from the beginning and the reason I didn’t resign at the time of the vote and stayed on was to try to negotiate with Blair and get a promise from him, that he breached, that the reconstruction would be led by the UN and the international system, not the UK and America. And I still believe it would have been much better,” she said.

Chilcot is also expect to touch upon the “volumes of preparatory” work for the post-invasion phase that were reportedly “thrown away” when responsibility for reconstruction was moved to the US defence department, triggering planning chaos in Washington and Whitehall.

Short said: “This was gross negligence and hubris. They believed their own propaganda. They believed the people of Iraq would be in the streets waving flowers, so grateful to be liberated from Saddam Hussein, and it would all be easy.

"That is criminally irresponsible. It wasn’t an accident. An explicit decision was made to throw away all the State Department preparatory work.”

She said she expected the report to be “fairly hard” on Blair, who she says “convinced himself that even by being dishonest he was being honourable".

Middle East Eye contacted the office of Tony Blair but did not receive a response.

For her part, Short vanished from the public eye after she stepped down from parliament in 2010. She is no longer even a member of the Labour Party, although she backs calls for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to apologise on behalf of the party for the conflict.

“I back Corbyn apologising for illegal war. The reason in the end that I resigned from the party, not just the government, was that there was no inquiry or look into how the party in government had done this.”

Short ruled out re-joining the party and stopped short of calling for Blair to be tried as a war criminal at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

“It’s not going to happen. I know lots of people would like to see that, and I respect and understand that ... but there is no point in the UK hoping for something that is absolutely not going to happen.”

When asked if she thought Blair was a war criminal, she responded: “A crime against peace, certainly.”

She said that, ultimately, the British people had drawn their own conclusions, and her final comments echo her 2003 resignation letter, which said she was she was “sad and sorry” her time in government had ended.

“I’m sad and sorry that the Labour Party shamed itself and Britain shamed itself. Whatever Chilcot says, that can never be put right. It’s shameful. I will be sad and sorry about that for the rest of my life.”

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