Greasy Pole: Goldsmith gives up
Anyone who has been caught robbing a bank, or shoplifting, or fiddling the books, should be aware that we live in a property society where some people own a great deal of that property while others own very little – or even nothing at all. This arrangement has an obvious potential for provoking some kind of enviously rebellious behaviour by the people who don’t own very much trying to grab a bit more. But this is not so easy for them; to prevent this, or at least to hold it in check, there is something called The Law. While it may sound very simple, especially to the owners, essentially The Law has been developed, inflated and cosmeticised over centuries so that it now has to be a huge, unwieldy instrument in which any law is divided in Sections and Subsections and then Subsections of Subsections and so on, so that in the end it can be understood by only a few people. These are, understandably, called lawyers.
There has to be an expectation that lawyers are not only very clever but are also driven by an unwavering morality which ensures that they obey to the letter the Laws which they have either written or have to work with. As an incentive to do this they have arranged themselves into a hierarchy which, in theory at any rate, permits the cleverest and the most honest to earn the right to be called funny names like the Common Sergeant or Master of the Rolls or, at the very top, the Lord Chief Justice. Any lawyer who professionally diverts into politics can, with a proper mixture of flattery, back-stabbing and arm twisting, claw their way up to become Attorney General.
This is a job whose origins are buried somewhere in darkest mediaeval England. Francis Bacon, who knew a thing or two, described it as “the painfullest task in the realm” – which is a bit different from the opinion of Lord Goldsmith, who recently resigned from the job after having : “…an extremely interesting and challenging time” there. Goldsmith was referring, in a lawyer’s typically mannered style, to the problems inherent in the Attorney General being expected to work as both a politician and the minister responsible for the way in which The Law works in protecting property rights. In theory The Law is capable of being applied impartially, insulated from any pressure from the politicians but, as Goldsmith found, reality is rather different. So what happened to him? Why did he resign? Why was he the subject of such media interest?
Well what “happened” was Iraq. The end of the 1991 Gulf War was marked by a Security Council resolution setting out obligations which Iraq had to meet under the terms of the ceasefire. Any breach of those obligations would lead to a resumption of hostilities. When, in 2003, the Bush government were preparing to invade Iraq again the question was whether there had been such a breach and, if there had been, whether a second United Nations resolution would be required before another war could be launched. Although it was clear that the United States was implacably set on another war the Blair government wanted legal justification in order to join in. The problem of finding it landed in Goldsmith’s in tray.
His first opinion, on 7 March 2003, was that it was doubtful a court would agree another war would be legal unless it had been supported by a second Security Council resolution so that the “safest legal course” would be to win such a resolution. This was, of course, not at all the kind of “advice” Blair was looking for. On 13 March 2003, the day after the military had urged Downing Street for a decision on whether they could start another bloodbath in the Middle East, Goldsmith was called to a conference with some of Blair’s closest allies, among them the prime minister’s old lawyer chum Lord Falconer. It is not known whether this meeting had any influence on him but on 20 March 2003 Goldsmith, ignoring his former reservations, revealed that in his opinion the war would be legal; let the slaughter commence. It must have been a great relief to the soldiers and the civilians killed in Iraq to know that they died legally and that world rulers were so meticulous in ensuring it should be so.
And then there has been the affair of BAE, the Al-Yamamah arms deal and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. BAE is one of the world’s great arms firms, with an established reputation for ruthlessness in ensuring that nothing, including scruples about bribing prospective buyers, should stand in the way of selling its death-dealing wares. In this they are not alone. As Denis Healey, once a Labour Defence Secretary, notorious for his readiness to trumpet embarrassing truths, put it:
“Bribery has always played a role in the sale of weapons. In the Middle East people wouldn’t buy weapons unless you bribed them to do so- and that was particularly true in Saudi Arabia.” (The Guardian 8 June 2007).
So did bribery play a part when, in 1985, BAE signed up to sell £43 bn. worth of Tornado and Hawk aircraft, with sundry other weapons, to the Saudi government? This deal, labelled Al-Yamamah (which touchingly translates as “dove”) was lubricated on its way partly through an “oil for weapons” arrangement and partly through a payment of £1bn to Prince Bandar.
Growing up from humble beginnings in which his mother was a servant to a Saudi royal, the Prince became a close friend of many world leaders, notably the Bush family in America. He acquired a huge estate in rural Oxfordshire near an RAF base where he could land the personal airbus which BAE had bought him and continues to pay to run. The snag with this cosy arrangement is that such deals have been, in theory at any rate, illegal in both Britain and America for some years. Bandar excused his part on the grounds that it had the “ express approval of both Saudi and United Kingdom governments” but the protests of this “colourful” man noted for his “charm and dash” (opinions held by, unsurprisingly, BAE salespeople) were not weighty enough to prevent investigation of the deal by the Serious Fraud Office.
But Bandar need not have worried, since it was highly unlikely that the British government would allow an investigation which, as Blair said, “…would have involved the most serious allegations and investigation being made of the Saudi royal family”. It would also have killed off the chance of any further arms orders from Saudi Arabia and hampered BAE’s ambitions to move into the market in the USA. The interests of the British arms industry demanded that the SFO investigation be stopped. And whose job was that? Who was likely to do it with the necessary unflinching readiness to employ subterfuge and lies with a cold disregard for the lives of the people who were to be killed by the weapons? Step forward, as the tabloid papers put it, Lord Goldsmith.
There were other questions – who, if anyone, is to be prosecuted in the “cash for honours” scandal, Goldsmith’s refusal to publish his own advice on whether British soldiers in Iraq were entitled to torture detainees – in which his malleable attitude to what might be called his principles and to what is called the inherent morality of The Law caused the government to be uncomfortably exposed. As the day of Blair’s resignation drew closer, Goldsmith looked more and more like a convenient scapegoat for a desperate government. After all, it would not do for it to be revealed to the working class that the confinement and repressions of the law are designed to discipline them into their inferior place in capitalist society. Knowing that he would not outlast a Brown takeover, Goldsmith wisely left before he could be sacked. But he does not need our comfort; as a successful commercial lawyer before joining the government he will effortlessly slip back into the affluent life style merited by one who has served capitalism so devotedly.