Outrageous and insulting

Perhaps we should not be surprised that, as Clare Short puts it (page 19), the Prime Minister "misled his country" over Iraq. We know the cliches: that truth is the first casualty of war and that people will believe lies if they are repeated enough. We know now the extent of the deception practised by governments on their peoples over both Suez and Vietnam. We also know (or should know; the secret services are making a good fist of convincing us that the "intelligence community" is a kind of priesthood with rigorous ethical standards) that intelligence contains as much supposition, embroidery and outright falsehood as it does truth. The temptation for intelligence operatives to tell their masters what they want to hear, and to spice up a story, is as great for them as it is for journalists. But unlike journalism, intelligence is by its nature almost wholly unverifiable. Since the full information put to ministers is rarely made public - and since ministers themselves may not know its source - the idea of "accountable" intelligence services is largely nonsensical.

Nevertheless, the fraud apparently perpetrated on people and parliament in the run-up to war with Iraq takes the breath away. The issue is not whether the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan was right to allege that Downing Street "sexed up" information provided by the intelligence services. The claim that Saddam could launch deadly missiles across the Middle East within 45 minutes was almost certainly false. The decision to publish such a poorly corroborated statement was taken by ministers, and they must be held responsible. But the 45 minutes is a minor issue of detail (which is why ministers focus on it). The larger question is over the attempt to convince the public generally that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were a serious and imminent threat. The 87 most likely sites in Iraq have been thoroughly investigated. No trace of the weapons has been found - just, among other things, a swimming pool and a collection of vacuum cleaners. This is not a question, as the Labour Party chairman, John Reid, claims, of believing "rogue elements" in the security services against "the word of the Prime Minister". Unfortunately, "the word of the Prime Minister" does not accord with any of the evidence publicly available.

No doubt, as Ms Short suggests, "he thought his reasons honourable". But if Mr Blair believed that justice and humanity were sufficient reasons to overthrow Saddam Hussein, he should have said so, and offered no other reasons for war. As it happens, that argument is not as strong as it sounds, even now. The mass graves found in Iraq date mostly from the early 1980s, when the western powers supported Saddam, and from the early 1990s, when those same powers called for an uprising, then stood aside while it was crushed. But the argument for belated justice could have been made as it was in General Pinochet's case; and all the more so as Saddam had slaughtered significant numbers again in the late 1990s and continued to run a regime of torture and repression. It is, to be sure, illegal to wage war on such grounds. Defiance of the law in the interests of higher principle, however, has an honourable history. Mr Blair would not have converted most of his opponents, and might even have lost supporters, but many would have admired and respected him. The merits of overthrowing evil tyrants, when possible, are worth debating. Mr Blair did not have the courage to enter that debate.

Instead, he chose to rest his case largely on Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction, and asked us to trust his judgement as to the threat they posed. It is outrageous and insulting for him to shrug his shoulders and to ask us simply to rejoice at Saddam's overthrow or to argue, contrary to what most members of the US administration and senior military now seem to accept, that the weapons will still turn up. Equally, the insouciant attitude of many Labour MPs is a disgrace, as is the feebleness of the Tory leadership's challenge. We are not talking here about a football match in which somebody took a dubious dive in the penalty area. The decision to wage war is the most serious that an elected leader can make. It risks the lives and safety of troops; it endangers global stability; it makes huge demands on taxpayers' money; and it implicates your citizens in murder. Downing Street clearly hopes that the boredom factor will set in - that, like a Bristol flat or a Melbourne shopping trip, an Iraq war will be treated as though it were just another Blair family peccadillo from which the press quickly moves on. But this is a far more important matter than any other in recent British history and, given the lamentable failure of Westminster to bring Mr Blair to account, we must hope that newspapers can do so.

Our chequebook is ready

On page 36, Amanda Platell defends chequebook journalism in the wake of the revelation that a tabloid paid £10,000 to a car-park attendant for information about an alleged plot to abduct Victoria Beckham. The New Statesman supports her, as it supports all its columnists, but has not hitherto made much use of chequebooks. However, it will pay for the following information at the prices shown:

The location of Charles Clarke's missing £500m for schools - £10. A lucid explanation of any of Gordon Brown's tax credit schemes - £2.35 each (maximum of ten). Peter Mandelson's personal housing plans - £12.50. The make of wallpaper with which Baroness Amos (Clare Short's successor) plans to decorate her office - £7.42 plus free portrait of Lord Irvine. What the PM said when he heard Ms Short had resigned - £15. Convincing details of a plot to abduct Alastair Campbell - £250 plus free lifetime subscription.

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2003 issue of the New Statesman, How to stop America