Magazine article The Spectator

How Sad That Margaret Beckett Will Not End Her Cabinet Career with a Burst of Angry Candour

Magazine article The Spectator

How Sad That Margaret Beckett Will Not End Her Cabinet Career with a Burst of Angry Candour

Article excerpt

I should start with a correction and an apology. The apology is owed to Margaret Beckett. I asserted in this column two weeks ago that the Foreign Secretary had made no protest at Saddam Hussein's execution.

In fact Mrs Beckett did (sort of) protest at the hanging, shortly after it had taken place and before the particularly revolting details had become known. But she also said that justice had been done (in her words 'he has now been held to account'). Here in full is the relevant part of her statement, which her office has sent me:

'I welcome the fact that Saddam Hussein has been tried by an Iraqi court for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people. He has now been held to account.

The British Government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation.'

In the range of bulletins I heard or read, reporters had only quoted the 'held to account' remark. I should have asked the Foreign Office for the full text but it did not occur to me that, having responded to a hanging with the remark 'he has now been held to account', someone might then go on to complain about it. Journalists were more interested in Mrs Beckett's expression of satisfaction, with which she seemed to associate herself personally, than in her rather muted reminder of the British government's general and formal position on capital punishment.

Her third point, about respecting the decision of a sovereign government, is rather odd, and I wonder whether any FCO lawyer pointed this out to her. The sovereignty of nations does not (according to any doctrine of which I am aware) debar them from protesting in the strongest of terms against each other's activities. Britain often protests about barbarities committed by foreign governments. We certainly do not have to respect the decisions of other sovereign states; we only have to respect their right to make them. The distinction may sound Jesuitical but is of the last importance. Many of the executions for which Saddam himself was responsible when we recognised his government in Baghdad were ordered by a sovereign government, but we did not respect those decisions, and were later pleased to see him put on trial for them.

In the event, the British media showed little interest in these parts of the Foreign Secretary's statement. That 'held to account' was what reports picked up on does not surprise me, and (I suggest) may not entirely have surprised Mrs Beckett. She was trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, and I related only half the story. I apologise.

Which brings me to what I would have written if I had been aware of the awkward balancing act in which the Foreign Secretary seems to have become engaged. I start from the supposition that Margaret Beckett is not personally happy about Britain's entanglement with US foreign policy in the Middle East, will have heard news of the hanging of Saddam with some (personal) distaste, and more generally thinks that British foreign policy has gone adrift in many ways. This is only speculation, but she does not appear happy in the job and I doubt this is because she is not up to it. Mrs Beckett is an unusually competent minister whose talent to master a brief, then command it in a confident manner, has never before been questioned. …

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