The Iraq War comes to my lips several times in our animated discussion, but James insists on laying down the good work the government did before moving on to this chapter, which finally he does. “That was a watershed moment. I was a backbencher at that time and it was the first instance I diverged from Mr Blair. I had great respect for the prime minister. But I found he was on one track with the Iraq War and I found myself on another. And that wasn’t comfortable.”
I get the impression that this was the point for James that Blair fell off his pedestal. “I just could not get myself in agreement with his line on the war. I was never convinced that removing Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq was the appropriate response to the Al Qaeda attack on the twin towers. He kept trying to claim that there was a line of connectivity. I couldn’t see it. I understood his argument about the risk of Saddam having WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and linking up with Al Qaeda or other terrorist organisations, but I couldn’t find a connection.
“I think that he was convinced that there was a broader risk of bad regimes in the far east, including Iraq, lining up behind a view of the west fueled by radical Islam, terror movements and armed with WMD, which would lead to a massive assault on the west – backed by rogue states.”
James believed the rogue states would never line up in that way because some were Shia and some Sunni; there were as many internal conflicts in those states and conflicts between them as there were with the west. “Hence I couldn't buy the argument that Tony Blair and George Bush were putting forward.”
It was chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix's report that persuaded James to meet with Tony Blair, to try to persuade him against invading Iraq. “I thought if his evidence says that on the balance of probability Saddam was armed up to his teeth with WMD, then there was a case for overthrowing him. So I waited for that report to be published. It was about 120 pages long. I got to the end and I thought 'the case is not made'.
“I read it twice and the essential conclusion that Blix reached was Saddam previously had WMDs and had used them, but the evidence was no longer there to suggest he kept them. The evidence was that he had probably on balance complied with the UN resolutions and got rid of them.”
James had a face-to-face meeting with Tony Blair in his office in the House of Commons and told him he was not convinced Britain should go to war with Iraq on the back of Hans Blix's findings. He advised the prime minister to go back to the UN and get another resolution and give Saddam Hussein another chance to demonstrate he had got rid of the weapons before taking out his regime by force.
Blair's response was, “I can’t do that because France will veto it.” At that time, France was against a war and Chirac had indicated to Tony Blair that he would veto another resolution.
James replied to Blair that France might veto it, but he thought Britain should at least give the UN a chance. He recalls, “I remember Tony saying to me, 'James, it’s too late'. I replied, ‘I am sorry that’s not how you start a war. You don’t run it on a calendar, there has to be a demonstrable case, and it isn't made’.”
This was a hard moment for James, “It was the first big disagreement I had with a man for whom I have huge respect and still do, but we just came to different conclusions on that. It was an unfortunate policy failure and it’s left behind too much instability.” He is notable among Labour MPs in that he did not vote for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Does he think, as has been suggested, that Blair was “star-struck” by Bush and wooed into this course of action? “No, I don't. They had a shared view on how to deal with Saddam Hussein and international terrorism. I don't think either persuaded the other. Blair was dealing with the Saddam issue far before Bush, who only came to power in 2001. So I don’t think this is a correct interpretation of events.”
Having been part of a political era that will be written in the history books, it is interesting to learn that James feels his greatest achievements are the small things that he did for his constituents. “They made no news and to other people they were insignificant, but for the people whose problems I was able to solve, it was a big deal. People who had struggled with bureaucracy for years would bring the problem to me and ask me to fix it and, because I could write a letter on the House of Commons notepaper and sign it as an MP, organisations suddenly had to sit up and sort themselves out. And that was to be one of the most rewarding parts of the job.”
James met a man in his eighties who had struggled for ten years to get his war pension paid and it had never been paid properly, despite him writing numerous letters. “He came to see me, so I got involved and wrote to the War Pensions Department. His war pension and all the back pension got paid, tens of thousands of pounds; he was so relieved and pleased.”
Probably the biggest individual case that James tackled was attempting to overturn a life sentence. He recalls, “A mother came to see me about her son, who was about 28 years old and had been in prison since he was 19 for murder. They were battling to get the case reviewed. She said to me, 'James, he didn’t do it'. My first thought was that a mother would say that, but I wanted to look into it. She had brought a printout of the judge’s summing up at the end of the trial and asked if I would read it. I took it home and read the 100 pages that night. I remember thinking, crickey, if I had been on the jury, I wouldn’t have convicted him based on that summing up.”
James took up the case. He had numerous meetings with the Criminal Cases Review Commission, found a new solicitor and had the case reopened, even getting the DNA unearthed which hadn’t been administered properly. “I concluded that the man's solicitor and barrister had done a hopeless job, and he had been convicted on purely circumstantial evidence. Because I was an MP, I was able to get it back into the Criminal Cases Review Commission and eventually to the Court of Appeal.”
It took five years, but eventually, the original sentence was overturned and the man finally got justice. He was released immediately, with a pardon and compensation for his 15 years in prison.
“So my job varied from getting people’s housing situation resolved, getting their benefits sorted out and getting their immigration status correct, to getting a life sentence overturned! I kept a record over my 13 years and we dealt with 4000 cases of individual issues like that. The majority were resolved and changed many people’́s lives in small but very important ways. That to me was the biggest job satisfaction and it is still satisfying to me.”
James can also boast that the Child Support Agency reform he did has stood the test of time and the auto-enrolled pension fund is still running. “Millions of people will be better off in retirement than they might otherwise have been. So despite all the anguish you go through and the difficult parts, I can look back at it and point to the individual cases, which people still thank me for, and the legislative changes which have stood the test of time. That makes it worthwhile and I will take the rough that came with it. There are footprints which prove it was worth doing.”
Did he feel bitter at losing his seat in the 2010 general election? “No, because I expected it to happen. One of the advantages of having a marginal seat, which had never had a Labour MP before in history, was I always knew it was time-limited. Politics is about tides, you get washed in on tides and you get washed out on tides, and I told myself that every day. Which meant when the time came to be taken out, I took it in my stride. I was quite prepared, so I didn’t fall to pieces and I didn’t take it personally. I knew it wasn’t a vote to get rid of me. It was a vote to end a Labour government which people had got fed up with. The country wanted a change and you accept you are going to be part of that process. I thought that was the beginning of a new chapter.”
James has now moved onto that next chapter and is thoroughly enjoying his life here with his husband. “My husband, Andrew, has two children and we have grandchildren who are seven and three whom we adore. They are great fun and we love having them to stay but obviously, because of COVID we have not seen them in a while. So we look forward to normal life resuming.”
While James used his vote as an MP to always vote for equal gay rights, he never talked about his sexuality in the press. “I never kept it secret. I just never announced it, as it wasn't relevant to my job.”
I am interested in getting his perspective on the new era of British politics and in particular Brexit. He confirms he has always been pro Europe. “I think Brexit will prove to be a historic and self-inflicted mistake. Cameron's big error was caving in to eurosceptics. He should have stood up to them.
“The consequences haven't all played out yet. I think it’s played into the hands of the Scottish nationals and given an impetus to nationalism in Ireland, which could unsettle things there. So there are long-term negative consequences to play out all as a result of Brexit.”
Brexit did not, however, prompt his move. “We were always going to move to Portugal long before Brexit. It's made it more complicated but did not stop us from doing what we wanted to do. I think that’s true for many Brits who want to move here.”
So with his insight into the UK government’s inner workings, how does he think Britain will fare in the new post-Brexit era? “The country will have to find a niche after Brexit; it has no choice. It needs to decide how to position itself globally and the government has a responsibility to get this right. The current government needs to work hard on global trade agreements. It will take a long time to replace the EU with equally successful trade relationships. The UK is good at global services; it will have to focus on that as, due to its geographical location, it will not be so able to export with such success to other markets. It will take a long time to repair the damage, but if the government adopts the right strategy and keeps the UK with a competitive edge, the economy can cope, but we are sailing into a headwind.”
What can life in the Algarve offer him after such an interesting career? He and Andrew have bought a plot of land behind Meia Praia, where they will build their dream retirement home.
They have adopted a dog, encouraging them to enjoy lots of walking and discover new places. “We are enjoying having a more relaxed time and making new friends. We love the beach in the summer. We love Lagos and the surrounding countryside. We know we will have a constant flow of friends coming to stay once we have our house finished and travel resumes, so we look forward to that. The present time is difficult for everyone, but it won’t last forever and we are optimistic that we will have a great future here; we couldn’t be more fortunate to have this opportunity.”
It has been a fascinating discussion. While I am sure my interview techniques in no way compare to the grillings he would have got on the breakfast-news sofa, James and I have enjoyed a lively debate on a political era I remember so well. He must have been a fantastic politician, being so passionate about his constituents, a persuasive and confident speaker and above all, very likeable.
The highlight of our talk is however, when he tells me, “We always read Tomorrow magazine cover to cover, it keeps us informed of what is going on. That’s how we know what’s happening around here. Life is great.”
Thank you, James Plaskitt; I hope you get your just reward for all your good work in the UK, here in the Algarve.