Lord Goldsmith: The war lord

Were it not for Iraq, there might have been the odd whisper. Was he just a tad too Blairite? A little eager to please? Clever chap, and all that, but just a little colourless, perhaps? But his advice gave the PM the green light to go to war, and earned the Attorney General his own dubious place in history
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The Independent Online

The invasion of Iraq is becoming widely regarded as the biggest blunder since the Suez attack. Such was the backwash of that decision that Sir Anthony Eden's wife, Clarissa, used to complain she felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through her drawing room. Does Lord Goldsmith, as he walks through the chambers of the Attorney General at 9 Buckingham Gate, feel the sands of Iraq crunching under his feet?

After all, it is the hapless Peter Goldsmith who finds himself left holding the hot potato with nobody to pass it to. Tony Blair, without saying sorry, takes responsibility for invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam, but when asked about the legality of that decision he makes it plain that it was Lord Goldsmith QC who provided the legal advice that enabled troops to be sent in without fear of appearing before a war crimes tribunal.

Most of Lord Goldsmith's colleagues believe him to be a capable Attorney General. He has presided over largely sensible reforms to speed up justice and widen the remit of prosecutors to decide what charges defendants should face. He easily weathered the storm over his appointment of a prosecutor, Ken Macdonald QC, who was then revealed to have a 32-year-old conviction for possessing cannabis.

Some of his proposals have been rather too fashionably Blairite - for instance his suggestion last year that the word "Crown" could be dropped from the Crown Prosecution Service. Lord Goldsmith saw it paving the way for a US-style prosecution service in which, instead of Regina, it would be "The people versus ..." in an echo of Tony Blair's "the People's Princess". He fits into the Blairite lifestyle like a hand in a silk glove. He is married, with children, and has bought himself a house in France where they go on holiday in the summer.

Most barristers rate him as "clever" (always the first word), ambitious and suavely impressive. A few describe him as "aggressive" and "vain" - even a tad unprincipled if you consider the case he did, early in his career, for the government of Saddam Hussein, which he has called the lowest point in his career. We must suppose that those were the days when Saddam's regime was considered legitimate by Britain and the United States. It would be unfair to say that Peter Goldsmith had risen without trace. But he is, in the phrase used by several of his acquaintances, famously colourless. His life is his work and his family. Hardly anybody had heard of him until he became Attorney General in June 2001.

Born in 1950, the son of a Liverpool solicitor, he went to Quarry Bank High School, the same school as John Lennon, and then Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. At university he was recognised as brilliant and ambitious, without this denting a natural popularity. "This was the late 1960s, and he lived among hippy sorts of people, but he didn't seem to be of them," recalls a fellow undergraduate. It seems that metaphorically, at least, he didn't inhale.

As a Labour Party supporter from an early age, he became president of his college Junior Common Room before taking a First and being called to the Bar. He joined a set of chambers of some distinction, 2 Crown Office Row, where he met Tom, now Lord, Bingham, later Master of the Rolls, and Charlie, now Lord, Falconer. A successful banking and commercial QC, he became chairman of the Bar early in his career, in his mid-forties. Two years later he donated a hefty sum to Labour Party funds - reportedly to meet Tony Blair at a function, although it may have been sheer luck that he found himself sitting next to the Labour leader at dinner. In 1997, his friend Falconer joined the House of Lords. Goldsmith became a working peer two years later and in 2001, he became the Government's senior law officer.

Very possibly he would have declined that position if he knew what lay in store. Whatever happens now, and whether or not his advice on the legality of war sees the light of day - as it probably will first in the US through the Freedom of Information Act - a shadow is likely to hang over his future in government. Too much has happened on his watch for his reputation not to suffer. Leaving aside Iraq, he has presided over the detention of British prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the locking up of foreigners in Britain without charge. These represent miscarriages of justice he has done nothing to overturn.

Lord Goldsmith's position on Iraq has always been that his advice was based not on the potential threat offered by Saddam Hussein's weaponry but on his non-compliance with UN resolutions. His initial opinion was that a military assault on Iraq would require a second UN resolution.

Under the key resolution of April 1991, the Security Council reserved to itself the right to determine the legitimacy of military action, yet it was becoming clearer by the day that Lord Goldsmith's masters were determined to act whatever the UN said, and they needed to be told the war was legal. The meeting Lord Goldsmith had in Washington with his American counterpart, John Ashcroft, would have resolved any remaining doubts he may have had that a legal opinion would be found, one way or another, to validate the invasion.

We are told that the Attorney General was struggling with himself as he returned from the US. He spoke to government ministers to sound out their feelings, and they all agreed that the final word was for him. As one friend puts it: "He is a serious and conscientious lawyer. It is the sort of thing that would have kept him awake at night." He demanded of Tony Blair "hard evidence" and "strong factual grounds" that Iraq had failed to comply with international inspection and weapons destruction. On the basis of that evidence, Lord Goldsmith decided that he had been wrong the first time and, actually, no second Security Council resolution was needed to make the assault lawful.

Two questions remain. One is how he managed to come to the opinion he did. As a sympathetic legal acquaintance puts it: "It is ironic that possibly the most distinguished lawyer to become Attorney General has been the one who has given the most important and dubious piece of advice. He must have had to stretch the law." The second was raised by Lord Heseltine, when he asked how the Attorney General could stay with honour in a government that allowed him to be so seriously misled. There are two possible answers.

One is that Peter Goldsmith is taking his cue from Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, the attorney general in 1956, whose opinion that the Suez intervention would be unlawful was ignored by Anthony Eden. Sir Reginald considered resigning, but stayed on. The other answer that comes to mind would be that Lord Goldsmith could persuade himself that he, an expert in commercial law, was not personally responsible for his opinion on the legality of military action, since at the suggestion of Downing Street it was outsourced for drafting to Christopher Greenwood QC, professor of international law at the London School of Economics, who had a record of sup- port for the war. Besides, he could only make the judgment on the basis of the information available.

As a judge remarked sorrowfully about Peter Goldsmith: "That's what happens to good, sound barristers who get caught up in politics they aren't trained or designed for and just don't understand."