Diary of a Nobody

Mike Phipps reviews See How They Run, by Geoff Hoon, published by Unicorn

Geoff Hoon, some may remember, was Tony Blair’s Defence Secretary at the time of the Iraq war. He’s now written a memoir about his life in politics. On the book’s cover, a Tory MP describes it as “beautifully written”. It really isn’t.

Hoon has been in the headlines in recent days for his book’s big revelation:  that, as Defence Secretary, he was told to burn a memo from the Attorney General that cast doubt on the legality of the Iraq war. The Attorney General’s opinion on the war fell far short of the outright endorsement the prime minister wanted and Blair’s office was terrified of it being leaked into the public domain. It’s a mildly interesting revelation, and possibly Hoon’s revenge on Blair for the shabby way he feels he was treated when he was sacked by telephone a couple of years later.

The book follows the conventional autobiographical timeline. Born into a family of deferential working class conservatives in a Derbyshire town, Hoon was bright, read Law at Cambridge, but claims to have had little interest in university politics, despite being elected president of the undergraduates at his college, joining Labour only as an academic in Leeds.

He was a candidate in the elections to the European elections in 1984 during the historic miners’ strike in a seat where the breakaway anti-strike Union of Democratic Miners had some strength. He was asked what he thought about the dispute. “I waffled away,” he writes, “desperate to avoid saying anything that could offend either side.”

Throughout the book, he comes across as a man of no firm beliefs. As a student, he is overawed by the privately educated elite; as a politician, by his colleagues with experience of big-city politics; even by Neil Kinnock’s oratory. So this memoir is not really about ideas, but of presence: he went here, he went there. There’s a whole chapter about a parliamentary trip to China, another about a visit to the US. It’s pedestrian stuff.

Elected as an MP in 1992, he rose quickly through the ministerial ranks under Blair to become Defence Secretary in 1999. Banal observations follow: “Britain can count itself fortunate in having such clever and capable people at the top of its armed forces. I often wondered why they seemed so much better than their counterparts in other similar countries.”

Hoon also praises the top civil servants in the Ministry of Defence. But it’s clear from his account of a financial turf war with the Treasury that he was arguably as much their puppet as their master.

Like Blair, Hoon’s paternalistic complacency about British superiority became a military crusade within hours of 9/11. For all his talk about exporting the rule of law, he was enthusiastic about a full-scale attack on Afghanistan. To do this, it was necessary to use bases in neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan, a nightmarish dictatorship, which had, Hoon contends, “a very controlled form of democracy” (!), later adding that the President “had something of a reputation for boiling his opponents in oil.” Such were the West’s allies in its ‘war on terror’.

Then in 2003 came the invasion of Iraq. Hoon now recognises that Saddam Hussein “probably” did not have any stocks or programmes for developing chemical or biological weapons, but the thing is, you see, almost everyone believed he did. “It was this confusion that led to the allegation that the war was fought on a lie.” Yes, it’s as pathetic as that.

At the time, Labour’s Defence Secretary was busy spreading this confusion. On 23rd June 2003, Hoon, following a briefing given to the United Nations by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, continued to claim that two trailers found in Iraq were mobile weapons laboratories. This was despite the fact that it had been leaked to the press by weapons inspectors that they were actually for filling hydrogen balloons for artillery ranging and were sold to Iraq by a British company, Marconi.

It is still hard to comprehend the scale of devastation wrought by Western intervention in Iraq. As I wrote recently: “37,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the first eight months alone. Up to 6,000 people were killed in early 2004 in the aerial bombardment of Fallujah, a city still suffering from a higher than normal level of birth defects and cancers as a result of the munitions used. Over a million may have perished in the conflict as a whole.”

Hoon was horribly blasé about the effects of the campaign at the time. Following an admission by the Ministry of Defence that Britain had dropped 50 airborne cluster bombs in the south of Iraq and left behind up to 800 unexploded bomblets, it was put to Hoon in a Radio 4 interview that an Iraqi mother of a child killed by these cluster bombs would not thank the British Army. He replied, “One day they might.” In his memoir, he paraphrases that unbelievably insensitive answer and softens it considerably.

In any event, Hoon has his excuses lined up. If things went wrong, it was down to poor US policy decisions and “the scale of Iraqi expectations.” Even when confronted with allegation of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers, and shown video footage seeming to demonstrate this, he expresses shock – not at the evidence – but because “counsel for the Inquiry was trying to catch me out by staging a theatrical stunt.”

Much later, a 180-page report by the International Criminal Court would detail how hundreds of Iraqi detainees were abused by British soldiers between 2003 and 2009. At least seven were killed in British custody between April and September 2003, while others were raped. Just recently, the Guardian reported, “The Ministry of Defence has quietly settled 417 Iraq compensation claims and paid out several million pounds to resolve accusations that British troops subjected Iraqis to cruel and inhumane treatment, arbitrary detention or assault.”

Hoon was demoted in 2005 and from then on the tone of his book becomes distinctly sulky. Under Gordon Brown’s premiership, he eventually ended up as Secretary of State for Transport, where he became an enthusiast for Heathrow expansion, seemingly regarding most of his opponents as hypocrites. Sacked by Brown in 2009, he became involved early in 2010 in a plot to oust the prime minister. This led to a backlash in his constituency party and bowing to pressure, Hoon announced he was standing down at the upcoming election.

But it wasn’t quite over yet. Hoon was one of the MPs named in the 2010 sting operation on political lobbying by the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, telling an undercover reporter that he wanted to translate his knowledge and contacts into something that “frankly makes money”. He was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party, and in December was banned from having an ex-members pass. The Standards and Privileges Committee banned Hoon for a minimum five years for his breach of standards.  Hoon’s defence here that he thought he was having a private conversation is pretty lame.

Making money was exactly what he went on to do – as Managing Director of International Business at helicopter-maker AgustaWestland, where perhaps his knowledge and contacts built up at the Ministry of Defence would have come in handy.

The purpose of this book is harder to discern. Most of the observations about Blair, Brown and other colleagues are trite and unoriginal, as are his ruminations on the current state of the Labour Party. Perhaps Hoon realises that he has had a bad press over the years and wrote this memoir to buff his reputation. Buff Hoon? Not my epithet: one of his colleagues coined that soubriquet years ago.

Maybe the aim of this book is to prod those with the power to do so to give him a gong – although not for literature, obviously. Given the kind of people they are dishing out knighthoods to these days, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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