Greasy Pole:Hoon or Buffoon?
Hoon or Buffoon?
It may not have been too clear to him, in those anxious days when he was wheedling his fellow Labour MPs to consign Gordon Brown to a future spending more time with his memoirs, but Geoff Hoon was not alone. One of the many ways in which the Labour Party is not unique is that its history is cluttered with such plots which failed through a crucial hesitation to dispose of a leader who is sheltering behind the ramparts of Number Ten. The problem for the plotters – as it was for Hoon and Patricia Hewitt – was that they could not argue that their leader was responsible for unacceptable levels of poverty, sickness, massive casualties in war; instead they had to rely on the single calculation about electoral liability. If Brown was able to show that the majority of workers will still vote Labour in spite of all the stresses they have to face there would simply not be grounds for conspiring to change the leadership. As it is, Hoon was left to argue that he has the ideas to make him more attractive electorally than Brown. So how does he match up to this?
To begin with – Hoon or Buffoon? A rigidly principled, sacrificial leader inspired by an all-dominating obsession with human welfare? Or another one of those tiresome temporary left-wingers who in their youthful exuberance traded on the assumption that within the universal horrors of capitalism there is a simple remedy – trust them with the power to socially massage us with those uncomplicated policies which sounded so convincing at Labour Party conferences but which are always rather more complex in what turns out to be practice? According to a Diary item in the Guardian of 8 January an old associate of Hoon’s, an MEP with him in 1984, recalls where he fitted in then: “His reputation was that of a smart arse know-all…He would use other people’s faces as a stepladder to get what he wanted”.
In the beginning Hoon had a lot going for him; the son of a railwayman he was the first person in his family to go to university – to Cambridge to study law – then a lecturer in law at Leeds University during which time he qualified as a criminal barrister. Years later his fellow Labour MP Chris Mullin could comment that “…everyone knows that, like all slick lawyers, he could make the opposite case with equal dexterity”. Thus usefully equipped he followed his time as an MEP by election to the Commons and in 1999 his first big job as Minister of Defence. Perhaps too big, for his time in that office was notable for the attack on Iraq and all the lies, betrayals and bigotry which are yet again being glimpsed, painfully and bitterly, in the Chilcott Enquiry. How did Hoon deal with the pillage, savagery and fear in that desperate place?
In tune with the other cowed dummies on the Labour benches front and back he satisfied himself with a robotic insistence that, whatever the facts the invasion was necessary because Iraq had developed weapons which under the control of Saddam Hussein, were an immediate threat to other countries. On the BBC Breakfast With Frost on 2 February 2003 he asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which “…present a real threat not only…to the people of Iraq and surrounding regions…but also to the safety and security of the world”. On 23 June 2003 he stated in a Written Answer to the Commons that two trailers had been observed in Iraq which were mobile weapons laboratories. In fact information had been passed to weapons inspectors and to Dr. David Kelly, the scientist whose death later in that year remains a source of menacing controversy, that the trailers were for inflating hydrogen balloons to be used in artillery ranging and had been sold to Iraq by the British company Marconi.
When it was suggested to him in an interview on BBC Radio 4 that an Iraqi mother whose child had been killed by one of the hundreds of cluster bombs which had been dropped there might not thank the British army Hoon dismissed the matter: “One day they might.” In October 2001, commenting on civilian casualties in the invasion of Afghanistan Hoon boasted about “the astonishing accuracy of the bombing” and when he was asked how it came about that in the small hamlet of Kumar as many as a hundred people had been killed he brushed the question aside as Kumar was “…not a village in any normal sense of the word”.
But “astonishing accuracy” was not a phrase used by Hoon when he was under pressure to explain some apparent discrepancies in his expense claims. These claims were completed, in a manner by now familiar, with a keen regard for detail with the popular “flipping” between one home and another but in this case with some individual embellishments. For example putting in a variety of claims for a whole year in advance for a home in Derbyshire (his constituency is at Ashfield) before stating that another house was his second home. For example when he was allocated – for security purposes – a luxurious rent-free grace-and-favour flat in Admiralty House he let out his other home in London which, as he had registered it as his main home, he had been allowed to claim for. When these affairs came to light Hoon said it had all been caused by an “inadvertent overlap in bill payments” or an “inadvertent administrative error”. Amid rumours of a possible police investigation he repaid £384.
Last October, as a former Defence Secretary, Hoon joined other callous and ruthless cynics from what are known as the great and the good at St. Paul’s Cathedral in a memorial service for the British service men and women killed in Iraq. It was a typically cruel display of the contempt in which the working class, who do the fighting and dying at such times, are held by their rulers. And Hoon, in case anyone had any wrong ideas about what was happening in that cathedral, and about what had happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and in all the other outrages in 21st century capitalism, contributed by checking his mobile phone during the service. There is, unhappily, no reason to hope that he received the kind of message which he and the others deserved.