Clare Short’s failure to resign before the Iraq War drew criticism yet this week she was applauded after giving evidence at the Chilcot Inquiry.
For once, the timing couldn’t have been better. It wasn’t just, as Clare Short points out, that the Chilcot inquiry gave her a full three hours, “so I could say the whole thing”; it was also that she’s standing down at the next election, and “it felt really good to go out and sit there and say my piece, put it on the record,” before she leaves.
And say it she did, with demotic directness: Tony Blair had conned her. The attorney general misled the cabinet – which, in any case, consisted of informal cups of coffee, rubber-stamping, and backbiting. The idea that she might be sending people into an illegal situation had “thrown her into a tizz”. Britain should be ashamed of its behaviour, and the special relationship urgently needed to be rethought. It was a potent brew of inside information, scornful conviction, and plain speaking, and at the end, for only the second time in the last nine weeks, the audience clapped.
How was that? I ask, in her office on the ground floor of Portcullis House, the next day. “It was nice – but I wasn’t playing for that.” She’s had “hundreds of extremely nice emails,” she says, and has been congratulated in the street – but she knows that there were also those who said, “Oh, it’s Clare Short mouthing off again. Who listens to her?” And when she came back to parliament? “Well, for quite a long time the very New Labour New Labour people have averted their gaze when I’ve walked past. I’m not a paranoid person, but I think there was a bit more of that yesterday.”
Settling into an armchair, she averts her own eyes, addressing the window, and the Thames. Perhaps because she turns out, in person, to have an unexpected sense of mischief, and a sudden, warm smile, the chewed-up, Birmingham-truculent voice and the battle-ready face feel far less dominant than on TV.
Short had already attracted outraged opinion before her decision not to resign on the eve of the Iraq war – her brusque dismissal of volcano-stricken Montserratians who would be “wanting golden elephants next” comes to mind – but that was nothing compared to what she has been subjected to since. This is partly because she seemed to have such principled objections, and, as the well-respected founding leader of the Department for International Development, seemed such a positive force in the world: fighting debt relief and driving development up the agenda.
Two letters, addressed to Blair on 14 February and 5 March 2003, and declassified this week, only underline the misgivings she had to swallow by staying; they also have a prophetic ring. “Situation of the Iraqi people already extremely fragile. Any disruption could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe,” begins the first. “Explicit UN mandate essential for the UN and others to legally engage on the reconstruction of Iraq,” says the second. On 9 March 2003, she was asked by the BBC whether she would resign if there was a war without a UN mandate. “Oh, absolutely,” she answered. “There’s no question about that.” On 17 March Robin Cook resigned, to applause in the house. She did not.
Why? “I’ve explained this 10,000 times! Do you want me to do it all again?” I wait, and so she does, sing-songing with exasperation – Blair calling her in, persuading her personally, promising a) a second resolution, b) the publishing of a Middle East road map, c) a UN lead on the reconstruction of Iraq. “I got lots of flack, but I still think that if those things had been done, the Middle East would be in a totally different place! And then it became apparent, after not very long, that he was just manipulating. And that’s the story. And I’m not ashamed of it. I mean, if I’d just wanted to be popular, I just would have gone. I WISH he hadn’t conned me. I WISH he’d really meant it, but goodness knows, he is persuasive – and you DON’T want, in the teeth of a war, to believe your prime minister is simply manipulating you.”
It is heartfelt, and believable – both in ways she intends, and in ways she presumably doesn’t, because there is an entirely human vanity in it too. Blair, caught between the American juggernaut and her entirely reasonable objections, flattered her sense of doing good, of changing the world, to get her to stay onside. And she fell for it –which accounts for the note of distinctly personal betrayal. She has more in common with Blair, too, than she thinks – in her Chilcot appearance it was striking how blame and perfidy and mistakes lie anywhere but at her door. Her particular problem is that history has proved her instincts right, but it has also, in the form of her failure to resign earlier, robbed her of the moral high ground: in the coercive public narrative of these things, something more complicated than blame is required.
Also striking, however, is her real belief, born of a 1960s childhood, of coming to power in a shortlived window between the cold war and the “war on terror”, that large-scale changes for the good were possible, and that she could help bring them about. It seems rather naive now, but also rather moving.
Short traces much of what she is to her upbringing – the second of seven children born to a Catholic schoolteacher father from County Armagh. He was a radical critic of establishment and sympathetic to those on the receiving end of British imperial instincts. In an era of signs that read “No blacks no coloureds no Irish” she recalls him chastising other Irish people who made racist comments, and going to the aid of pupils’ families made homeless by slum landlord Peter Rachman.
Her mother was “potato-famine Irish,” from the poor area of Birmingham in which Short grew up, and a “very committed Catholic – a generous, liberation theology-type Catholic.” Until she was 14 or so Clare was just as devout, going to mass each morning, joining the Legion of Mary, visiting old ladies.
“You had to work out what was right and wrong, you had to try and be a good person, if you behaved wrongly and were truly sorry you could be forgiven. It made you more than just a selfish greedy little person.”
Although Catholic teaching on contraception, for example, soon left her cold, those instincts remained, and “I put all that moral yearning and [need for] belonging to something structured into the Labour party. From the 1970s on, it was my core moral thing”. When, in 2006, she finally resigned the Labour whip, it was this aspect that crossed her mind. “I thought, ‘Oh no! I’m going to lapse again’!”
She was shaped, too, by her large family. “It’s very hard on mum, giving birth to and taking care of all these people. But this turbulent, argumentative, loving, honest way of being was how we grew up.” Then again, “Do you remember [Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World? And there was some chap in it where Huxley wrote that they’d put too much alcohol in his test tube? And he was a bit – broke the rules, do you remember? I used to say it as a joke. I think there was a bit too much alcohol in my test tube.”
Her combination of self-belief and iconoclasm was evident as soon as she joined the house, 27 years ago. Nine days later, according to a recent Archive on 4, a BBC reporter asked her what she had made of the investiture of the new Speaker. “It’s silly,” she replied. “I found it embarrassing and I actually left. I thought afterwards maybe I should have had more humility. But it was long-winded, and I had a lot to do.” A couple of weeks later she stood up in the Commons and suggested that Alan Clark, then defence minister, was drunk at the dispatch box.
“It’s quite extraordinary that I ended up in the cabinet,” she says now, “because I’ve always gone on like I go on. But I’m hard-working, and I’m not stupid, and I do mean it. And I’d stand for election and people would vote for me, for those reasons. In opposition, we elected the shadow cabinet. And we used to elect the national executive in an open election. And then in government, the prime minister appoints. I would never have got appointed in government. The kind of people who get promoted now the party’s in power are a different kind of people.”
When she was elected as MP, at the Labour nadir of 1983, only 23 out of 650 MPs were women. “The hours went late, and if anyone said breast cancer they’d all giggle, you know.” She laughs. “But they’re so silly that I must say I never found them intimidating.”
She says she found the media more hurtful: the comments about her appearance; the backlash against her campaign to end Page Three; an incident where the News of the World trawled through her private life, looking for evidence of a criminal boyfriend. And the boyfriend existed? “Oh yes, he existed. So you’ve got it all. I mean, the Serious Crime Squad were powerful and very deviant – it was pretty scary.” She laughs again. “I didn’t sleep for a bit and lost weight and all that.”
There was a radical change of tone when, in October 1996, she announced that she had been reunited with the son she had given up for adoption 31 years previously. Becoming pregnant at 18, she did what many Catholic girls would have done and gave the baby up for adoption (“When they came to take him it was terrible,” she said once. “It’s been terrible ever since.”) She married the boy’s father, but the marriage didn’t last. The fact that when her son came looking for her, her second husband had just died after years of struggling with Alzheimer’s, gave the event added poignancy. When she made her official announcement to the press, even passing lorry drivers shouted good luck.
She was at one point linked to Mo Mowlam’s widower, but she is single now. When I ask what price she has paid for her commitment to politics she answers: “I was going to say a family, but then I was the one who was with my mum. Of that seven. My dad and mum came to live with me when he was ill and then he died in my house [her mother died two years ago] – and then of course, my own children thing … that is so peculiar.”
When Short finally resigned from cabinet, two months after the war began, it was her third resignation from office on a point of principle. “Loyalty is a good quality,” she says, “but loyalty to something that’s wrong is not good.” Moreover, she argues, loyalty to a party as she understands it no longer exists. “The way you band people together to get loyalty is to let everyone have a fair stab at speaking and arguing, and then vote. The excuse now is a divided party will never win, you can’t have arguments, it’ll be in the media. Something profound is lost.”
She thinks the only way to get it back is if we get a hung parliament in the next election. “Power will flow back to the Commons, and flow back to the cabinet. I think that will be much healthier.”
When she resigned, on that day in 2003, how did it feel? Calling Blair was tricky, she says, and there were tears when she left her department. “But this pulling away – all these people who had been, ‘Please, will you come to my constituency and speak at this dinner, please Clare, please,’ suddenly averting their eyes as they passed you in the corridor was a bit of a shock. So I was very much … alone. And I’m quite a social person.
“And then I thought I’d make speeches in the Commons, and join up with people who shared the critique, and we might be able to rescue the Labour party, the same at the Labour party conference – but I found that the poor old Labour party, most of its democracy had been crushed. So that was my first instinct – that good people would gather together and sort things out. But that, sadly, could not be.”
I suggest that people often feel completely confounded when they lose something so absorbing; so much of their selves are bound up in what they do – “actually, I’m feeling that now,” says Short. “Because then, I had my constituency. Which is needy. I’m conscious that that will go. And in a way it’s a burden, and in another way it’s a meaning. Even in the worst of times politically you’re still doing something human that matters.”