It’s odd how arguments over the Iraq war in 2003 have been interpreted and remembered nearly two decades later. For example, at the time, the main argument of the so-called anti-war movement was that if Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, so what? Israel has them too and you’re not invading there, are you? Eh? EH?
Given that Saddam had actually used chemical weapons to murder thousands, it was hardly credible for opponents to claim they didn’t exist, so they settled for dubious claims of moral relativism instead.
Since the unfortunate discovery that the WMDs the world’s intelligence agencies were expecting to be unearthed weren’t actually there, that argument has morphed into: “We told you there were no WMD, didn’t we?” Well, some of you did, but certainly not all of you.
Similarly, everyone who opposed the invasion and who hates Sir Tony Blair will see Geoff Hoon’s latest intervention as a slam dunk in their tiresome crusade to get everyone else to agree with them. The former defence secretary’s claim that he was ordered by Number 10 to burn a memo that stated that the invasion might well be illegal is seen as total vindication of our domestic army of armchair international lawyers (alma mater: the internet).
But their recollection of the debate at the time also misses a mark. Sir Tony and the government took their time in deciding what its policy on invasion actually was, precisely because the legal framework had to be clarified. There was a debate about this among ministers — this was known at the time and widely reported. The memo in question, from attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, is the same memo that stated that any military action would, in fact, be legal. That it was couched in the necessary, convoluted legalise that weighed all the legal arguments on sides of the issue is the least surprising revelation to emerge.
So why did Number 10 insist that it be burned after reading? Jonathan Powell, Sir Tony’s chief of staff, insists he made no such request, so we will have to settle for an unsatisfactory he said/he said exchange. But just as Dominic Cummings, in Boris Johnson’s critics’ eyes, was transformed from an oily, untrustworthy government shill into a serious elder statesman whose opinions and claims must be taken very seriously, so Geoff Hoon has now been elevated by anti-war types from his previous status in their eyes as a complicit war criminal to sage of our times.
Hoon, it should be pointed out, has never claimed that Britain’s involvement in the Iraq invasion was illegal; how could he, given his support at the time and his awareness of all the legal advice given to the cabinet?
But some of his other claims in his recently published memoir deserve more attention. For example, it is plausible that Hoon received “a comprehensive Prime Ministerial bo——ing” after telling the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, that Britain could not join the invasion if the government was defeated in a Commons vote on the issue. Rumsfeld then stated publicly that there could be a “workaround” to compensate for the absence of Britain from the military coalition, leading to media speculation that Britain’s participation wasn’t actually that important.
So it is unsurprising that Sir Tony was irritated. On the other hand, the prime minister chose to dilute his own executive authority (or Royal prerogative) to take the country to war by inviting the Commons to endorse his policy, so Hoon can hardly be blamed for drawing a perfectly natural conclusion from that decision.
The former defence secretary also makes a rather more persuasive criticism of Blair, namely about his people skills. “I always had doubts about his handling and treatment of people. He seemed completely uninterested in his strongest supporters.”
This is a theme heard frequently from disgruntled ex-ministers under both Sir Tony and his successor, Gordon Brown, and it has some merit. But Hoon himself has little reason to feel “hung out to dry”, as he put it in his memoir. True, he was moved to a different cabinet post after the 2005 election. But he had served as defence secretary for six years — the longest holder of that office in the last Labour government. He spent 12 of Labour’s 13 years in government as a minister, a pretty good innings.
In any dealings I’ve had with Hoon, during and since my time as an MP, he was shown himself to be a decent, principled, honest individual with a wicked sense of humour and a profound commitment to public service. And nothing he has said in his memoir will cause anyone to change their view on his former boss. The “burn after reading” memo is no more than an acknowledgement that the legality of a controversial military action was being debated in government circles, as it should have been. It is certainly no smoking gun.