With the formal dissolution of Parliament by the Queen last Monday, 646 MPs left Westminster to either fight for reelection, or quietly retire to write their memoirs. And there is, perhaps, a surprising number of ‘big names’ retiring from the House of Commons this year: Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Jack Straw (this was even before his recent bust last month by a sting that exposed him of selling his cash for influence on camera). For some of us in ‘Yes’, the departure of Brown and Darling was a simple equation to solve: they knew that Westminster had no intention to deliver any form of Home Rule or DevoMax with the ‘No’ vote that they so successfully delivered, and that they would evermore be tainted by that association.
Although, of course, Gordon Brown has not exactly been a great advert for either humility or shame throughout his career. But he HAS been a Member of Parliament for 33 years, and made big noises immediately after the Referendum about returning to front line politics in order to personally wrest and deliver ‘The Vow’ from Westminster…and then suddenly he was leaving this May.
And I don’t really want to be a conspiracy theorist, but…maybe there is another reason that is more directly relevant?
You see, an awful lot of these MPS (not all of them so very long in the tooth) announced – somewhat suddenly – that they were standing down in the last quarter of last year. And this was around the time that a couple of different things were being finalised. One of them was the release of files by the CIA on their practices during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, including illegal rendition flights and the complicity of members of the UK’s Labour government in them and the accompanying torture (or ‘enhanced interrogation’) techniques employed. After some diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing, agreement was reached on the heavily redacted version of the CIA’s report that was finally released in December – but there are still moves in process to have the full version released, with some of that ubiquitous black ink removed from the names.
The other thing that happened around the same time, was that the letters for the Chilcot Inquiry were sent out. These are the letters (sometimes referred to as part of the ‘Maxwellisation’ process) which are sent out to those most heavily criticised in the final report of the inquiry by Sir John Chilcot into the nature of the UK’s role in Iraq between mid-2001 and July 2009, covering the run-up to the conflict, the subsequent military action and its aftermath: the purpose of the letters is to give them the opportunity to formally respond to the criticisms before the document is released to the public. When the delay in the publication of Chilcot’s report until after the forthcoming General Election hit the headlines towards the end of January this year (following Jim Wallace’s announcement that it would be ‘unfair to the Government in the run-up to the General Election’), it was revealed that the principal cause of the delay was that certain individuals who had received these letters, had been somewhat dragging their heels in replying to the Inquiry’s communication. As Tony Blair is primarily regarded as ‘The Great Satan’ of the whole process of dragging the UK into that illegal war, attention focused very swiftly on him as the most likely candidate for the person trying to delay publication. But – again – Blair has been stoically unapologetic for his actions from Day One, continually refusing to express any regret for his decisions, and even although Chilcot is said to contain much of the private communications between him and George W. Bush, including details of their secret deal to bring British Armed Forces in to support the US military action almost a year before Parliament approved it, part of me wonders if he would really be embarrassed too much by this: he regularly seems to cite his faith as validating his actions in an almost bulletproof fashion…WE might think he has a lot to be ashamed off, but, really, would he?
Consider the list of those believed to be heavily criticised by the (as yet unpublished) report: letters have been sent to Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell (spin doctor or ‘communications strategist’ under Blair from 2000-2003), former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (2001-2006 under Blair), Geoff Hoon (Secretary of State for Defence under Blair, 1999-2005, stood down as an MP before the 2010 General Election), and other Labour politicians. Gordon Brown (Chancellor of the Exchequer under Blair from 1997-2007) and Alastair Darling (1998-2007 under Blair, then Chancellor of the Exchequer under Brown) were also cabinet members at the time. Blair, Hoon and Campbell do not have seats in the Commons (Campbell never did), so would not be affected, but…have Brown, Straw and Darling decided to go early, rather than be exposed to criticism day in and day out by their political opponents while still Members of Parliament, becoming lame ducks to their party in the process?
At least, if they have retired from the Commons, their exposure to flak is significantly more limited – a couple of bad weeks with the Press camped outside your door, then you can let family life return to normal.
And where does this leave the hawk-ish Jim Murphy in this, US imperialist-supporting Henry Jackson Society champion that he is? Was he not also a cabinet minister (2008-2010 under Brown) at a crucial juncture, covered by the Inquiry? He is not retiring from the House of Commons per se – and certainly, as one of the campaign managers of David Miliband’s Labour Party Leadership campaign, it seems likely that he was hardly a favourite to win promotion at the Court of Ed – so, in that sense, him moving his sphere of interest to working in Holyrood made sense, if he was not going to receive any further opportunities under the current leadership (but if Cameron becomes Prime Minister again, let’s see how fast that might change, with a new Labour leader…).
But maybe it was also put to him that setting his ambitions towards being First Minister at Holyrood might be a wiser and more pragmatic career move, with forthcoming revelations – retiring from the Westminster’s House of Commons in a subtly different fashion to Jack Straw and Gordon Brown. Moving to ‘the little league’ (from his expense-claiming perspective), and being King Jim in a smaller, quieter, more parochial pond (he may wish), rather than the intense and critical focus of Westminster, and at least avoid the brunt of any coming Chilcot wrath? Jim has not exactly got the dogged resilience of Blair – appearing to change policy with the weather vane to try and be as populist as possible (but more on that in another post soon), and a major scandal that tars him might be a challenge even for his Twister-like loquaciousness.
I know – it is just annoyingly inconclusive speculation at this point, before either report appears in a fuller version – but such a pattern nags at me, and I do wonder about the synchronicity.
Is it just a coincidence that they are all going just now? Or do they know what is coming, as far as damage to their reputations, and reckon they can limit it by jumping before they get pushed by public pressure?
If the ravens leave the Tower of London, the kingdom is said to fall – hence their wings are clipped. But the clock tower of Westminster that contains the bell called ‘Big Ben’, renamed Elizabeth Tower for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, has no such myth. However, one wonders if the simultaneous departure of so many Labour hawks from Westminster has some similar symbolism.
“Of course delay to publication of Chilcot is frustrating but it is not sinister and is irrelevant to election since none of the key figures are standing.” (Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, 22/1/2015)