“What’s going to happen to him?”
“Well he’s going to go, isn’t he?”
“Go — what do you mean, go?”
“Well — I dunno.”
Or, to put it phonetically: “Wozgnnaappetaim/ Worrrrleezegnnagozzzzne/Gwdyameango/WlllllIdnno’
— conversation in a pub.
With the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war moving inexorably towards the headline act — Tony Blair’s second appearance in the witness stand on Friday — there is something of a dark carnival atmosphere around the place. It’s a frisson in the air, an electricity, a slight tension, a sense of something shared.
Yes, yes of course 75% of the population couldn’t give a toss — obsessed instead with the devious plot by super-model Jordan to have her bloke evicted from Celebrity Big Brother or something, I really only followed about a third of it, but it’s all over The Sun.
But in the drinking dens of Soho, Islington and points east there was definite anticipation, not all of it positive energy. When Mr Tony takes the stand on Friday, he will be faced in the public gallery with 40 people who’ve lost sons or brothers in the Iraq war.
So concerned was government that the spectacle might get out of hand, that the other gallery seats were awarded by ballot — rather than having several hundred anti-war activists queuing up all night for a ticket, and getting ornery.
Even then, the authorities are pissing razorblades over what the public will actually do when they come face to face with Mr Tony. The most likely form that a visceral denunciation would take is a shoe protest, and you can see the authorities’ problem, for how the hell do you prevent a shoe protest? Were the public to be asked to remove their shoes merely to be in presence of an ex-PM … what would that say about relations between the political class and the population as a whole?
Today’s evidence has certainly banged a few nails into the base of Mr Tony’s gallows. Hitherto, the Labour war government members — Blair, Straw, former defence minister the wonderfully named Geoff Hoon — have been able to claim that advice on the legality of the law was contradictory, and that those high-profile civil servants who made their disquiet public were rogue elements.
That’s all over now. Though one of the star turns at the inquiry was Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the foreign office lawyer who resigned before the war started, after the government proceeded to war, the more damning evidence came from senior Foreign Office lawyer Sir Michael Wood, and several documents he introduced, which make it clear that all the government’s legal advice from civil servants was to the effect that the war was illegal without a second UN resolution authorising force.
“Indeed,” said Sir Michael, the impeccably anonymous civil servant in whitebait and glasses, to the inquiry: “I was obliged to put my legal advice in written form, something I rarely do.”
Which didn’t do much good, since Jack Straw simply rejected it, also in writing. Straw is, of course, within his rights to do so, and Wilmshurst would ask whether he could not form his own opinion, given that he’s a lawyer. “He’s not an international lawyer,” was Wilmshurst’s terse reply.
The whole thing is a rum do. After all, the whole case for war — in the precise legalism with which it was presented — is unravelling day-by-day, and the war was effectively the centre of Blair’s second term, and the abyss into which Labour’s last chance to make any real social change vanished.
Yet with the conference centre décor, and the witnesses shoved right up hard against the inquirer’s table (“when did you last see your fatwa?”), the whole thing has the feel of a treasurer’s report at the Orpington tennis club. One does long for a bit of the pomp and funk of a US senate inquiry, with the horseshoe table, the gavel, flags everywhere, and people misquoting Jefferson. Here, tune out and you could swear everyone debating the relative merits of Ginger Snaps versus Chocolate Hob Nobs*.
The most mind-bendingly complex yet important evidence came from the document trail leading back to Lord Goldsmith (yes, yes, it’s all Pirates of Penzance — we’re just going to gave to get used to it), the Attorney-General, who initially concurred with the Foreign Office lawyers, to wit, that a second UN resolution was required.
Over the course of a fortnight, and under some fairly explicit pressure from Straw, Goldsmith came around to the conclusion that, absent a UN resolution, it would be sufficient for the UK PM to come to an independent conclusion that Saddam was in breach of international obligations. By that point, the advice was being explicitly tailored to the political end, with Straw telling Dick Cheney that they could go ahead without a second resolution “a la Kosovo”.
Goldsmith will be giving evidence tomorrow, so the blow-by-blow account of how this came about may yet yield more smoking pistols, to add to the veritable arsenal already in place.
Amid all the tangle, the question obviously presents itself: why do these legal niceties matter? After all, it would be quite possible for the UN to authorise a war that was nevertheless utterly unjust — and the UK/US “dodgy dossier” came close to getting the war authorised. But, of course, the legal justification for the war mattered above all to the perpetrators, since its legitimacy depended on the idea that it was not a mad imperial adventure, but a process in which the US and UK were mere representatives of humanity, wearily taking up the burden, etc, etc.
Indeed, the legal brouhaha, with its air of necessary rationality, acts as a perfect counterweight to the war, which even to this day, has a residual enigma about it — a purposeless projection of power whose main result was to weaken the West.
The other reason it matters, of course, is that the more an overwhelming case of mendacity and falsehood builds up, the greater the likelihood that Blair will face an arrest warrant somewhere in one of the 30 or so nations that have crimes of aggression on its statutes.
And that is why there’s a buzz around, and an air of palpable excitement in the beery air — to see how Mr Tony will get out of this one. Or if he can at all.
* Really just a Chocolate Covered Butternut Snap. But biscuit names are sacred British cultural artefacts.