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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

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Ed Balls: anti-war in retrospect

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Sunday, 21 June 2009 at 02:47 pm
In the fuss over Ed Balls, the Education Secretary, seeming to disagree with the Prime Minister over the openness of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, a more important bit of positioning seems to have been missed. After Balls said, on ITV1 This Morning last Wednesday, "the more open we can be about all of these things, the better", Fern Britton asked him: 

Tell me honestly, were you pro or anti the war?
Ed Balls: Well I… I at the time was at the Treasury and working on the finances and the budgets and all those kind of things.  But to be honest, there was a really important principle here, which was that there was a man called Saddam Hussein who the international community said had to be very clear and comply with international law, and he refused time and time again.  Now personally, in retrospect, you look back and think, ‘actually we ought to have tried for longer and harder to really force him to open up’.  But the fact was, he was flouting international law, and in the end you can’t…
But the document that was sexed up, that said ‘he does have weapons of mass destruction'
Ed Balls: Sure.
…that he can deploy them in 45 minutes’, that has now been destroyed.
Ed Balls: And Hans Blix, who at the time was the inspector from the UN, was saying we should take more time.  And if you ask my view, in retrospect, you look back, they should have taken more time to try and really get the evidence.  On the other hand…
Well we had a bloody long war and we didn’t find them.
Ed Balls: On the other hand, he was an evil dictator who was doing terrible things and flouting international law, and there can be no respect for the international community if the international community doesn’t act when dictators are just ignoring what everybody else in the world says has got to be done.

At this point Phillip Schofield, Britton's co-presenter asked:

So you think that evidence, more evidence, should have been gathered before we went to war – is that what you’re saying?

Ed Balls: I was asked when I was a candidate in 2005 whether I supported the war and the answer is yes.  And I’ve never been…
But is that because you supported the Government?
Ed Balls: Well both because I supported the Government, because I wasn’t an MP at the time, but also…
Our house was split.  My wife said, ‘this is no way we should be going into this, there is no way’, and I said, ‘listen, they must know stuff we don’t know so therefore I’m with them; I’ve got to trust them, I’ve got to be with them, because they must know’.  As it turned out, of course, you didn’t.
Ed Balls: Right, and that’s what we need to understand and investigate.  But at that time the international community passed resolutions and then Saddam Hussein flouted them.  In the end, the international community can’t have credibility unless it’s willing to act.  You look back, in retrospect, and I… you know, it’s clear to me they should have taken more time to get more evidence and to find out what was really going on.  But on the basis of the evidence they have, as I understand it, the international community was being ignored by this man, who was an evil man, and therefore there was action.

So he supported it at the time, but now agrees with the Robin Cook position which is that Blix's inspectors should have been allowed more time, which - to be clear about it - means that he would have voted against the Government on 18 March 2003. It is the view taken by many people that Britain should not have joined with the Americans, who had decided decided to invade at that time.

Some cynics might see this as opportunist repositioning with a view to securing the antiwar majority in the party for a leadership contest whenever it should come. I am not so sure - it is the sort of adjustment that is so calculated to irritate both sides of the issue that it might just be genuine.

Anyway, just for the record, this is what he said when Schofield asked about his ambitions.

There can’t be a politician alive who doesn’t want to be Prime Minister.
Ed Balls: Well, look, we’re all ambitious for the future and for our country.  And, you know, do I know what will happen to me in the future?  I don’t.  But does it drive me every day?  No.  What drives me every day is to make sure that the health service is delivering for children and that our schools are safe, happy places where kids can learn, and that we’re sorting out the safety and child protection situation in our country.  And that is actually and genuinely what motivates me every day.  And that’s it.