Catherine Bennett / The Observer (Commentary) – 2008-03-30 22:57:28
LONDON (March 23 2008) — How about 20 March? The publicists at Random House must have thought the anniversary of the war in Iraq would make a terrific peg upon which to hang the publication of Jonathan Powell’s /iGreat Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland. What could be more piquant than to publish Powell’s thoughts on conflict resolution on the anniversary of a conflict supported by the same author?
As for our hero, the only risk attached to promoting his peacemaking skills in a week when he might, more properly, have been reflecting on his part in the deaths of 175 British soldiers, was the obvious similarity of this diversionary tactic to Jo Moore’s very good day to bury bad news.
But where brazen acts of spin are concerned, the public has become more tolerant. Jo Moore’s fate was universal contempt, followed by resignation, followed by atonement in a north London primary school. Jonathan Powell, on the other hand, has been indulged with a week of self-glorification, during which he depicted himself as a wry yet principled drudge, whose role in pushing this country into an illegal and catastrophic war has been hugely misunderstood.
To see him today, making the case for liberal interventionism, is to marvel that this must be the same boor who, according to Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the US, once instructed him to ‘get up the arse of the White House and stay there’. Although, to be fair to Powell and fellow alumni of Blair’s Downing Street sofa, it’s clear that, during their incumbency, the two activities were considered indistinguishable.
There are limits to Powell’s genius; he could not have organised a decoy on this scale without the help of another former enemy, the BBC. Prior to the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, the Corporation invited him on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning programme, where he celebrated instead, and somewhat early, the publication of his own book. There will be another chance to admire Powell’s contribution to conflict resolution in a forthcoming BBC documentary, The Undercover Diplomat, whose producers introduce him thus: ‘Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s designated man behind the scenes working on behalf of the Prime Minister to secure a lasting peace…’
Meanwhile, Tony Blair’s designated judge, Lord Goldsmith, was toiling away as Attorney General, a role which has recently been largely eclipsed by his new incarnation as the author of a report on Britishness, ‘Citizenship: Our Common Bond’.
Goldsmith’s bizarre document, part preposterous, part stultifyingly boring, was published in the same week that, five years ago, he gave the war his blessing. In 30 Days, his still-revealing book about being a Downing Street fly on the wall in March and April 2003, Peter Stothard recalls the triumphant moment, on 15 March, when Goldsmith ‘fortunately’ overruled the opinions of Foreign Office lawyers and sanctioned invasion: ‘If he did not judge the coming war to be legal,’ Stothard wrote, ‘there would be no British troops fighting it.’
Stothard, unlike the little gang on Blair’s sofa, could not have known at the time that Goldsmith was also abandoning his own, previously equivocal position. Nor that, over at the Foreign Office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy legal adviser, was about to resign, since ‘an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression’.
If his Britishness proposals were less polished than Powell’s protracted tribute to himself, the utter absurdity of Goldsmith’s nation-building wheezes proved just as effective at changing the subject. Rather than question Goldsmith’s staggering effrontery in returning to public life, as opposed to, say, hiding under a stone, or taking a boat to the Hague and turning himself in, commentators ridiculed his plans for oaths of allegiance. Oaths which, much as they might distress schoolchildren, rarely succeed in killing them.
Today, with the anniversary recriminations just about over, you can almost see Powell and Goldsmith getting up, glancing around and dusting themselves off prior to returning to their respective desks at Morgan Stanley and Debevoise & Plimpton. Of the still wilier Sally Morgan, now Baroness Morgan of Huyton, and fellow wartime trusty, nothing has been seen. Except by her colleagues at the Carphone Warehouse, where she serves Blair’s yacht-owning friend Charles Dunstone as a non-executive director.
As for Alastair Campbell, the author of the dodgy dossier is thought to be busy with a more extended work of fiction. Certainly, although reporters have risked their lives in Iraq these the last weeks to show us how its citizens feel about the devastation of their lives and country, it has proved far more difficult to extract the great bully himself from his lair in Gospel Oak and uncover his current thinking on how it all went. Less controversially, one would like to know if he ever gets any sleep.
Comparatively blameless politicians, who would never, after all, have had to vote for war if Powell and Morgan had not helped prosecute it, Campbell not propagandised it and Goldsmith not licensed it must wonder why the public seems so much more exercised about nests of tables and jobs for the family. Fraudulent though it is, the act of wangling an idle relative on to the payroll is generally considered a lesser offence than manslaughter, or its white collar version, exaggerating evidence so as to facilitate a war which will kill and maim hundreds of your compatriots.
Given the current state of his reputation, it seems unlikely that Derek Conway will return from obscurity any time soon to exclaim that he would happily do it all over again. Powell, in contrast, remains so buoyed by achievements in Iraq that he now proclaims the need for ‘us’ to remove yet more foreign dictators, regardless of the toll in human suffering.
In fairness, even Powell was not entirely spared and still recalls the sicky feeling when he heard about David Kelly. Campbell, as we know, was also afflicted by David Kelly syndrome, though he subsequently rallied enough to publish his diaries, tour his one-man show and routinely chastise the press for its woeful habit of reducing public figures ‘from hero to zero’. ‘Shades of grey don’t fit the formula,’ he complained in the recent Cudlipp lecture.
It is an opinion he will surely want to revise in the light of the extraordinary amnesty this same media now extend to him and his former colleagues, all of them coloured the same dirty charcoal. Not one of these aggressors has apologised. Yet, with their moral vacuity and collective ineptitude established beyond doubt, they have somehow dodged disgrace. Every one of them, even Jack Straw, even Geoff Hoon, has prospered.
Some presume, as a sideline, to lecture us on ethics. While successive commentators have admitted that they got it wrong, the message from Blair, who duped them all, is that presidency of the EU would fit comfortably into a professional portfolio which already includes forging peace in the Middle East, writing his memoirs, teaching, advising an insurance company and some sort of PR for JP Morgan.
Opponents of the war have done less well. Cook is dead; the irritating Clare Short, though ultimately more principled than most of her colleagues, remains the object of ridicule; Andrew Gilligan, whom we heard in Iraq for the BBC on the day the bombs dropped, now toils for the Evening Standard. I am not sure about Greg Dyke, whose last memorable appearance was his resignation from the BBC, when he said: ‘We need closure.’
In reality, we need the opposite. Blair was always wanting us to draw lines, move on and get over things, quickly if we wouldn’t mind hurrying up. Why do we still indulge him?
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.