Why we should not call for jailing of Tony Blair

To effectively oppose imperialist wars we must avoid the trap of legalism, argues Ben Lewis

"How many more smoking guns do we need before Tony Blair is behindbars?” asks the Stop the War Coalition website. The visceral hatred for Blair and what he represents could not be more apparent.

This is perfectly understandable. Many activists in the anti-war movement are quite rightly outraged by the patently spurious justifications cooked up for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The two main reasons given were: Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as an immediate threat (none were found) and the violation of ‘human rights’ under Saddam Hussein’s regime (not only have abuses continued under the occupation, but the US and UK actively support barbaric regimes such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, to name but three). Thus it was at the STWC’s recent protest outside the Chilcot enquiry that several activists sported ‘Jail Blair’ t-shirts and STWC stewards were selling handcuffs to activists seeking to perform a citizen’s arrest on Tony Blair à la Peter Tatchell on Robert Mugabe.

This citizen’s arrest initiative seems to have come from George Monbiot - darling of the liberal middle classes and political commentator in The Guardian. He has launched the website Arrest Blair.org, which offers a “reward” for anybody daring to take up the challenge. Monbiot put forward the first £100, and the site claims that much more has flown in since. In one of his articles republished on the STWC website, he explains why he thinks ‘arresting’ Blair is a good idea:

The only question that counts is the one that the Chilcot inquiry won’t address: was the war with Iraq illegal? If the answer is yes, everything changes. The war is no longer a political matter, but a criminal one, and those who commissioned it should be committed for trial for what the Nuremberg tribunal called ‘the supreme international crime’: the crime of aggression.”

Indeed, Grace McCann, a demonstrator at last Friday’s protests, keenly rose to the challenge and attempted to place handcuffs on Blair, amid much media attention. According to the STWC site, she is estimated to have received around £3,000, a sum that she is to donate to “relevant charities”.

McCann is doubtless very brave and on Sky Television she put forward an eloquent defence of why she, like the STWC, thought the war was illegal. But the claim of illegality is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons, and thus not an argument that Marxists and revolutionaries should employ in order to build anti-war sentiment.

It is utterly utopian to believe that Blair can “face a court” for his crimes, as ‘official communist’ Kate Hudson from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament believes. Firstly, war crimes legislation requires the attorney general’s consent. In this limited sense, Monbiot is right that nobody in government or the opposition is therefore going to take prosecution seriously.

But there is something more obvious missing from STWC propaganda. The invasion of Iraq happened nearly seven years ago without the consent of international law. It did not particularly bother Bush and Blair back then, and will not present any genuine obstacle to the future warmongering plans of the US and its allies either. Indeed, even if it was technically possible for Blair to follow Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes, the Chilcot enquiry provides a telling example of how that investigation, too, would focus on trivialities and superficial points. Whereas the trial and punishment of a figure such as Milosevic allows the ‘international community’ (ie, the US and its allies) to feign democracy and respectability, any kind of genuine exposure and criticism of a figure such as Blair would amount to self-harm for other core imperialist states.

There is a further point. The current US-UK drive to increase sanctions on Iran is fully in compliance with international law. So were the sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, which effectively starved the population and killed at least as many as in the 2003 US-UK invasion. Indeed, although the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was formally ‘illegal’, as soon as the Ba’athist regime was overthrown, the occupation which followed was legally sanctioned by the UN. Or take the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan - perfectly legal in terms of the USA’s claim to “self-defence” following 9/11. That is why it is shameful for the ‘revolutionaries’ who lead the STWC to run with Monbiot’s contention that the main problem with the Iraq war was its illegality. Some on the left even went along with UN-backed sanctions on Iraq as an alternative to full-on invasion. I doubt they do now.

Instead of focussing on the legality or otherwise of imperialist manoeuvres we must oppose them in principle. To fix on the legal question is tantamount to sifting through deliberately obtuse and skewed documents whilst whole populations are starved, bombarded or both. Rather, we need to focus on the dynamic towards war inherent in the global imperialist hierarchy of states under the sway of the US hegemon. This is the real elephant in the Chilcot room, not the question of legality. And it is a political question, not a legal one, as Monbiot would have us believe.

As argued by Mike Macnair back in 2003, a ‘law-governed world order’ based on the UN charter “fundamentally misunderstands the nature of law as a social institution, and as a result, international law” (‘The war and the lawWeekly Worker September 25 2003). Indeed, the very essence of ‘law’ and the ‘rule of law’ is the sanctity of private property and the associated inequality that comes with this. This is true of every ‘human rights’ document, treaty and declaration since the rise of the bourgeoisie as a force right through to the present day - from the English Petition of Right (1627) through to the European Union’s Charter of Rights.

Thus, the ‘rule of law’ is the very basis of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - not ‘bourgeois democracy’, as some think. So we have to think outside the parameters of this ‘legality’: A law-governed world order is not an alternative to US world domination: it is another form of US world domination.

The problem with STWC’s popular frontist approach is that it silences working class politics and voices in the coalition in favour of ‘respectable’ forces such as Monbiot and far worse - former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and senior Tory Michael Ancram have both spoken on STWC platforms.

Instead of challenging people’s desire to lock up Tony Blair, the STWC approach holds it up as some sort of solution - mirroring the sentiment and ideas spontaneously created in bourgeois society.

Blair is, of course, a repulsive individual. He is bereft of anything close to a coherent political ideology and is the incarnation of a generation of PR-savvy Labour politicians whose sole aim was to expand their career and pay packets. Frankly, following his utterly disdainful display at the Chilcot inquiry, many would not bat an eyelid if he was on the receiving end of a bullet to the head. But this is not the point. Focussing on him as a ‘war criminal’ who must be jailed is still playing within the rules of a bourgeois order that is rigged from the outset - skewed in favour of their property interests.

As such it is a distraction from what is actually needed - mass class opposition to imperialist war: agitating, educating and organising around the idea that stopping war is inseparable from challenging the state hierarchy and the rule of capital itself. This would require threatening the stability of the war government through organising in the armed forces as well as in workplaces, localities, etc. We are a long way from this, but campaigning to bring war criminals into the courts of the bourgeoisie will certainly not further this aim.

Back in 2003 when I, like tens of thousands of other young people, became radicalised for the first time around this question, marching with millions around us, the Stop the War movement could have made enormous steps forward. But one of the main slogans, ‘Blair must go!’ encapsulated the problems of political leadership. Instead of a real focus on the inherently corrupt and undemocratic British state and the way it had fallen in with the US war drive, things were personalised and thus trivialised. Instead of counterposing our mass democracy to their corruption and patronage, the most the STWC could offer us was replacing one prime minister with another.

This timid and uninspiring outlook missed a huge opportunity. We might not have been able to stop the Iraq war, but with patient organisation we just might have been in a better position to stop the next one that the imperialists have in mind. We might have had more to show from it than the wreckage of Respect and another round of disillusionment.

It is high time to break with this strategy. It is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - masked in pretensions to democracy, human rights and justice - that is criminal. We must fight it uncompromisingly.