Correlli Barnett: We need no more evidence that Blair is unworthy of our trust

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Here we are, halfway through the general election campaign, and yet the one question of truly fundamental importance has so far failed to become the focus of debate. And that question is whether we can trust the judgement, or the word, of the man who is now asking us to vote him back in Downing Street for a whole third term.

Here we are, halfway through the general election campaign, and yet the one question of truly fundamental importance has so far failed to become the focus of debate. And that question is whether we can trust the judgement, or the word, of the man who is now asking us to vote him back in Downing Street for a whole third term.

The key to answering this question lies in Tony Blair's Iraq war and its violent and still-continuing aftermath: 15,000 to 100,000 Iraqi dead; massive destruction; and an insurgency that American firepower cannot quell. Meanwhile, the dream of Blair and Bush of a stable democracy in Iraq, capable of enforcing its own internal security, remains very far from fulfilment.

The cost of Blair's Iraq adventure to Britain herself now stands at 87 British servicemen and one woman killed, plus the lives of Dr David Kelly (his identity betrayed to the media by Blair & Co in the run-up to war) and two hapless British hostages, Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan. The military cost alone of the war and its aftermath to Britain is now approaching £4bn.

It is therefore no wonder that, according to the polls, a majority of voters now believe that it was wrong to attack Iraq. More than a quarter of Labour voters generally disappointed in the Blair government say that Iraq has made them more likely to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

Who can be astonished, then, that Iraq is the topic which at Labour Party press conferences dares not speak its name?

For the spin doctors know, and Blair knows, that if the invasion of Iraq and the consequent bloody mess were to become the major topic of debate in this election, then it could inflict crippling damage on Labour's chances, especially in marginal constituencies. So it's hardly surprising that when cross-examined about Iraq by Jeremy Paxman on BBC television last week, Blair resorted to angry defensive bluster - only to repeat the performance in all its lawyer-like weaseliness in an interview the next day in The Independent.

But Blair's evident unease is exactly why we, the electors, must freshly remember the whole sorry saga of how he entangled this country in George Bush's calamitous Iraq adventure. And we now know the full facts, thanks to the email evidence posted on the internet by Lord Justice Hutton, to the Butler report, and to various congressional reports and interrogations.

Even before George Bush & Co came into office in January 2001, they were bent on toppling Saddam Hussein in pursuit of an ideological mission to convert the Middle East to democracy. The destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 simply provided them with a convenient cover story: an attack on Iraq would, they said, strike a major blow in the "war on terror". In fact, no evidence existed of any operational link between Saddam's regime and al-Qa'ida.

In summer 2002, Tony Blair and George Bush agreed to manipulate their public opinions in favour of armed action against Saddam Hussein. Hence the notorious "dodgy dossier" of September 2002, now known beyond doubt to have been sexed up for publication thanks to pressure on John Scarlett (chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee) by Blair's creature, Alastair Campbell, and Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff.

By November 2002, American war plans were well in preparation. At the UN, prolonged negotiation between the members of the Security Council produced the compromise Resolution 1441, warning Saddam of serious consequences if he did not come clean about his alleged WMD. This resolution did not - repeat, not - authorise an attack on Iraq without a further specific resolution. Otherwise, neither France, nor Germany, nor Russia would have agreed to it. By February 2003 American and British military preparations were far advanced. Hence appeared a new British "dodgy dossier'' partly culled without acknowledgement from a 12-year-old PhD thesis on the internet, and quoted by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, to the Security Council.

In February 2003, when American and British forces were already deploying en masse to the Gulf, a protest march against war by more than a million people took place in London. Opinion polls equally demonstrated that the bulk of the British people were opposed to war. But it all meant nothing to Blair, "the man who knew he was right". On 18 March, he won the backing of the House of Commons for his war of aggression by a brilliant display of meretricious oratory. He told the House of Commons that he and George Bush were now compelled to take military action without a second UN resolution because France had stated that she would veto any such resolution. In fact, France refused to back such a resolution at that particular moment - only because Hans Blix was doing good work and needed more time. The true reason why Blair and Bush would not give Blix that extra time was that they were now shackled to a military timetable.

In a slithery coda to his speech, Blair asserted that it was unthinkable now on the eve of conflict to bring British troops home and let the Americans down.

In fact, as Blair must have calculated, it was equally far too late for the Commons to enjoy a real choice over the issue of peace or war. The key decision, from which all else followed, had been taken back in summer 2002, when Blair chose to pledge complete loyalty to George Bush over Iraq - even to the extent of joining in a war if need be.

If in the summer of 2002, or indeed at any time before the actual deployment of troops to the Gulf, Blair had instead refused to commit Britain to possible military action, this would have done no more damage to Britain's long-standing relationship with the United States than had Harold Wilson's refusal in 1968 to join the USA's fateful adventure in Vietnam.

But would Blair's war be legal without a second specific UN resolution? The circumstances surrounding the advice given by Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, are as murky as those in regard to the drafting of the "dodgy dossier". According to the testimony of Mrs Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the senior legal expert in the Foreign Office, the Attorney General at first agreed with her and her colleagues that such a war would be illegal, but later changed his mind. Why?

On the basis of legal advice sketchy enough to be put on one side of a sheet of A4, and from a single lawyer who was also a cabinet minister, Blair finally took Britain to war against a country which posed no threat at all to British interests, let alone to the United Kingdom itself.

There can be no sterner test of a national leader's soundness of judgement than when he has to decide between peace and war. And there can be no sterner test of his probity than his choice of the means of persuading his countrymen to back him. Both these tests Tony Blair has unquestionably failed. As a result, he stands convicted of being wholly unworthy of our trust. This is the central fact of this election, and we should vote accordingly.

Correlli Barnett is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge