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Richard Ingrams

Richard Ingrams's Week: Was Cook sacked on the orders of George Bush?

When he appeared before the Chilcot inquiry on Wednesday, Jack Straw, they said, became the first serving cabinet minister to express "deep regret" about the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the thousands of deaths that resulted.

Not that he was being accused of anything, but his performance and general demeanour reminded me a little of Hitler's armaments minister Albert Speer. He was the only prominent minister to acknowledge his guilt at the Nuremberg trials and who, partly as a result, managed to escape the death penalty which, in the eyes of many people, he deserved just as much as the rest of them.

Straw didn't go as far as Speer when it came to distancing himself from his former leader, though he managed in his slippery way to suggest that he had never approved of Tony Blair's slavish adherence to George W Bush.

The irony which naturally went unnoticed by Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues was that Straw almost certainly owed his position as Foreign Secretary to Bush.

His predecessor, the abrasive Robin Cook, was not liked in Washington, where he had put a number of important backs up, including that of the powerful and sinister former vice-president Dick Cheney.

But it was a surprise to everyone, including Cook himself, when following his election victory in 2002 Blair replaced him with the conciliatory figure of Straw.

Cook, who became Leader of the House, famously resigned over Iraq in 2003. Straw, though sharing many of his misgivings, stayed on. Had Cook still been foreign secretary when he resigned, the whole Iraq venture would have come crashing down, bringing Blair with him. But the Chilcot inquiry won't ask Blair if he sacked Robin Cook because George W Bush asked him to.

Breaking up can break the bank

When I got divorced in 1995 I was taken aback to be sent a bill for £8,000 to cover my ex-wife's costs – even though it was she who had initiated the divorce in the first place. I was told by my lawyers that it was customary for the husband to pay the wife's costs and by that stage, being thoroughly sick to death of lawyers and the law, I made out a cheque simply to be shot of the whole business. I imagine that a great many others in my position have acted in the same way.

It is depressing but not surprising, now that marriage has become a big political issue, that nobody ever mentions divorce.

But if David Cameron and others like him are concerned that so few people nowadays want to get married and that so many who are married want to get divorced, then they ought to forget about things like tax breaks and think for a moment or two about the divorce laws.

Because as things stand, any partner in a marriage can unilaterally decide to walk away from it and still claim entitlement to half the joint efforts of the couple.

As the law traditionally leans in favour of the wife, it is not surprising that the majority of divorces are nowadays instigated by women. But a man can just as easily walk out on his wife and still demand his share of the spoils.

So is it surprising that fewer and fewer people feel inclined to commit to an arrangement which can have such disastrous and unjust consequences when it doesn't work out?

Good riddance to an unwanted, ancient law

As if to prove the truth of Dr Johnson's saying that a corrupt society has many laws, we are told that the Labour government created 4,289 new criminal offences between 1997 and 2009. The offences range in seriousness from causing a nuclear explosion to "disturbing a pack of eggs when directed not to by an authorised officer".

Such is the plethora of new laws that few people will have noticed that one very old law has been abolished. I refer to the ancient offence of criminal libel which was officially done away with when Section 73 of the Coroner's Justice Bill of 2009 came into effect on 12 January.

I have a particular interest in this matter as I believe I was one of the last people to be prosecuted for criminal libel, at the instigation of the late Sir James Goldsmith, in 1975. Prior to that prosecution I could find no evidence of any other more recent case than that of Oscar Wilde's deranged lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who was found guilty of criminal libel and sent to prison during the First World War after he accused Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, of deliberately losing the battle of Jutland in order to make a killing on the stock exchange.

In 1975, when Goldsmith was given leave to bring his prosecution, cases of criminal libel had become so rare that few lawyers seemed to know anything about it. What distinguished criminal from civil libel was said to be a propensity to cause a breach of the peace, but we never had a chance to test this as Goldsmith eventually dropped his prosecution.

While deploring the retention of the old law, I always thought it a pity that Mohamed al-Fayed was never prosecuted for criminal libel for accusing the Duke of Edinburgh of murdering Princess Diana. As libels go that was about as libellous as it gets. And it might even have led to a breach of the peace.