As perhaps the most independently-minded member of Tony Blair’s fledgling Cabinet, Clare Short received no shortage of offers from news organisations to come onto their programmes in the hope that she would go off-message. “I used to get invitations every other day from the Today programme”, she says, “because they knew I wouldn’t fully defend everything the government did!”
It is nearly ten years since Short resigned her position as International Development Secretary over the decision to invade Iraq. Though she was persuaded by Tony Blair to vote in favour of the war having been assured that the UN would guarantee international co-operation – “a lie to stop me going at the same time as Robin [Cook]” – she left the government in May 2003, just two months later, wishing that she had voted against. “Of course it was a mistake, but the reasons I did it – which I took a lot of flak for – were good reasons”, she explains.
Prior to her resignation, Short had served for six years as head of the newly-created Department for International Development (DFID). She took up the position on the eve of the new millennium; just as a unique ‘humanitarian moment’ – the subject she will be tackling in her lecture at the University of Manchester on Wednesday – had emerged. “Suddenly, the old order had crumbled and we came along and said what we should do is develop the world much more evenly and fairly, give everyone a chance and make it much fairer and more sustainable”.
“I was very happy running my department and we showed the highly honourable role that Britain could have in the world… that was a very satisfying, good thing.” Despite the progress that she believes she made during her time in government, Short will argue that our international system is broken, due variously to a political leadership which “hasn’t got any answers”; a “distorted” United Nations which is “not functioning well”; and an unwillingness on the part of the world’s richest, most powerful nations to enact change.
Having left Parliament at the 2010 general election, Clare Short harbours as much political energy as ever, conveying genuine passion for a plethora of humanitarian issues. Even closed questions provoke defiantly-argued streams of consciousness, her well-made points consistently returning to the crux of her argument: that the ‘old order’ is out of ideas and that the world must be reshaped to promote positive development and sustainability rather than reckless defence spending which fuels war and injustice. “We need to shift the sense of Britain’s role in the world – we need to not just be America’s poodle but be an instrument of a more safe, sustainable, decent world order”, she suggests.
“At the moment I think we’re messing up big time. Throwing money at the military, looking for wars and creating a new enemy… it’s dangerous and it’s causing tension and conflict”. Meanwhile, she talks of international aid – “tiny compared with defence spending” at 0.5% of GDP – as a moral imperative, not to mention “a much better way of making the world safer and more sustainable”.
The sense of injustice which drives her outlook on the current geopolitical landscape is at least partially fuelled but her anger and sadness at being misled over Iraq. The now infamous decision to invade made “a hypocrisy of western rhetoric – if the US and UK can invade Iraq, why can’t Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait?” It fundamentally contributed, she laments, to “the crumbling of international law, which threatens all of us”.
“The response of the US to September 11 – so strongly supported by the UK and then with the EU coming along behind – was ludicrous”, she maintains. “Here was a man in a cave, and some fanatical men with bolt cutters who took over some aeroplanes and committed a terrible crime, but for the response to be an increase in military spending greater than at the height of the Cold War is not logical. The whole of international foreign policy went crazy… and the response exacerbated the problem”.
Short is unequivocal that the somewhat overzealous War on Terror heightened instability in the region; in February 2003, she warned Tony Blair that the aftermath of a war in Iraq could be bloody and costly. “I don’t think any of us envisaged it being as bad as it was, and is indeed”, she admits nonetheless.
It is no secret that Short endured a fractious relationship with then-Prime Minister Blair throughout his premiership and, three years after leaving the government, she finally burned her bridges with the New Labour leadership. In a scathing newspaper article, Short attacked the man who had “so dishonoured the Labour Party”, lambasting Blair for “helping to make the world a more dangerous place”. Perhaps, then, she would like to see the architects of the Iraq War face trial for orchestrating a campaign which, according to some estimates, cost the lives of a million people?
“Well, at Nuremberg one of the charges was ‘crimes against peace’, and it is literally a crime against peace.” Yet, “there’s absolutely no prospect of [such a trial]. If that had been likely, Blair wouldn’t have done it. To get to the point where such a law was enforced firmly on everyone, we’d make the world safer, but I’m afraid we’re not there yet”.
The irony of Blair’s current role as Middle East Peace Envoy surely doesn’t escape Clare Short, and it is unsurprising that he has failed to make any tangible progress on the peace process thus far. A long-serving campaigner for the Palestinian cause, Short calls the Israel-Palestine conflict, “the Apartheid of our time, the great wrong in current historical events” – a situation that “has repercussions right through the world system”. It is, quite simply, “a question of standing up for international law”.
“Obama has been a big disappointment on this, and some other things – although of course if I was American I’d vote for him. He couldn’t even deliver getting Israel to stop expanding its settlement so that peace talks could go on. It’s pathetic.”
Today, Short’s time is dominated by humanitarian work in regions such as Palestine. As such, she all but discounts a return to full-time politics, yet refuses to rule out the possibility of joining another party. She wouldn’t be interested in defecting “as things stand”, she says. “But I’m a social democrat and most of the Labour Shadow Cabinet aren’t, it seems to me”.
“In terms of our voting options, we’re bereft as a nation. The Labour Party never sorted itself out post-Iraq, and remains damaged by that. Ed Miliband is a good thing, but he’s got lots of Blairites around him and he’s living in this media politics… which constrains everything. If he doesn’t play the game, the media is on his case every day. There are a lot of people around him who think Blair is the best thing since sliced bread”.
The result? “He’s got a problem because they all become unhappy and they all brief against him and then the media goes against him – so he’s in a kind of corset”.
Like Miliband, Short herself has been targeted by a baying tabloid press. In 1986, she began a campaign against The Sun’s infamous Page 3, “the endless repetition of which turns all young women into objects and distorts, I think, the human sexuality in a way that’s damaging to everybody.” Short was unprepared for the campaign that followed. An angry Murdoch press lashed out in an attempt to quash her objection; this was “the deliberate use of the power of the press to silence [me]”.
“The News of the World tried to destroy me, and that is pretty frightening. There were people in the House of Commons who said to me – there was one MP who said to me – ‘I’d commit suicide’. And when it’s happening it’s bloody horrible, it’s terrifying. You don’t eat much, you lose weight, and you think ‘what the hell am I going to do’? They really went everywhere – every weekend job, every boyfriend I’d had anything to do with”.
“I came through it in one piece”, she says as if to dismiss the point she has just made. But is a shocking revelation, and one which resonates as we await the verdict of the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics.
Short remains a controversial figure. Just as one Labour Party member I speak to calls her “one of the most respectable politicians around”, the very mention of her name to a second immediately elicits the response “traitor”. Whatever your position, her outlook on the world is refreshing.
“We need a really deep debate about the current international order, the economic crisis, and the way out that isn’t taking place because of the focus group, polling-type domination of our politics”. It is a plea for a rethink, and an indication that Clare Short will continue to challenge the status quo.
Clare Short is the keynote speaker at the HCRI Inaugural Annual Lecture on Wednesday 26 September. To reserve your place at this free event – taking place at 5.30pm in University Place, Lecture Theatre A – visit www.hcriclareshort.eventbrite.com