Ken Clarke moves to block war crimes prosecutions

The likes of Henry Kissinger, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak will sleep a little easier tonight.

You'll remember the diplomatic spat last year after a British court issued an arrest warrant against the Israeli former foreign minister Tzipi Livni on charges of war crimes committed during Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" offensive against Gaza.

The warrant was withdrawn after Livni cancelled a planned trip to Britain but William Hague, then shadow foreign secretary, concluded that the affair was a disgrace.

"We cannot have a position where Israeli politicians feel they cannot visit this country," he said recently. "The situation is unsatisfactory [and] indefensible. It is absolutely my intention to act speedily."

Now, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has announced that the Crown Prosecution Service will be able to block private prosecutions for war crimes, dramatically reducing the possibility that suspected war criminals such as Henry Kissinger, Ehud Barak and Livni could be brought to justice in Britain.

Here is Clarke's statement:

Our commitment to our international obligations and to ensuring that there is no impunity for those accused of crimes of universal jurisdiction is unwavering. It is important, however, that universal jurisdiction cases should be proceeded with in this country only on the basis of solid evidence that is likely to lead to a successful prosecution -- otherwise there is a risk of damaging our ability to help in conflict resolution or to pursue a coherent foreign policy. The government has concluded, after careful consideration, that it would be appropriate to require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued to a private prosecutor in respect of an offence of universal jurisdiction.

In an age of universal jurisdiction, it is shameful to see Clarke in effect argue that the "national interest" means British courts should avoid pursuing suspected war criminals. Hague may protest that foreign politicians should never feel unable to visit Britain, but it would be more accurate to say that foreign politicians should never feel able to commit war crimes with impunity.

Among those who opposed Labour's attempt to introduce a similar law were Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, both now cabinet ministers. But will they speak up for universal justice and human rights? The evidence of recent months suggests not.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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