Mock This Campaign If You Like, But How Else Can Blair Be Held to Account?
With the limits of power in Britain so ill-defined, the only way a reckoning for Iraq will ever come is via a citizen's arrest
What else can you do? When the entire administration is engaged in a criminal act, when there is no clear separation of powers between the government and the judiciary, when those appointed to hold the government to account are as scary as a litter of kittens, where do you turn? Do you appeal to the attorney general's office to prosecute itself?
The forensic failure of the Chilcot inquiry illustrates what we learnt from the banking scandals: self-regulation doesn't work. The independence of the inquiry is as stark a lie as any of the claims made by its star witness. In truth this panel of pussycats is a quango appointed and instructed by the prime minister, who will himself appear as a witness. If ever you needed more evidence that the power of the prime minister's office is insufficiently defined in the United Kingdom, here it is.
So you can mock our feeble attempts to hold Tony Blair to account, but only if you propose an alternative. Last Friday's hearings show that there will be no justice, no reckoning from the organs of the state. Encouraging citizen's arrests of Tony Blair for the crime of aggression is perhaps the only remaining option we have, and the astonishing response to the campaign I launched last week shows that many people understand this. In 30 hours, before Paypal blocked the account without notice, the bounty fund at www.arrestblair.org, which rewards people trying to arrest the former prime minister for crimes against peace, cleared £9,000.
Since then it has been harder to produce a running total, but further pledges, electronic transfers and Tipit contributions amount to several thousand pounds more, and are still coming in at the rate of hundreds of pounds a day. The volume of correspondence has been overwhelming too: it will take weeks to reply to all the pledges and letters of support. There is a massive public appetite to see justice done.
Already the campaign has borne fruit. Outside the Chilcot inquiry a woman called Grace McCann, inspired by the website, tried to apprehend Mr Blair, before she was restrained and removed by the police. She qualifies for the first bounty: one quarter of the total pot at the time of her attempt. She has pledged to give the money to relevant charities. The fund will remain open until Blair is officially prosecuted, and we will keep paying out to those who follow Grace's example.
Two main arguments have been deployed against this campaign. The most surprising was produced by Polly Toynbee in her column on Saturday: "Calling in judges to override the decisions of a democratically elected government backed by parliament is a dangerous road, leading to the demise of politics … there is no other authority and we undermine it at our peril. Politics is already at a low ebb: sending political decisions to be over-ridden by the courts would do nothing to restore credibility."
This is a weird form of liberal exceptionalism. Because enthusiasm for politics has declined, she argues, there should be no limits to state power, except those ordained by the state. It is precisely because we no longer believe that the government can be held to account that we have become so disillusioned with politics. In a country like the United Kingdom – where executive power is constitutionally unlimited; the prime minister can bully, mislead and lie to parliament; the attorney general is both overseer of the legal system and a minister of the Crown; media scrutiny is feeble and partisan; and citizens have come to expect nothing better – judicial review is even more important than it is elsewhere. But in any nation, equality before the law is fundamental to democracy. Its absence leaves the door wide open to elective dictatorship. Except in Italy, this is the first time I have seen anyone in a democratic country argue that judges should not be able either to review the decisions of government or to try its ministers.
I agree with Polly that the legal issue must not obscure the moral issues. But it doesn't: it highlights them. Wars of aggression are illegal for a good moral reason: they kill people without justification.
Most of Blair's apologists – William Shawcross, Nick Cohen, David Blunkett, John Rentoul and others – argue that Iraq is a better place now than it was before the war, and therefore the war was retrospectively both just and legal. On the same grounds – the ends justify the means – any number of wars could be excused. The first world war secured votes for women, allowed the young to challenge a corrupt gerontocracy and began to crack the class system, but you would be hard put to argue that this justified the slaughter in the trenches. Europe has been a safer and more prosperous place since the conclusion of the second world war: this doesn't mean that the Axis powers were right to launch it. To suggest that the murder of somewhere between 100,000 and a million people in Iraq, the wounding and mutilation of many more, the collapse of infrastructure and public services, and the misrule of the occupying powers are justified by subsequent partial improvements in the lives of surviving Iraqis is to maintain that the massive tally of death and destruction was a price worth paying. It is part of the same psychopathic mindset – which reduced human lives to nothing but figures in a political equation – that launched the war.
Nick Cohen's argument – that Saddam was a monster and his reign was illegitimate, therefore it was legitimate and legal to remove him – is facile and deeply confused. He deliberately conflates two meanings of the word legitimate. I can see that there's a case for updating international law to examine the issue of humanitarian intervention, and to decide if countries might be justified in attacking another to relieve the suffering of its citizens. But to maintain that states have a right to disregard current law at their convenience and unilaterally punish another country invites the collapse of an international system that, though flawed, seeks to defend weaker nations from perpetual attack. This doctrine would permit states to invent justifications for wars of self-interest, just as King Leopold claimed to be liberating the Congo from Arab slavers so he could enslave it himself, or Saddam Hussein claimed to be saving the region from Shia fundamentalism by bombarding Iran with poison gas. If you want to invade another country, a humanitarian reason can always be found.
The arrest campaign cannot right the wrongs of the Iraq war, or even guarantee that Blair is prosecuted for his gigantic crime, but it makes sure that the issue cannot be shuffled away into the dark corners of the national memory. While Blair can brush off the Chilcot panel, this bounty fund ensures that he will never rid himself of accountability for his actions. It shows governments that they may no longer destroy people's lives and expect us to forget.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010