Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair, Gives a New Lease of Life to the Old Jibe, 'Perfide Albion'

Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair, Gives a New Lease of Life to the Old Jibe, 'Perfide Albion'

Article excerpt

Through inexperience, Tony Blair has made a balls-up of the Pinochet case, and his inability to think fast on his feet in this important but not earth-shattering affair gives me an uneasy feeling that, when a real international crisis explodes out of a clear sky, he may not be able to handle it. I said to him, `You know that Chile is our best friend in Latin America, as Pinochet proved during the Falklands war. He came here as a sick man and guest and you betrayed the most elementary principles of hospitality. How could you do it?' He said, 'I was told that, unless I allowed the case to proceed I would be in breach of the Extradition Treaty.' I said that if one lawyer told him that, he should have consulted another, and got a different answer.

His proper course was to cover himself by getting the opinions, separately, of the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney-General, each of whom would have produced a different interpretation of the law. That would have left him free to take a political decision. But before flying Pinochet home he should have taken the precaution, as a US president would have done, of consulting his predecessors in office, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan, John Major and Margaret Thatcher. All, I am pretty sure, would have urged him to put national interests before any other consideration. Then he should have seen the Queen, and told her what he intended to do, and received her encouragement. Finally, having sent the General home, he should have gone to the Commons, explained exactly what he had done and why, and appealed to MPs for their backing. He would, I am quite sure, have been given an overwhelming vote of support from all parties.

The moral of the case, I said to Blair, is underlined by Churchill's maxim in government: `Lawyers should be on tap but not on top.' Blair had never heard this saying before, but I could see he took it in and I hope he will apply it in future. As it is, the damage has been done in this case, and the lawyers are absolutely on top - whether or not Jack Straw decides to exercise his discretion in the General's favour. There is nothing lawyers like more than a highly publicised case involving complex international jurisdiction; in which they can have a lovely, self-important time disagreeing with and reversing each other, while their learned brethren in droves collect huge fees ultimately funded by the taxpayers. Lawyers in Britain, Chile, Spain, France and other countries have already, I calculate, put up over 50 million on the clock of this glorious global taxi-ride, and there is much, much more to come.

The episode has attracted world-wide attention and will promote a spate of political extradition campaigns. If a head of state can be held legally responsible for any crimes, real or imaginary, committed during his or her term of office - and the point will apply a fortiori to a head of government -- there is nothing to stop such dignitaries being arrested all over the world, in or out of power. A citizen of the Irish Republic, for instance, could take out an extradition warrant for the Queen, accusing her of responsibility for the 'murder' of the `Gibraltar Three', present it to a compliant Irish-American New York judge, and have it served on her the next time she is in the city. One can imagine infinite variations on this theme.

There is another aspect to this case, which has been completely ignored so far in Britain, but which was forcibly put to me by many people when I was in Argentina last week. …

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