Show Hide image

Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

TOM STODDART/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

From Kosovo to the May doctrine, when is it just to go war?

The co-author of Tony Blair's Chicago speech on the tests for intervention. 

In her speech to the Republican party congressional conference in Philadelphia on 26 January, Theresa May distanced herself from what she described as “the failed policies of the past”. This was the first item: “The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”

It was not an anti-interventionist speech, for May followed this by insisting that we cannot “afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene. We must be strong, smart and hard-headed. And we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our interests.” She also spoke of the UK’s contribution to anti-Isis operations as well as international peacekeeping.

According to the media, presumably reflecting a briefing, May was repudiating Tony Blair’s Chicago speech of April 1999. The BBC described her speech as “arguably the biggest by a British prime minister” since “Mr Blair first advocated active military interventionism to overturn dictators and protect civilians”.

As I was outed many years ago as the one who provided the first draft of the relevant section of the Chicago speech, I have an almost proprietary interest in how it is interpreted. It is one of the curiosities of my career that, despite having written many books and articles, my best-known piece of writing was produced in a day and went out under somebody else’s name. Chicago is widely considered to have set the framework for what happened later in Iraq. My connection to the speech was highlighted as soon as I was appointed to the Chilcot ­inquiry, and was usually mentioned with the rider that I was not to be trusted.

It might, therefore, be useful to go back to the words of the speech and consider what I was trying to do with my draft. It should be noted that I contributed to only one section of a long speech and that there were material differences between my draft and the speech as delivered. Most importantly, what matters in the end is not what the speechwriter has in mind but what the politician who takes responsibility for the words thinks it means.

The immediate context was the Kosovo campaign, which was struggling at that time, and a coming Nato summit in Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of the Atlantic Treaty. As we now know, a difference of opinion between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton – about the need for a change of strategy if the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was to be persuaded to budge – was dominating the pre-summit diplomacy. It was only because of the intensity of that diplomacy in the two weeks preceding the summit that I was asked by Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, to help out with ideas for a speech. It was probably for the same reason that the draft was not seen by the Foreign Office before the speech was given.

Operation Desert Fox was also part of the backdrop to the speech. For three days the previous December, US and UK strikes had sought to “degrade” Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. We now know that these strikes made little difference to Iraqi capabilities, as there was little to degrade. The operation required the United Nations weapons inspectors to leave Iraq, and they were never allowed back in. That was why knowledge of what was going on there became even more scarce.

These operations against Iraq and Serbia, rather than an anticipation of regime change, led to the references in the speech to those two “dangerous and ruthless men – Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic”.

The issue was not how to take the interventionist impulse to the next stage of toppling dictators, but rather how to contain the impulse. Demands to intervene would be frequent and in many cases justified. Yet not all these demands could be met. This is why the speech described the “most pressing foreign policy problem” of the 1990s as one of identifying “the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts”.

Blair reminded the Chicago audience that “non-interference . . . in the affairs of other countries” had long been “considered an important principle of international order” and should not be jettisoned readily. The speech said: “One state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another, or foment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim.”

So this was hardly a call to remake the world in our image or overthrow dictators. The speech also pointed out that the non-interference norm had already been qualified in important respects – for instance, with genocide, when oppression has caused large flows of refugees, or when regimes have lost legitimacy, such as during the apartheid era in South Africa.

Having identified times when intervention would be justified, the next step was to observe that there were “many regimes that are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts. If we wanted to right every wrong that we see in the modern world then we would do little else [other] than intervene in the affairs of other countries. We would not be able to cope.”

Hence the need for what the draft called “tests” and the speech described as “con­siderations” – a less demanding term. So, what were these tests, and where did they come from?

 

***

 

The idea of tests to help decide whether to engage in a discretionary war came from the US secretary of defence Caspar Weinberger after the chaotic and painful American intervention in Beirut in the early 1980s, which he had opposed. In a speech in November 1984 he warned of the dangers of getting too involved in what he called “grey-
area conflicts”. These were his six tests:

l the United States should commit forces to overseas combat only when the particular engagement or occasion was deemed vital to national interests or those of allies;

l unless combat troops were to be used wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning, they should not be committed at all;

l forces committed to overseas combat should have clearly defined political and military objectives;

l the relationship between these objectives and the forces committed – their size, composition and disposition – must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary;

l there must be some reasonable assurance of the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress;

l the commitment of US forces to combat should be a last resort.

These guidelines were clearly meant to be restrictive. The first was a national interest test and the last required the exhaustion of diplomacy. Three others reflected military demands for clarity about objectives and latitude on methods; the troops should know the job they were intended to do and have the means to do it properly. The penultimate test was about public opinion, reflecting the lingering impact in America of the Vietnam War.

In the 1990s, Colin Powell, as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the Clinton administration, followed the path set by Weinberger. Powell was careful to warn that there could be no “when-to-go-to-war” doctrine that would always work. The basic theme was that armed forces should not be misused – but that, when used, they should be able to get on with the job in hand.

By 1999, largely because of the war in Bosnia, it was evident that these tests were inadequate. Intervention involved becoming part of another country’s political struggles. The troops committed to a half-hearted engagement could become hapless witnesses to massacres, as in Srebrenica in 1995. UN resolutions, of which there were many on Bosnia, needed to be enforced. Now Kosovo was confirming the lesson that even though air power could make a big impact, only “boots on the ground” were likely to make a significant difference to Milosevic’s calculations. But this meant putting forces in harm’s way and risking political controversy back home, even more so if the action resulted in a long-term commitment. Once foreign forces were shoring things up it was going to be hard to remove them, which led to concerns about “exit strategies”. But if the conditions for an orderly exit were to be created it would require political and economic efforts alongside the military presence. Otherwise, exit could just lead to a quick return to the circumstances that had prompted intervention in the first place.

The Weinberger tests, therefore, no longer answered the question posed in my draft about when to get involved in other people’s conflicts. The tests I came up with survived in headline form from my draft to the final speech. Changes were made to the supporting arguments, in part to make them punchier, but also to relate them more directly to the ongoing conflict in Kosovo.

This was my first test:

 

Are we sure of our case? Many conflicts are confused in their origins. We must not rush in on the basis of media reports of terrible events that lack any context. We must acknowledge that war, as we have seen, is an imperfect instrument for easing humanitarian distress. In the process of doing good, innocents can easily get hurt. But war is sometimes the only means of dealing with the political forces ready to inflict such distress, and to ensure that they enjoy no lasting gain.

 

With Iraq in mind, the priority of being sure of the case now looks prescient and to a degree pointed. But it was there to ensure that evidence existed to support the claims being made about humanitarian need. (There had been an example in 1996 of a UN intervention force almost going to Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – when the situation was still confused.) This was already an issue with Kosovo, with critics of the operation claiming that the refugee crisis was a consequence, rather than a cause, of the Nato bombing, and dismissing allegations about Serb atrocities.

The speech, as delivered by Tony Blair, simply said: “First, are we sure of our case? War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.” The effect was to change my meaning from a general humanitarian case to one that urged the need to deal forcefully with dictators, and specifically Milosevic, when they caused humanitarian distress.

The second test:

 

Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? At times we must negotiate with evildoers and negotiate seriously. This requires enormous clarity about our concerns and objectives. Of course a desperate desire for compromise can be exploited – but so can a refusal to compromise.

 

The final speech deleted everything after the first sentence and added: “We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo.” This was a critical test, a warning against rushing into war, and one that had also appeared on Weinberger’s list. The speech as delivered insisted that there had been no such rush with Kosovo.

The third test:

 

On the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations that we can sensibly and prudently undertake? At the moment the might of Nato is taking on a relatively small country in the middle of Europe and it has not been easy. We would give

false hope if we pretended to be able to deal with every outrage.

 

This captured the military concerns reflected in the Weinberger/Powell ­criteria without being over-prescriptive. The speech as delivered removed everything after the first sentence. It was somewhat naive of me even to think that a Nato leader would utter the second sentence at that time.

The fourth test:

 

Are we prepared for the long term? We have perhaps in the past talked too much of the need for “exit strategies” for the good reason that we do not want our forces to be tied up indefinitely. But it is a matter of fact that once we have made a commitment to these unfortunate societies we cannot simply walk away once the fighting is over. There will always be a job of political and economic reconstruction. Better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than to return for repeat performances with large numbers.

 

This was meant as a direct rebuke to the US line in Bosnia. Having taken the effort to stabilise a country, it was irresponsible then to talk only of how soon you hoped to leave, especially as that gave clues to the enemy about strategies they could adopt. Reference to the “long term” also indicated that events might not turn out as expected and that strategies would have to be adjusted. The speech simplified this without changing it substantially, the one exception being that it removed the reference to political and economic reconstruction.

The fifth test:

 

Do we have national interests involved? The case for action will always be stronger when national interests are at stake. The

Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was a blatant aggression that had to be reversed: there is nothing to be ashamed of in pointing out that this took place in a strategically important oil-producing part of the world. The mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo demanded the notice of the rest of the world: it does make a difference that this is taking place in such a combustible part of Europe.

 

 

The change in the speech as given was to remove the reference to Iraq, mainly, I suspect, to keep the focus on Kosovo.

I remember thinking hard about whether to include this test but I did so because I doubted that there would be many purely humanitarian interventions. It was a nod in the direction of the realists but it was also important to demonstrate that there was more at stake than just doing good.

Elsewhere in his speech, Blair sought to demonstrate that national and international interests had to be and could be closely aligned, perhaps thereby rendering this test meaningless. This was not my argument and I don’t think it was his. If anything this was the test that could trump the others, providing a reason to stay out as well as go in, whatever the other tests suggested.

This was therefore the test most open to interpretation. Different governments would have different views on what constituted the national interest. In addition, official definitions of the national interest often lump together a number of desiderata that can be in contradiction with each other. This is why Theresa May’s focus on the national interest in her Philadelphia speech still leaves her with considerable latitude.

 

***

What was missing? There was no reference to maintaining public support for intervention. My view was that if the case was strong enough, that was a matter for political leadership. In the light of Iraq, I would probably now warn more of the problems of going to war with a divided country.

Another notable gap is a legal test. After Blair delivered his speech, this worried ­Foreign Office lawyers, who were already explaining the legality of Kosovo with a new rationale based on humanitarianism. The difficulty at the time, to which the speech alluded, was that the UN Security Council was increasingly divided on these matters. The hope was expressed that a new unity could be achieved, but this turned out to be forlorn.

Do such tests have much value? One difficulty is that they can easily be overruled when a strong political current is pushing matters towards unwarranted activity (or unwarranted passivity). Another is that although it might be expected that they will be met in prospect, the position can look very different in retrospect. Finally, if one of the tests was not met would that invalidate the whole exercise, or can the various criteria be weighed against each other?

While these problems argue for handling the Chicago tests with care, they still point to issues that will always need to be addressed. Certainly, once a government has set out a framework for thinking about the use of armed force it is not unreasonable to turn to it when evaluating possible actions.

Which brings us to Iraq. The Chilcot inquiry accepted that Blair was sure of his case, though with hindsight this was poorly founded and there were plausible military options. It criticised the decision to go to war, because invading Iraq was not a last resort. The inspections process was far from exhausted and the only reason to start operations in March 2003 was the US military timetable. The inquiry also condemned the preparations for the long haul as wholly inadequate. I suspect that for Blair the national interest test – the need to sustain the special relationship in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks – was ­overriding. Tellingly, in his memoir he observed: “In retrospect, applying those tests to Iraq shows what a finely balanced case it was, and why I never thought those who disagreed were stupid or weak-minded.”

This article is based on the David Davies Memorial Lecture, delivered on 7 February 2017 at the University of Aberystwyth. A longer version will appear in the June 2017 issue of the quarterly International Relations

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

0800 7318496