The Paxman-Blair interview: some extraordinary revelations
In the fascinating and revealing interview with Tony Blair by Jeremy Paxman, broadcast by BBC1 television on 21 April 2005, the prime minister told Paxman that he had not seen the advice on the legality of the Iraq war submitted by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office legal advisers, who are (or should be) the government’s main source of specialised, expert advice on international law. It is widely believed that the FCO lawyers’ consensus was that to go to war without explicit Security Council authority in a second resolution would be illegal; that was certainly the view of a deputy FCO Legal Adviser, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who courageously resigned over the issue, and whose resignation letter, recently released in bowdlerised form under the Freedom of Information Act, recorded her formal view that “I cannot agree that it is lawful to use force against Iraq without a second Security Council resolution … an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression”. The Attorney-General, almost alone among the legal authorities involved (his expert field is commercial, not international, law), thought otherwise, and advised the government accordingly. But we know that the matter was hotly debated in Whitehall, and in view of the crucial importance of the issue of legality, it seems astonishing that the prime minister himself should not have seen the FCO legal advisers’ view:
Paxman: Did you see the Foreign Office legal advice which said military action against Iraq would be ‘illegal without a further UN resolution’?
Blair: No, I had the attorney general’s advice to guide me. But again this thing has been built in to, you know, a —
Paxman: You didn’t see that Foreign Office advice saying that an invasion would be illegal without a second UN resolution?
Blair: No, because I had the attorney general’s advice.
Paxman: You didn’t see it?
Blair: Yes, I didn’t see it. But I had the attorney general’s advice, and the attorney general made it absolutely clear that provided we could show that there were breaches of the United Nations resolutions …
Paxman: The attorney general is a political appointment, Prime Minister. Shouldn’t you have seen the Foreign Office legal advice?
Blair: But the attorney general’s advice is the advice he gives us as the law officer. He acts in an independent way in doing that.
The FCO Legal Adviser would have submitted his and his colleagues’ advice on this hugely important matter to Jack Straw, the Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary (we may surely assume that he at least saw it); and it would undoubtedly have been copied automatically to many others, including the Cabinet Secretary and officials at No. 10 Downing Street. It’s hard to understand how none of these people apparently thought it necessary to show it to the prime minister. How could either Jack Straw or the Cabinet Secretary justify their decisions to withhold it from Mr Blair? This is truly baffling. Mr Blair’s own explanation – that he didn’t see the FCO legal advice because he had advice from the Attorney-General – only deepens the mystery: are we really to believe that the Attorney-General’s lengthy written advice, delivered to the prime minister on 7 March 2003, contained no account of the FCO Legal Advisers’ opinions – including Ms Wilmshurst’s – if only to explain why he disagreed with them? If it did incorporate that FCO advice, then it’s hard to understand how Mr Blair could have thrice denied having seen it. If it didn’t, why didn’t it? With puzzlement multiplying like this, the issue is certainly not going to go away.
But, as they say in the ranting TV commercials, that’s not all. Perhaps the most alarming revelation to come out of the Paxman interview was Tony Blair’s assertion that with the failure of his “desperate” efforts to get a second UN resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq, it had fallen to him personally to take the hard decision whether to “remove” Saddam Hussein or “whether to leave him there”:
Blair: Look, I want to make this point to you because you can go on, over and over and over, about these events that have happened. In the end, I had a decision to make back in March 2003. We had 250,000 UK and US troops there; we had Saddam not in compliance with UN resolutions. I tried desperately hard to get a second UN resolution. I couldn’t get one. Now I had a decision to make as to whether to leave Saddam there, in breach of UN resolutions, and end up in a situation with the international community humiliated and him emboldened, or to remove him. I decided to remove him. Now, you can go through these issues about my integrity, my character, the legal advice – because the legal advice, actually, the legal issue, was exactly the same as the political issue – or you can accept that in the end a decision had to be taken; there was no middle way, there was no fence to sit on. I took that decision. Now, I know people strongly disagreed with it. I’m sorry. In the end, I had to take the decision as prime minister that I thought was right for the country, and I did so. This was not an easy decision to take; it was a hard decision. … I took the decision I thought was right, and if I had not taken that decision, then what? You’d have Saddam Hussein and his sons still running Iraq; you wouldn’t have 8 million Iraqis going out voting at the polls; you wouldn’t have change spreading across the Middle East as it is.
This is worrying on several counts. The decision whether to wind up the UN inspections before they had been completed and begin an armed attack on Iraq forthwith was not one for the British prime minister to take: it was for the Security Council and for the Council alone, under international law as embodied in the UN Charter. The stated purpose and justification for the US-UK attack on Iraq was not to “remove Saddam” – indeed, Blair himself said repeatedly before the war that this could not be a justification for the use of force – but to enforce Security Council resolutions calling on Iraq to give up its WMD. Yet now he says publicly that he took the decision “to remove Saddam”. Even if the Security Council had left the decision to go to war to any individual member of the Council (which it most assuredly did not), it could not have been a personal decision for the British prime minister: at the very least it would have had to be a collective decision by the Cabinet after the fullest discussion and after the fullest information, including all the legal opinions available to the government, had been presented to the whole Cabinet. We know that didn’t happen. And, perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Blair account of ‘his’ decision completely ignores the Americans. What would Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and the rest of the hawks’ nest have done if Tony Blair had stood back after his failure to persuade the Security Council to authorise the use of force before the inspectors had had time to finish their work? What if Blair had accepted that binding majority view in the Council? The idea that at that historic moment it had been Tony Blair’s personal responsibility to take that ‘hard’ decision whether to remove Saddam or to “leave him there”, “still running Iraq”, is not only weird: it is also frankly frightening, because it suggests that our prime minister is unable to form a realistic view of his own responsibilities, of the limits on Britain’s power and responsibilities in the world, or of his place in it.
Full marks to Jeremy Paxman, at the height of his formidable powers, for prising out of a visibly rattled prime minister such stunning revelations. We may occasionally cringe at the Paxman style: sometimes arrogant, contemptuous, cynical, languid, overbearing, disrespectful of elected leaders; but last night he performed a real public service, and for that much else may be forgiven.