Menzies Campbell: 'It matters because the law matters'

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The Independent Online

The already overwhelming case for the publication of the Attorney General's advice of 7 March 2003 - 12 days before British troops went into action against Iraq - has been put beyond any doubt by the revelations last week in Philippe Sands's account of the process by which that advice was treated after it was given.

The already overwhelming case for the publication of the Attorney General's advice of 7 March 2003 - 12 days before British troops went into action against Iraq - has been put beyond any doubt by the revelations last week in Philippe Sands's account of the process by which that advice was treated after it was given.

It is not denied that the Attorney General provided a 13-page opinion on 7 March in which he acknowledged that military action against Iraq could be illegal without a second UN resolution, nor that the Government took steps to put together a legal team to prepare for possible international litigation. Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy legal adviser in the Foreign Office, resigned because she thought that military action was illegal.

In the debate on 17 and 18 March which ended in parliamentary approval for military action, the question of legality was in the air. It was most certainly in the mind of the chief of the defence staff. It would become for some, a matter of life and death. How, then, could an apparent change of mind not be the result of a formal process?

Why did the Attorney General attend a meeting with Lord Falconer, a QC eminent enough to become Lord Chancellor, and Baroness Morgan, then a Cabinet Office minister, on 13 March? Who instigated that meeting - Mr Blair? Why were no minutes apparently kept? Lord Falconer and Lady Morgan remain close confidants of the Prime Minister. When was he apprised of its results?

What exactly is the position over the parliamentary answer given in the House of Lords on 17 March, the first day of the two-day debate in the House of Commons notable for the Prime Minister's breath-taking performance? Was it drawn up by someone other than the Attorney General or his department? Was it drawn up in the Home or the Cabinet Office? The answer was undoubtedly influential in the debate and in the vote that gave the Government the backing it required. The Attorney General's view, as reflected in the motion, was that military action was legal.

Does any of this matter? Yes, because legality matters. When the Secretary General of the United Nations described the military action which we took as "illegal", we have an obligation to examine both the substance of the advice and the process that accompanied it.

The only possible justification for anything other than full disclosure now is the Government's claim that the public interest would not be served by the legal advice given to ministers being in the public domain. But are we not entitled to say that the public interest cannot be determined at the whim of the Government?

These matters are important too because they throw into sharp focus the role of the Attorney General as government minister, legal adviser and prosecutor. He denies that his original advice was modified by meeting Lord Falconer and Lady Morgan, but should he or any successor ever be put in a position where such allegations can arise? In advising about such matters, should not law officers be in a position of independence, serving the interests of parliament, not government? It might mean throwing away centuries of tradition, but that has never bothered New Labour. Would it not be worth it to ensure that a British Government never again embarked on an illegal military venture?

Sir Menzies Campbell is the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman

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