Richard Heller says it’s time Tony Blair faced prosecution for the common law offence of manslaughter. Doing so, he argues, would restore the principle of accountability in our public life.
The Attorney General, the Right Honourable Jeremy Wright QC MP, has just thrown a jolly summer party with a “Hawaiian beach” theme, at taxpayers’ expense. Normally stuffy lawyers donned appropriate outfits, strummed ukuleles and performed sinuous dance moves under swaying synthetic palm trees (so I believe).
Although I am a taxpayer and one of his clients, the Attorney did not invite me. It was just as well, but I would have made a bit of a scene. I would have seized Mr Wright by his hula skirt and asked him why he intervened personally to try to block a private prosecution of Tony Blair over the Iraq war.
Mr Wright’s action was widely reported on April 17. Unfortunately, this was the day before Theresa May announced her inspired decision to call an early general election. This of course buried the news about Mr Wright and he was never challenged about his intervention by any other party during the election or afterwards.
The private prosecution was launched, rather oddly, by a retired Iraqi general, Abdul Waheed al-Rabat. He is not British and has never been to this country. But because Britain was an occupying power in Iraq, he has enough standing to bring an action in an English court. (There is some irony in this, given that Tony Blair insisted that Britain should have this status.) On the basis of the Iraq inquiry report, General Rabat accused Tony Blair of waging a war of aggression. Last winter his case was thrown out in Westminster Magistrate’s Court, but his lawyers were given leave to appeal to the High Court, and that is when the Attorney General decided that he had to join the case – on Tony Blair’s side.
Late last year, Amnesty issued a searing report on the impact of legal aid cuts, particularly on children and vulnerable people.
Against that background it seems almost insulting to use taxpayer resources defending Tony Blair. He became a very rich man by exploiting his status as a former Prime Minister (that means, by using knowledge and contacts given to him at taxpayers’ expense). No one knows exactly how many tens of millions he has against his name, but certainly enough to afford his own defence with the sharpest lawyers money can buy.
As I say, Mr Wright has never told Parliament or the British people why he decided to intervene, but the media reports in April suggested that he had two reasons.
The first was that waging aggressive war is not an offence under the domestic criminal law of the United Kingdom.
This is an argument Tony Blair could have used for himself. There is no reason for the Attorney to advance it on his behalf. Mr Wright’s predecessor, Lord Goldsmith, offered a different view in the run-up to the Iraq war. Ultimately, it is a matter for the courts, not the Attorney General or the government of the day. As it happens, General Rabat’s lawyers won that round of the argument. The issue about waging a war of aggression has been referred upwards to no less an authority than the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, with Mr Justice Ouseley.
The second reported reason was to preserve the doctrine of ministerial immunity – the principle that ministers are answerable only to Parliament for their actions. This argument has little merit today. Ministers and governments are regularly challenged in the courts over their decisions, not only because they are arguably unlawful or ultra vires but because they might be thought unreasonable. The best known recent example was the challenge to the government’s attempt to trigger the Article 50 procedure to leave the EU without an Act of Parliament. Mr Wright should remember this, because he lost the government’s case.
Because none of our politicians were prepared to challenge Mr Wright’s decision over Tony Blair I sent him a series of nagging letters during the election campaign, without reply. I began to harbour the unworthy suspicion that Mr Wright did not want to talk about his elections during the election. Eventually I received a reply from someone in his Correspondence Section. (It is always depressing to see any organization with a Correspondence or Customer Relations section – a sure sign that it despises its correspondents or customers.)
The reply was terse and uninformative. It told me that the Attorney General often intervenes in cases “in the public interest.”
Ah yes. Silly me, I thought the Attorney intervenes in cases because he is having a boring day at the office.
I want to know how the Attorney defines the public interest (which I pay him to represent) and why he thought this would be served by keeping Tony Blair out of court.
It is strongly in the public interest for the courts to rule on whether a war of aggression is or is not already a crime under UK law. The government and Parliament could then respond to that ruling (they are not doing very much else apart from messing up Brexit.) Mr Wright has never revealed whether he and the government think that aggressive war should be a domestic crime. A final court ruling will force them to show their hand.
More importantly, any trial of Tony Blair would establish that all ministers and officials are subject to the rule of law in our country – something which makes it stand out in the world.
I personally would like to go further than the Iraqi general and the families of Iraq war victims who are seeking a separate action against Tony Blair for the somewhat obscure offence of misconduct in public office.
I would like the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to read the Iraq inquiry report again, thoroughly, and consider whether Tony Blair should face prosecution for the common law offence of manslaughter.
According to the CPS’s own guidance, such a prosecution could be based on two separate grounds.
The first is causing death in an unlawful act (the Iraq war itself). The second is causing the deaths by gross negligence of people to whom he had a duty of care (our forces in Iraq and Iraqi civilians under the occupation.) In the latter case, Mr Blair would be judged against the same standards as negligent anaesthetists, or railway guards, or police officers, and others who fail in their duty of care: did he fall below the standards of competence and diligence required of someone in his position?
A trial of Tony Blair on any grounds would restore the principle of accountability in our public life.
It would reverse the growing public perception that no one in authority ever pays a penalty for error and failure.
Sadly, the public have seen widespread evidence of this, over the banking crisis, over massive waste of public funds, over burnt down apartments, over a succession of child abuse scandals, and many other disasters. Occasionally, some suitable figure (such as Fred Goodwin will be made the scapegoat). But the vast majority of those responsible move serenely into other well-paid appointments or into cushioned retirements and (usually) collect honours for their distinguished service.
Joining the Iraq war and occupation was the worst decision in Britain’s post-war history. It brought our country no benefits, only debt, danger, dishonour and death. The Iraq inquiry report, when finally published, was a stark and damning indictment of those responsible, particularly Tony Blair. But no one at all has faced any sanction in consequence, least of all Tony Blair. He continues to offer his simpering guidance to the world and the British people. He continues to nourish hopes of a Glorious Restoration.
I hope that Mr Wright enjoyed his Hawaiian party. I hope he went easy on the pina coladas and the mai tais. When it is all over, I hope that he will explain to all of us, his clients, his strange obsession with keeping Tony Blair out of court – and then overcome it. He should stand aside and let the law take its course as it would for any other alleged offender.