John Rentoul: The confession and trial of Tony Blair - a simple fiction for happy haters

The secular hell is a war crimes tribunal at The Hague
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The Independent Online

And they all lived happily ever after. Wish-fulfilment has always been one of the psychological satisfactions of fiction, and tomorrow anti-war Blair-haters get their fairytale ending. The Trial of Tony Blair is on More4. The film opens with Robert Lindsay as Blair saying in Roman Catholic confession: "Bless me father for I have sinned."

They might as well have left it there, really, because that is, above all, what anti-war Blair-haters want to hear. They want Blair to admit he got it wrong. That would be a little unsatisfying as a drama, however, and of course it is not all that they want. Many want Blair to burn in hell, except that they do not believe in it. What they believe in, and it is the next best secular equivalent, is a war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

This is not - and we should be grateful for small mercies - a way of re-running the argument about the legality of invading Iraq. Philippe Sands, the lawyer who advised Alistair Beaton, the scriptwriter, gave the game away last weekend. "A great many will draw sustenance, and perhaps some pleasure," from the film, Sands wrote in The Mail on Sunday last week.

The pleasure is that of fantasy, and the sustenance is a spiritual matter rather than anything to do with a better understanding of the issues. Sands's article came perilously close to saying that Blair would never be tried for war crimes. Yet he is on the record as saying that Blair broke international law, so Beaton (and The Mail on Sunday) seem to have expected him to come up with something to justify the pre-written headline: "One day, Blair could face trial."

With careful understatement, Sands admitted that the device Beaton chose is "not perhaps the likeliest of all the possibilities". Beaton has the UK, with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, and the US, with Hillary Clinton as President, abstaining in a United Nations Security Council vote to set up a war crimes tribunal on Iraq. Sands did not say which possibilities were more likely. But even the prospect of George Galloway becoming justice minister in a world government could hardly be less.

And that is just the procedural finagle for getting to the door of the court. But the contortions required to get Blair into the police van should be some kind of clue as to the strength of the case against him. For anyone who derives pleasure from such an implausible fantasy, of course, the film does not need to be about whether or not Blair is a war criminal, because that issue is settled in their minds.

For the rest of us, though, the result is lacking in dramatic or psychological tension. There is only so much that even a brilliant actor such as Robert Lindsay can do with the internal torture of a man who thought he was good coming to realise that he is bad.

The real Tony Blair, meanwhile, gave a speech last week in which he discussed his motivation in terms that were infinitely more interesting. "The parody of people in my position is of leaders who, gung-ho, launch their nations into ill-advised adventures without a thought for the consequences." I doubt that he was thinking of the Beaton film, but it is only an extreme example of a tendency in politics across Europe and America with which Blair is trying to engage as one of his many last acts. "The risk here - and in the US where the future danger is one of isolationism not adventurism - is that the politicians decide it's all too difficult and default to an unstated, passive disengagement, that doing the right thing slips almost unconsciously into doing the easy thing," Blair said.

We saw that in the response to George Bush's announcement last week of the deployment of 22,000 extra troops to Baghdad. There was a time when sceptics about the Iraq invasion argued that, once it had happened, the allies owed an obligation to the Iraqis, and that might involve more troops rather than fewer. As soon as President Bush adopted that as policy, however, it became by definition a bad idea.

I am no fan of Bush. But what is remarkable is the thinness of the alternatives to the Bush plan. The position of the Democrats was fairly characterised by David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, as: "We failed them; now they're on their own." Even the Baker-Hamilton report, which proposed appeasing Iran and Syria as the way forward, made graphically clear the bloody consequences of quickly reducing US troop numbers.

The response of Sir Menzies Campbell over here, as the leader of the anti-war party, was just as spineless. In the Commons on Wednesday he asked Blair whether British troops would also be increased. No, was the answer, because the situation in Basra is different. When then, demanded Sir Menzies, will we see a British foreign policy that is independent of America? What was notable was not that this prompted the Prime Minister to defend the alliance with the US as "in the British national interest", but that Gordon Brown, behind him, nodded vigorously.

Blair's speech on Friday developed that theme. It was an important speech, well-written, thoughtful and ambitious. I urge you to read it in full on the internet, rather than the reporting of it as an attack on the media or a self-serving defence of the resourcing of the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It poses the fundamental question: should Britain, "with its imperial strength behind it ... slip quietly, even graciously, into a different role"? Should we seek only to lead the world "against climate change, against global poverty, for peace and reconciliation", but leave fighting wars to others? He does not think so. It may be that the appalling situation in Iraq has done more than anything to undermine support for the use of British military force abroad. But this is an argument that should engage with reality rather than fantasy wish-fulfilment.

The real paradox of The Trial of Tony Blair is that Blair and his advisers were more worried about the legal basis of their decisions than television film-makers seem capable of imagining. Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, was gloomy in his detailed advice on the legality of the invasion that was leaked on the eve of the 2005 election. "Given the strength of opposition to military action against Iraq, it would not be surprising if some attempts were made to get a case of some sort off the ground," he wrote. As it happened, the legal basis was secure enough to mean that no case has even got out of the hangar. The final shot of the film, of the plane taking off, with Blair on board bound for The Hague, is the closest the anti-war Blair-haters will get.

And they all lived happily ever after.

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