Lord Goldsmith

first_imgHe adamantly rebuts any implication of political naivety. “I knew quite a bit about public life before I joined the Government”, he maintains, before reeling off a CV of international conventions, organisations and associations that would impress even the most consummate political nerds. Goldsmith certainly seems to have made an almost seamless transition from the world of the wigs to the world of politics, helped along by his long-standing affiliation with the Labour Party. After a successful career at the bar following his degree from Cambridge, he was appointed a Labour life peer in 1999 before his promotion to attorney general in 2001. Nevertheless, the ruthlessly public nature of political office will eventually take its toll, and in February this year Lord Goldsmith became the latest in a long line of executive members to get stung when the Mail on Sunday reported that he had been having an extra-marital affair with Kim Hollis, Britain’s first Asian QC. “There obviously are big differences and the public spotlight is one of them,” he says.Yet whatever snipes can be made at Lord Goldsmith, passivity on the job is certainly not one of them. As the leading mouthpiece for legal issues in Britain he has argued forcefully on an array of legal and political topics, ranging from anonymity for the offenders in the James Bulger murder case to the closure of U.S detention camp Guantanamo Bay. He has recently welcomed controversial recommendations by the Law Commission to move manslaughter by provocation up a category to second degree murder: “The difference between the ‘least bad murder’ and the worst manslaughter may not be that much of a gap in terms of culpability.” He strongly defends the incitement to religious hatred laws, eventually forced through by Labour last year after a long-haul legislative crusade. Dismissing any suggestion that such laws will operate to stifle free expression about religion, he is at pains to emphasise the government is in favour of outlawing “hatred of people by reference to their religion, not of the religion itself… It is not the same as a blasphemy law.” Maybe not, but there is something in his unreserved enthusiasm that recalls the distant lashings of the Party whip. His legal advice greenlighted Britain’s most controversial foreign adventure since Suez. Kate Greasley talks to the attorney general on justifying Iraq  He is the man whose legal advice facilitated the invasion of Iraq. Lord Peter Goldsmith, attorney general since 2001, presented his final memorandum to the government on 17 March 2003 concluding that the proposed use of force in Iraq was lawful. This sparked the ignition for a war which has lasted over four years, claiming the lives of 146 British troops and an estimated 15-30,000 Iraqi civilians, not to mention billions of pounds in government funding. As the government’s original grounds for war have been revealed to be shaky, the role of Lord Goldsmith has been portrayed as less impartial legal adviser, more puppet under the sway of the political pressures which led to Britain’s most disastrous foreign foreign policy entanglement since the Suez crisis. At a time when Tony Blair was attempting to galvanise Parliament into action over Iraq with frenzied claims that Saddam Hussain was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the release of Goldsmith’s advice – which affirmed the legal validity of war on the basis that Iraq had committed a ‘material breach’ of ceasefire agreements according to UN Resolution 1441 – was just the boost Blair needed. Since then, the infamous WMD must have been hit with a paralysing bout of stage-fright, for they never made their allotted appearance. The void left by the absence of Blair’s only firm platform for an invasion was deeply felt. While Blair faced accusations of engineering fake grounds to enter an unjustified war, Goldsmith was demonised as a Blairite puppet.All rather sensational for a man who has spent most of his career dusting off cases in the archives of commercial law and promoting pro bono work for the poor and legally under-represented. In fact, the first thing that strikes me about Lord Goldsmith is just how disassociated he seems to be from the nuances of political spin and scandal. Straight-laced and serious, he has a firm but fair headmaster rapport: perfectly docile so long as you keep your shirt tucked in, but you wouldn’t want him to catch you having a fag behind the bike sheds. His speech is candid and economical, without much embellishment or hyperbole. I wonder if it is these qualities that have enabled him to adjust to such a highly politicised position from a place of relative inexperience. Indeed, for some, this party-political cheerleader impression may seem worlds apart from the man who flew to Washington D.C. in 2003 to scrap with the U.S administration for the fair trial of British detainees in Guantanamo. Speaking about it now, it is apparent that the subject still strikes a chord: “I think that Guantanamo is wrong in principle; I think its wrong in practice. It sends a message that the West stands for injustice when the West really is the one place that stands for justice, tolerance and fairness”. However, the Guantanamo fiasco pales in comparison to the controversy for which he is currently known and probably will be remembered. Tentatively I broach the subject of Iraq, wondering how he will account for the questions surrounding his legal advice. His answer is that of a man who has been asked this question a thousand times or more: unsearched for, perfectly intoned, yet still somehow convincingly sincere. “Part of the reason it has been so controversial is simply because the war has been so controversial,” he explains. “People have been deeply disappointed that when the invasion occurred those weapons of mass destruction were not found.” He insists, however, that the scare over WMD was not at all “critical to the legal advice” which recognised the legality of the war on the original basis given by the UN in 1993 in Resolution 687. This authority had “never been cancelled” but “only ever been suspended on condition that Iraq complies with the ceasefire conditions”. “It never did. And this was confirmed by UN Resolution 1441.” The point he makes is relatively clear: the connection between the alleged WMD and the legality of war in Iraq is merely a misguided illusion that has been cultivated in public opinion. The real ground for war rested on an unrelated UN resolution which preserved its potency and was taken up again in 2003 in what he labels a “revival of original authority”. However assuredly expressed, there is something strained in this testimony which simply doesn’t seem to cohere with the government’s zealous sermonising of the WMD threat in the prelude to war, and his attempt to retrospectively downgrade its relevance to the question of legality doesn’t quite convert me.What is more, his explanation suggests not only that the invasion was legal, but that it always has been legal ever since 1993 – another  caveat which leaves me slightly incredulous. Then there is the residual question of the curious divergence between the first and second versions of his memorandum which remains unaccounted for and a major source of cynicism about the underlying political forces working the pullies backstage.Of course, no one views Lord Goldsmith as the bad man in the Iraq affair. You will not find his name smeared indignantly across anti-war posters or working its way into protest chants. Rather, he is characterised more as the weak and wavering subordinate – a kind of Igor to Blair’s Frankenstein.In person, there does not seem to be much that is weak and wavering about him, and even in the face of my scepticism, I can’t help but believe the sincerity of his conviction about the legality, if not the overall justification, of the government’s decision to go to war. A part of me is even inclined to shrug off some necessary degree of partiality as inevitably bound up with the nature of his position.The overall impression is that of a progressive, legally astute professional, whose political career, rightly or wrongly, has been eclipsed by the blundering mess that is Iraq. With this in mind I ask him what he would be doing if he hadn’t made a career in law or politics. For the first time in the whole interview he pauses to think, before replying tactfully,“Enjoying academic life.” Perhaps it is a shame that he isn’t.last_img read more

"Lord Goldsmith"