Tag Archives: Reith Lectures

Baroness Manningham-Buller: one of my great heroines

4 Oct

This is to be a series of recommendations of sublime things you really must watch or listen to.

The first you really must listen to is Eliza Manningham-Buller’s talks (the link is here).  Eliza Manningham-Buller was head of MI5 from 2002 to 2007.  Though she is a sexagenarian, there is a certain sartorial elegance which, combined with her perceived “licence to kill”, cannot help but quicken the pulse somewhat.  As such, she adds to her role, it cannot be denied, a soupçon of sexual frisson, particularly for any Bond fans out there.  Furthermore, she is irrepressibly posh.  She is one of a bygone generation that pronounce “really” as “rarely” – which must be confusing if, say, she remarks, “I rarely want that man shot.”  She also refers to Islamist philosopher Sayyid Qutb as “QueueTube”, as if she were alluding to a video-sharing website pioneered in Britain.

So there is a sort of le-Carré-esque romance to this girl.  That’s not the main reason why she is a heroine of mine.  The main reason is her fearlessness, in standing up for liberty in the midst of terror, and in her cool assessment of security threats.  She says in the talks that 9/11 was a “crime, not an act of war”.  She thinks torture to be “wrong and never justified”.  And she believes talking with terrorists should always be considered, citing Northern Ireland as an example.

Most pertinently, she believes that the War in Iraq made us less safe, not more.  At the time, she warned the government that the security threat to the UK from Iraq was “very limited and containable”.  This runs counter to what Tony Blair believed – and more worryingly, what he still believes.  In his autobiography, he dedicates three whole chapters to defending the war.  In what is supposed to be the clincher to his argument, he describes being at a pre-Christmas drinks party and going to a room of the house for quiet reflection:

I sat and thought.  What did I truly believe?  That Saddam was about to attack Britain or the US?  No.  That he was a bigger WMD threat than Iran or North Korea or Libya?  Not really, though he was the only leader to have used them.  […] That he would leach WMD material or provide help to terrorists?  Yes, I could see him doing that.  Was it better for his people to be rid of him?  For sure.

When Eliza Manningham-Buller was asked at the Iraq Inquiry what she thought of this indirect threat – in the questioner’s words, “the theory that at some point in the future, [Saddam] would probably have brought together international terrorism and WMDs in a threat to Western interests” – she answered:

It is a hypothetical theory.  It certainly wasn’t of concern in either the short term or in the medium term to my colleagues or myself.

When asked whether toppling Saddam eliminated the threat of terrorism from his regime, she answered:

It eliminated the threat of terrorism from his direct regime.  It didn’t eliminate the threat of terrorism using unconventional methods of chemical, bacteriological or indeed radioactive.  […] In that respect, I don’t think toppling Saddam is germane to the long-term ambitions of some terrorist groups to use them.

What a damning rebuttal to Blair’s greatest argument for war.  His argument’s last port of call – an acceptance that Saddam would not use WMDs against this country, but a fear that he could provide WMDs for terrorists – is dismissed by the MI5 chief as merely “hypothetical” and “of no concern” to the Security Services.  Eliminating him was inconsequential to the external threat of terrorism to this country.  If there is a good enough argument to suggest Blair’s fears were a fantasy, it is this.

The fascinating thing is this: it was Eliza’s father, Reginald Manningham-Buller, that warned against modern Britain’s other military catastrophe, Suez.  As Attorney General in the 1950s, he wrote a letter of protest to the government, informing them of the illegality under international law of the intervention.  In a passage, which is worthy of reading today, a time when legal advisers cow under the pressure of authority and fear, he says he felt

compelled to write this letter because as the Law Officers are constitutionally the legal advisers of the Government… it will be generally assumed that we have been approached for advice as to the legality of what has been done.  […] I feel it is essential that I should make my views clear.  I had no opportunity of doing so before the ultimatum was delivered.

So here’s to the Manningham-Bullers: confrontational, principled, fearless!