The Law Chief Who Bowed to Blair: The NS Reveals How, on the Eve of the Iraq Invasion, Tony Blair and George Bush Leant on Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, to Change His Mind on the Legality of the War

By Kampfner, John | New Statesman (1996), November 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Law Chief Who Bowed to Blair: The NS Reveals How, on the Eve of the Iraq Invasion, Tony Blair and George Bush Leant on Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, to Change His Mind on the Legality of the War


Kampfner, John, New Statesman (1996)


As Tony Blair implores the nation to appreciate the benefits of the so-called special relationship, more evidence has emerged of the extent of the Bush administration's pressure on the British government in the run-up to war against Iraq.

We already knew that the Prime Minister agreed to back George W Bush's war plans as early as April 2002. He was concerned about regime change and needed to find another reason--weapons of mass destruction--to justify military action politically and legally. What is less known is how Blair, together with the Americans, leaned on the UK Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, to change his mind about the legality of the war. That story can now be told.

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A commercial barrister and personal friend of the Blairs, with little experience of international law, Goldsmith shifted his position on the legality of war not once, but twice. He was asked by Blair to stay silent until he could guarantee that his advice was helpful in justifying war. Even then, his first attempt was not deemed positive enough, so at the last minute a new version was produced. If any of the doubts had been made public, Britain's armed forces could have been vulnerable to legal challenge.

So sensitive is the whole affair that Goldsmith was reluctant to speak about it during his two appearances before the Butler inquiry earlier this year. His testimony was regarded as evasive and unconvincing. Initially, he even suggested that he could not show the committee the contentious legal advice he provided to Blair on 7 March 2003, which has never been made public. The five-person committee was flabbergasted. Goldsmith gave in to their demand only after they told him they would abandon their inquiry and announce why they had done so.

Between September 2002 and February 2003, Goldsmith let it be known, usually verbally, that he could not sanction military action without specific United Nations approval. He indicated that resolution 1441, passed unanimously by the UN Security Council in November 2002, did not provide that automatic trigger, and that a further resolution was necessary.

Throughout this period, Blair was fully aware of the Attorney General's reservations. For that reason, he instructed him not to declare his position formally. When challenged by one cabinet minister in autumn 2002 as to why the government had not yet received formal advice from Goldsmith, Blair responded: "I'll ask him when I have to, and not before."

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Blair, although a lawyer himself, made it clear throughout that the legalities were an unwelcome distraction. He had allowed himself to be won over to the American position. This was that resolution 687, passed in 1991 at the end of the first Gulf war, gave any permanent member of the UN Security Council the right at any point to declare Iraq in further material breach of its obligations to get rid of its WMD. The long-held British view, in common with just about every other country, was that only the Security Council itself could make such a judgement.

Meanwhile, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, let it be known to his department throughout the autumn of 2002 that he disagreed with his own legal team. The lawyers took a clear and united view. At one meeting he flatly overruled them, causing them to appeal to Goldsmith to act as an arbiter. Goldsmith, crucially, told them they knew what his view was but he could not give formal advice. The implication was that Blair would not let him. The two offices work closely; usually, one Foreign Office legal person is seconded to the Attorney General. If at any point during this period Goldsmith had disagreed with the Foreign Office legal opinion, he had ample opportunity to tell them. From November 2002, all the lawyers worked on the basis that a second resolution was not just desirable but a legal requirement. That included the entire Foreign Office legal team, led by Michael Wood, whose deputy, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, resigned on the eve of war. …

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