Magazine article The Spectator

Why Didn't Our Government Speak out against the Execution of Saddam?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Didn't Our Government Speak out against the Execution of Saddam?

Article excerpt

Small lapses of taste or principle can be so revealing. Why did it take two days, and why was it left to John Prescott, speaking in what sounded like his personal capacity, for anyone senior in Cabinet to indicate that at least somebody in the British government did not greatly care for the nature of Saddam Hussein's punishment?

Was the Deputy Prime Minister speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government? It was unclear. All credit to him, though, for stepping in where two figures who might more appropriately have spoken -- the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary -- seemed to fear to tread. And even then, Mr Prescott seemed to focus his complaint on the manner rather than the fact of the execution.

Was notable courage really called for?

Hardly. No angry démarche was required, no Downing Street declaration, no indignant distancing of ourselves from the Americans.

It is hardly a secret that Britain is opposed to the death penalty, although -- to the extent that I can understand the mental world inhabited by our Prime Minister -- I suspect Tony Blair honestly thinks it is possible to be against capital punishment on principle, but in favour of individual cases of it.

But he could have left it to the Foreign Secretary to convey the Cabinet's reaction.

This Margaret Beckett could have achieved in a couple of careful sentences that Foreign Office officials would have been happy to supply. How about, for instance, 'Saddam Hussein deserved no pity, but as a matter of principle the British government opposes capital punishment in all circumstances, and was particularly distressed at the manner of this execution. Though we share the anger felt against him we are sad that an opportunity has been missed to treat this tyrant with a dignity and humanity he denied others'?

A temperate response like this would hardly have threatened British relations with Baghdad or Washington. There would have been no row, no repercussions. The affair would have been forgotten within a week.

But in a million British households where news bulletins are listened to, a passing, civilising nod in the direction of human decency would have been noted by the people -- us -- for whom our government speaks.

These things matter. In representing us to foreigners, in framing and voicing a British response, elected government represents us to ourselves, too. It sets an example, recommends to us how we might see ourselves as a nation -- the kind of country we might care to be. As Shia Iraqis danced with glee, ghoulish internet viewers watched Saddam's final moments, and right-wing American news stations gloated at the spectacle of a man surrounded by men in masks about to have his neck broken, people in Britain could have gone back to work after the Christmas holidays knowing that our own government had not joined in, but properly registered its distaste.

Instead we saw the Foreign Secretary, apparently afraid to break ranks in the smallest way, declaring that 'justice has been done'.

Mrs Beckett could not even muster the courage to acknowledge our country's longstanding opposition to the death penalty.

I would have felt proud if she had.

Speaking for myself, I can assemble no sweeping argument of perfect principle against capital punishment. As a younger man I voted both for and against, in different circumstances. …

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