Tony Blair is right: Prime Ministers must be allowed to take difficult decisions

Posted by ap507 at Jul 07, 2016 09:34 AM |
Dr Robert Dover discusses the aftermath of the Chilcot report

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A weary looking Tony Blair has just finished his two hour marathon of a press conference answering the implicit charges laid out by the Chilcot Report. It represented a very different Tony Blair from the commanding and astute political leader of the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s. With his voice trembling with emotion, Blair laid out his struggles with the decisions he was part of in 2002 onwards, but he ultimately concluded that he took the correct decision with the information he had at the time. The scene was melancholic: a great figure brought to his knees by decisions made fourteen years ago.

Tony Blair concluded the press conference with a line that might be seen as a condemnation of the decision taken by David Cameron to put the UK’s membership of the EU to a public referendum: political leaders are charged with taking difficult decisions, and they cannot shirk them. This was, afterall, a referendum that has unpicked Tony Blair’s central view that Britain is stronger when it engages fully with international organisations. This was the beating heart of New Labour’s internationalism. But Blair’s reading of the role of Prime Minister is constitutionally correct: he was charged with taking decisions on behalf of the British people, working with and through a Parliament that is sovereign. We are living through a current political era, however, that has forgotten or wishes to disregard the sovereignty of Parliament.

So, Iraq was a decision for Blair and his colleagues to make. And his central defence is that if any one of us were to have been placed in his shoes as Prime Minister, with the information and advice he had, we would have likely made the same decision. And even if that decision was a bad one he made it in all good faith and that is all the public can ask of their leaders. And in a strict constitutional sense, the options open to the public are electoral and legal. The electoral consequences must surely be redundant by now, particularly with a Labour leadership totally opposed to the mission of New Labour. But the legal options remain partly open: partly through an obscure law of impeachment from holding public office, and partly if it is deemed that the decision to go to war was to enact regime change: something that is prohibited by UN Charter. The likelihood of international proceedings are very slim indeed, whilst it is difficult to predict the outcome of domestic proceedings based on an ancient law. 

Historical lessons are only relevant when they present decisions in the context of their time. With hindsight we can say that the Iraq war was a catastrophic error. Not just for ordinary Iraqi citizens, but for British armed forces killed or mentally and physically scarred by the conflict. We can say it destabilised a region, and opened us up to a scale of globalised terrorism that would have been unthinkable at the time. I believe Tony Blair is wrong when he says that history will be kind on these points: it won’t. The project failed because there was no post-victory plan and on that the defence planners are right to be criticised. But history should be kinder about the decision to go to war: a complex decision made within a hectic policy environment with incomplete information, prior to the intelligence reforms that were subsequently seen in the UK.

On the one hand Iraq has shown us is that war should always be a last resort, but equally it might have shown us that going to war at the wrong moment against the wrong enemy can be unnecessarily constraining. Blair prosecuting a failed war against Iraq led to David Cameron being unable to find the political coalition to act strongly in the Syrian crisis: something which has allowed Russia to assert strong influence in a conflict that Europe and the United States sees as a strong threat to its security and interests. 

The question for future British Prime Ministers is whether it is any longer possible to build a political coalition for significant military interventions.

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