My first glimpse of Clare Short’s face across the hotel lobby sparks a rush of the sort of affection ordinarily reserved for a much-loved, long-lost aunt. It catches me by surprise, and makes no sense, for this is only the second time we have met. The first was in the spring of 2010, when Short was preparing to stand down from parliament after 27 years. For many women of my generation, she had always been a political hero, and I remember finding it hard to picture Westminster without her.
And then it was as if she[Iraq] is an ongoing tragedy, an [entire] country that’s been let down. So compared to the enormity of that, [the personal tragedy for] Blair or me is nothing. simply vanished. For the former member for Birmingham Ladywood, there has been no political afterlife as Lady Short or as a media pundit, and when I ask which colleagues she has remained close to, she says lightly: “Oh, I haven’t kept in touch with people particularly, nor they [with] me.” Surely there must be the occasional call for a chat with an old political friend? “No, I’ve just told you. Never.” Save “the odd meeting”, she hasn’t even returned to the building where she spent more than quarter of a century. “I don’t particularly like going back. There’s no point in hanging around, like a spectator.” All political careers, she smiles ruefully, end in failure. Would she include hers? “Well, yes.”
As Secretary of State for International Development, Short had been one of the surprise success stories of the 1997 New Labour government. If she had resigned in protest before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, her popularity might have endured to this day. But having announced that she would resign, Short allowed Tony Blair to seduce her with false promises of a dazzling UN-led reconstruction plan for postwar Iraq, and she changed her mind. She says the gravity of the situation eclipsed any personal considerations of reputational damage, but I suspect the vitriol she incurred was a shock from which she has never fully recovered.
“I know I brought loads of flak on myself. There was some kind of twist or spin that I was being very arrogant, that I thought only I could make [the reconstruction plan] work. And that’s not true. But I think I respect myself for making that decision, because if it had worked, things would have been massively better.” It didn’t, of course, and two months later she walked out of office. If Iraq was the great tragedy of Blair’s career, it was also, Short concedes, the tragedy of hers. “But it’s an ongoing tragedy for lots of people who are dead, and a country that’s let down. So compared to the enormity of that, Blair or me are nothing.”
Except Short argues no prime minister should be at liberty to bypass cabinet by confining intelligence and influence to a favoured inner circle. that both are about to be pitched back into the spotlight one more time. Early next month, John Chilcot will finally publish his report on Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq. For years, the war’s critics have been impatient for Chilcot’s conclusions, but if any assume that Short shares their enthusiasm, they are mistaken. “I don’t think anyone’s even going to read it,” she scoffs witheringly. “Except perhaps historians. Do you know, it’s longer than all the Harry Potter books put together?”
Short’s brusque dismissal of the Chilcot report can be interpreted in two ways. Like everyone else criticised by the inquiry’s interviewees, Short was shown extracts relevant to herself. Her critique can therefore be read as a defensive attempt at rebuttal – or as the verdict of someone who knows what she is talking about.
“I thought,” she says of the extracts she read, “it was terrible. It was deeply underwhelming, and not well informed. It had lost the plot on what it was meant to do. It was going over meeting after meeting, and second-guessing what I or someone else should have said at that meeting. The person who had written it – well, I don’t believe this is John Chilcot, because he is a very bright guy.
“What the report should have been,” she argues, “is an account of what was wrong with the decision-making process, and of what needs to be changed in the British constitutional arrangement, so that such things can’t happen again. Because actually, the same thing happened in Suez. The informality in the British constitution means that it can be captured and misused, so I think that’s what the report should have been about. I think the whole focus should be on what’s to be done so this can never happen again.”
The report Short had hoped for, butI’m not saying antisemitism doesn’t exist. But I’m saying I do not believe there is a problem with antisemitism in the Labour party. does not expect, would call for “the whole constitutional status of the attorney general to be changed. It should cease to be [an] appointment of the prime minister, and member of the government, because if the prime minister appoints his mate to go in the Lords and then be the attorney general, he’s got a lot of capacity to lean on him, and that’s not right. The House of Commons should have its own legal ability to take legal opinions on international law when war is contemplated.”
Similarly, she argues, no prime minister should be at liberty to bypass cabinet by confining intelligence and influence to a favoured inner circle. “There should be some strict and stern recommendations that mean such informality can’t be the way of making decisions in the future.”
If the “gossip” she has heard is accurate, Chilcot’s report will blame many different parties – not just government ministers or legal advisers, but civil servants, army commanders, intelligence officers. “And if you’re blaming everyone, you’re not really holding anyone to account.” But if she believes Blair should be tried for war crimes in the Hague, she won’t say.
“Well, it’s not going to happen. I know a lot of people keep calling for him to be taken to the international criminal courts, but because of the provisions of the international courts, that’s not going to happen.” Does she think it should? “I think if we lived in a world where international law was enforced, it would be a better world. But we don’t.” In that better world, would Blair be indicted? “Well, in that world he wouldn’t have done it, would he? That’s the point. You’re trying to say that I would like him to go to the Hague, and I’m not saying that, because it’s completely out of the question. We don’t live in a world where we’ve got that kind of international criminal accountability, and if we did, he wouldn’t have done it.”
Short is a curious mixture of candour and caution. In 2006, she resigned the Labour whip, serving out her final years on opposition benches as an independent MP. Not once has she contemplated rejoining, and she says she never will. Yet whereas she can still be oddly cagey over a question as harmless as: “If she had a daughter, would she recommend a parliamentary career to her?”, on far more contentious subjects she can be dauntlessly frank.
The investigation Jeremy Corbyn has commissioned into antisemitism within Labour will find absolutely nothing to corroborate the charge, Short states emphatically. “There’s lots of good writing by lots of organisations, including Jewish organisations, saying what a load of nonsense it is. Just allegations and smearing. There is not a current of antisemitism. I’ve lived girl and woman inside and around the Labour party, and the people who are critical of Israel’s policy – and of course, lots of Jews are part of that movement of criticism – don’t say ‘Jews are horrible.’”
The memory of arriving in Leeds as an undergraduate and hearing “a drunken man at the bus stop singing a song about ‘Hitler was right’ still haunts her. “So, I’m not saying antisemitism doesn’t exist. But I’m saying, no, I do not believe there is a problem with antisemitism in the Labour party.
“It’s not to say,” she goes on, “that there might not be people who’ve said antisemitic things. I haven’t heard them, but I find it believable that they clumsily go from their critique of Israeli policy to saying things that are antisemitic. But there isn’t a big climate of antisemitism, there isn’t. It’s just not true.”
Unlike most Labour members currently accused of antisemitism, Short has never described herself as an anti-Zionist. Despite this, she says: “Anyone who is persistently loyal to the Palestinian cause and critical of Israeli policy has been smeared as an antisemite. That’s been going on for a long time. I mean, they did it to me years ago. And it culminated and became a public issue just before the [London] mayoral election, interestingly – and now it’s all gone quiet.”
She did wince at “clumsy Ken” Livingstone’s comments about Hitler and Zionism days before the mayoral election, but insists the allegation of Labour antisemitism was an orchestrated lie. “I’m certain it was organised. I mean, it’s a matter of record that Israel is very worried about the boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions, and has organisations that try to change opinion. These people use antisemitism as a smear to prevent a fair critique of Israeli policy.”
Were she still an MP, Short says she would be happy to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and thinks the parliamentary Labour party has “behaved disgracefully”, with senior MPs flouncing off to the backbenches. A Labour majority at the next election is out of the question – “because 40 seats were lost in Scotland, and even if the archangel Gabriel was the leader,Were she still an MP, Short says she would be happy to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and thinks the parliamentary Labour party has “behaved disgracefully”, with senior MPs flouncing off to the backbenches. they bloody cannot win” – but the Tories could, nonetheless, lose. In a coalition with the Scots and Welsh nationalists, the Greens and the Lib Dems, she claims she can see Corbyn in No 10. “Not in the Blair/Cameron sort of image of a prime minister, but more like Harold Wilson.”
Even now, Short still seems to be an indomitable idealist. Although “not a fan” of Hillary Clinton – “Well, she’s a neo-con really, isn’t she?” – she simply cannot believe the US would elect Donald Trump. Nor can she see how we could conceivably vote to leave the EU next week. “I have this intuition that it’s a bit like the 1992 election, when all the polls said Labour was going to win.” Since leaving Westminster, Short has done unglamorous work chairing an organisation promoting more accountable extraction of natural resources, and another working with urbanisation and slums.
When I call her two days after we meet, she has just got home on the Eurostar from Brussels, and hasn’t heard the news about Jo Cox. She absorbs my account in shocked silence, but is alert to the mention of mental illness. “This is just awful. I’m so sorry. But we’ve got this pattern, haven’t we? Very unstable, lone-wolfy kind of people think it makes them big and important [to attach their grievance to a cause]. But in Orlando it looks like, really, the man was mentally unstable and screwed up about his sexuality. Yet everyone reads everything as big politics, and we are in a hysterical time.”
When the IRA was bombing Britain, she reflects, everyone made a point of remaining calm – “because we knew they wanted us to get hysterical. But then you get Charlie Hebdo, and all the leaders of the world have to go to Paris. It’s the wrong response, just like the war on terror was the wrong response.”
When she thinks back to the eve of the Iraq war, and recalls her worst fears, did she picture anything like the world as it is today? “No. I knew it would be bad and shameful. I thought it would bring terrible suffering to the people of Iraq, and be terrible for Britain. But I didn’t see it spreading all over the Middle East. I didn’t see this. No, I didn’t know how bad it would be.”