Joe Hendren

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Friday, March 25, 2005

Wilmshurt letter on Iraq war further evidence of increasing politicisation of British civil service

The UK Guardian has obtained the uncensored resignation letter of Elizabeth Wilmshurt, deputy chief legal adviser at the foreign Office until she resigned over the Iraq war. In her resignation letter Wilmshurst dammed the invasion as a "crime of aggression" and "so detrimental to the international order and the rule of law."

When the Blair Government first released the letter under the new Freedom of Information Act, they left out a key passage, a passage suggesting that the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, believed war against Iraq was illegal - a view he expressed less than two weeks before the Tommies went to Uncle Sam's aid. Wilmshurst says the Foreign Office gave consistent advice that a war would be illegal, before and after UN security council resolution 1441.

She says that was also Lord Goldsmith's view until March 7, when he sent a 13-page written legal opinion to Tony Blair. Ms Wilmshurst does not reveal the content of this advice. However, reports that the attorney warned Mr Blair that British participation in the invasion could be ruled unlawful by an international court have not been denied by the government.

The failure of Blair to obtain a second UN resolution caused both Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Goldsmith to change their view again. How can legality be so elastic...

In the censored passage of her letter, Ms Wilmshurst points out that the attorney's view changed yet again into a new "official line". That is a reference to a parliamentary answer released by Lord Goldsmith on March 17, the eve of a crucial Commons vote on military action. In this, the attorney said - on the basis of advice from Mr Blair - that it was "plain" Iraq was in breach of its disarmament obligations.

The Freedom of Information Act forced the release of the censored piece of the letter, even though the Foreign Office claimed it was not in the "public interest" - yeah right - on reading the previously deleted passage its pretty clear it is not the interests of the public that are being protected.
My views accord with the advice that has been given consistently in this office before and after the adoption of SCR [UN security council resolution] 1441, and with what the attorney general gave us to understand was his view prior to his letter of 7 March.
Whether or not it could be said that a certain dossier was 'sexed up', the Wilmshurst letter makes it pretty clear heavy political pressure was applied on the public service to provide the conclusions Blair wanted.

It is unfortunate that the debate within the civil service over the Iraq war will encourage greater politicisation of the service. The tradition of British public servants providing 'free and frank' advice is under threat, as is the notion of a professional career service. Such principles have guided the British civil service since the mid 19th century (following the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms), and were the basis for the reform of New Zealand's public service in 1912. The cost of Tony's arrogance over the Iraq war could be a public service littered with cronies (or mini Tonys).

Nevertheless, I should congratulate the UK Labour Government for passing the Freedom of Information Act, even if it was long overdue.

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