Painfully honest

An Honourable Deception?: new Labour, Iraq and the misuse of power

Clare Short <em>Free Press, 294

Clare Short is probably the best secretary of state for overseas development this country has had. Serving in that office for six years, from 1997 until 2003, she oversaw the transformation of an important but marginal government department. Short brought about significant changes in the character of development assistance as well as material increases in overseas development funding. She made sure that issues such as debt restructuring, Aids, Africa and the proper functioning of international organisations were put at the heart of the government's agenda. These and other achievements contribute to a legacy of which she and two Labour governments can be proud.

Yet as long as the conflict in Iraq drags on, this is not the legacy with which Clare Short will mainly be associated. She is better known as the passionate politician who took to the airwaves to damn the Prime Minister as "reckless" for his handling of Iraq, but who then failed to resign from his government when he proceeded to wage war without explicit authorisation from the United Nations Security Council. And then, having finally re-signed, she became known as the politician who spilled the beans on the bugging of the UN secretary general and of foreign diplomats in New York. Over time these associations will fade, but for now, most readers of An Honourable Deception? will want to know: what made her tick? What motivated her?

This is a compelling, polemical memoir, a personal narrative wrapped around a broader story of modern British politics - a tale of decency, naivety and duplicity in which spin overwhelms substance. The background is intensely personal, and I would have liked more of the prehistory: the early political years; the birth and adoption of a son, and reunion with him many years later; the years as an opposition MP under the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

All this, however, is mere backdrop to the main purpose of Short's book: "to explain how a Labour government could have brought the UK to support a disastrous and incompetent policy towards the Middle East which was driven by extreme right-wing neoconservative thinkers in the US". Such explanation is being sought around the world, not least because Tony Blair's association with George W Bush added considerable legitimacy to a policy that has distracted greatly from the very real challenge of global terrorism and, at least in the short term, has brought great misery but little prospect of success.

Short does not provide the killer explanation, although she does shed some new light on the mechanics and processes involved in delivering British support. From her account, we learn that Blair makes powerful and effective use of his manipulative intelligence and personal charm (and that Short was willing and able to be charmed); that Cherie Booth played a key role in lobbying parliamentarians not to oppose the war; that true cabinet government has all but disappeared, with most ministers acting as little more than bit-part players whose main function is to rubber-stamp quasi-presidential decisions; and that, in the end, serious analysis and assessment of difficult issues were sacrificed on an altar of collective Chirac-bashing. It is striking that, even as a senior cabinet minister, Short was not given access to many of the most important documents that have subsequently leaked into the public domain. These confirm beyond reasonable doubt that Britain's policy was to support US efforts at regime change in Iraq while dressing it up as something else - the enforcement of Security Council resolutions.

Short's decision not to resign from the government before the Iraq war was in marked contrast to her resignation from the opposition front bench during the 1991 Gulf war. That first war had been explicitly sanctioned by the Security Council; yet, when the second one was not, she nevertheless stayed on. She gives an honest account of her reasons for doing so: her belief that Blair would push the US strongly for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and that he would take steps to ensure that the UN played a central role in the reconstruction of Iraq. It is also clear from what she writes that the Attorney General's dubious advice - that military action would be legal under international law - provided a vital crutch.

It is unclear quite why she was willing to put her faith in the Prime Minister, and subsequent events have shown that her initial instincts were right. She now realises she got it wrong, and that she was duped, although, reading the book, I could not help feeling that, in part, she was willing to be duped. In the end, prompted by further advice from the Attorney General on the need for UN backing for occupation (advice which was spot on, this time), she did resign. In the face of such inconsistency, it is hard to believe that Short does not share the regret of many others, including myself, that she did not go two months earlier.

For all that, self-flagellation has its limits, and this is not a self-serving book. In new Labour's world of spin and blandness, Clare Short is a breath of air. This straightforward account reminds us why.

Philippe Sands is professor of law at University College London. His book This Lawless World: the US, Britain and the remaking of global rules will be published by Allen Lane in March 2005