Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 283 - 299)



  Q283  Chairman: Good morning, everyone. I am delighted to welcome on behalf of the Committee, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, distinguished diplomat, the British permanent representative at the United Nations from 1998 to 2003, and then the UK special representative in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, but that is not why we have asked you to come. We have asked you to come because we are doing an inquiry into memoirs and you have been in the news with your publishing project, currently suspended, and we would very much like to ask some questions about this. We are very grateful for the memorandum which you have sent us, which is very sharp and to the point. Would you like to say anything by way of introduction or shall we just ask you some questions?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: Let us let it flow, Chairman, that is fine.

  Q284  Chairman: What I would ask you to start with is, when this idea of writing a book occurred to you, did you grapple with the problem of a very recently retiring diplomat at the centre of very currently controversial events writing an instant memoir? Did that strike you as a project which raised difficulties?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: The business of writing a book comes to you, it came to me, in a series of stages, you do not go from one to 10 overnight. As I sought to explain very briefly in my written memorandum, I had begun with the idea of writing something about how the United Nations works because in my five years' experience at the UN there were very few people outside the system who do understand what happens inside it and what the various relationships are and what the political considerations are. I felt that could be done, even though the norm is for people to wait some years before they write about their official experience, in a way which would be helpful and not particularly controversial. That was before I was asked to go to Baghdad. The months leading up to the conflict in Iraq also took me into a different state of thinking about the issue and a different position in terms of my public persona. The issue of Iraq was extremely controversial, a lot of things were said about it which were wrong or under-informed. I felt the subject itself, the whole saga of Iraq, was rapidly becoming, and indeed has become, the seminal foreign policy issue of the era, and I gradually moved into a state of wanting to explain as clearly as I could within the rules what happened, how things turned out as they did, in order to allow the public to have a more informed debate about it. But it was always my intention to seek clearance under the rules and see how it came out. So it was a progressive series of stages which led me—and you have to put on top of that my experience in Baghdad after the war—to think it might be worth setting out some things in public. While you are thinking that, all sorts of people are discussing things with you, are in seminars with you, you go on all sorts of programmes to talk about it in your public capacity with the support of your department, and you get into a habit of talking about these things in public, so it does not seem such a great step to setting these things down in writing.

  Q285  Chairman: It is interesting as you describe it, but did you not see the red lights flashing earlier on at the implications of a just-retired senior diplomat, involved at the centre of currently controversial events, writing a book from the inside about those events, and the implication that would have for trust within the system?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: Yes, but had they been red lights, I would have backed off. I clearly considered the context within which I would be doing it and there were orange flashes of realisation that you could only select certain things to say. All of us in public service, if we get into considering this at all, are aware that there is a huge amount that you just cannot say, but there are some things that you can say, and my hope is in this Committee's consideration of recent events and of the evidence you have heard that you will throw some light for us all on where the dividing lines are between what cannot be said and what can usefully be said in the public interest in an era where it is quite difficult to get at the truth in spite of the mass of information. It seems to me to be quite a broad spectrum, where at one end you have what the Government issues, which may or may not in the eyes of the public be credible, at the other end you have a whole welter of stuff coming out of the media, which may or may not be geared to be sensationalist and entertaining and critical and insulting or amusing, and in the middle there is not so much that everybody out there can put their trust in as informed comment about what is really happening underneath the frenetic surface. So I think there is a public interest, within certain rules, in those who have been part of and who understand the evolution of events making some comments on it, but there have to be limits.

  Q286  Chairman: You think it is possible for someone who has only just left public service to intervene in current controversies from an informed, inside perspective, for the reasons you very properly say, there is a public interest in there, and you think that that is reconcilable with the public interest in maintaining confidential relationships inside the process?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I would not have necessarily used the word "intervene", one is just writing something with some comment in it and telling the story. I think it depends on the circumstances. The difficulty we have had before and since Radcliffe is in making the precise judgments on a particular text under guidelines which allow some room for flexibility. I do not think that there should be an absolute prohibition in regards of timing so long as the proper people in the proper positions make a judgment on what can or cannot be set out in the text. So the rules are fine, as far as I am concerned, they should be gone through, but there is a case for not being absolutely inflexible.

  Q287  Chairman: I understand the argument for flexibility. In the withdrawn catalogue entry for your book, it says, and indeed you say, "In the UK, retired public officials do not normally write books on events still current. I am breaking that convention because the lessons drawn from the saga in Iraq are too important to leave until later." Assuming that is a correct quotation, this is a rather different approach from the one you are describing. This is not an argument for flexibility, this is you saying, "I am consciously breaking a convention that I know exists because what I have to say is important and needs to be said."

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I am going against the convention but I am not breaking the rules. Iraq is an unconventional issue. This is the point I am making, Chairman. In certain circumstances there is a public interest in certain things not going entirely to the norm. That is just the case I am making. I cannot remember exactly in what circumstances I wrote those words and why the publisher took them up, it is too far in the past now, too many things have happened, but I wanted to make the point perfectly openly, and I am happy to be open with you about it, that I did think Iraq was different.

  Q288  Chairman: I am sure colleagues will want to pursue that. In your account of the process of trying both to break the convention and play by the rules, you submitted bits of your book as you did them to the Foreign Office and, as you describe it, you were getting co-operative responses and the system seemed to be working all right. Then, the Foreign Secretary intervened and said he did not like the whole enterprise and you went to see him. What did he say to you?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: He said he thought I was going against the norm, that I was letting the system down and that he believed in quite severe restrictions in the whole area of publishing one's official experience, and he hoped I would consider what he was saying and desist. That was the sum of what he was saying.

  Q289  Chairman: But this had not been the view expressed hitherto by the Foreign Office machine itself, which had co-operated with the enterprise of looking at material submitted, commenting on it and you being prepared to make requested changes.

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: Yes, that is true. It is also the case, as I understand it, and the conversation with Mr Straw bore this out. He had not read my text.

  Q290  Chairman: Is this not the point though, his objection was to the enterprise, not to the content, it was the enterprise of someone in your position publishing such a book at such a moment.

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: That seemed to be the case, yes, but it did not seem to be the reaction of those who were dealing with the text under the regulations in force.

  Q291  Chairman: There is nothing in the diplomatic service regulations on this which talks at all about ministers having a role in this process. You simply submit it to a named person in the machine, the machine deals with it, that machine was ticking over, as you thought, quite nicely until there was political intervention. Do you think it is proper that a minister should be able to veto effectively, as happened in this case, a book of this kind?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: Yes, entirely proper, and indeed a lot of the previous papers in Radcliffe and previously make it quite clear that in the view of those writing at the time it should be the responsibility of the Secretary of State, at times the Prime Minister, to make such decisions. Of course in the public system in any matter which affects policy or has to do with the public service, a minister can have the final word.

  Q292  Chairman: In relation to the Home Civil Service, the Cabinet Secretary is the guardian of this system, and that is who the prospective memoirist deals with. They do not have sudden political interventions which seem to cut across the process that is in place. This is what happened in this case, is it not?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: In terms of facts, yes. In terms of the sequence of events, that turnaround in the situation at the end of June I think, as far as I can see, was a considerable surprise to senior members of the Foreign Office.

  Q293  Chairman: But having met the Foreign Secretary, you decided he was right, you were wrong, and that you would not publish the book.

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: No, that is rather too telescoped a version of it. I decided what he had said needed to be considered, that he was not correct in saying that I had gone beyond the rules in submitting a text to the Foreign Office. He was talking as if I had already published. If there was a proscription in principle against the writing of memoirs, there would not be the rules for clearing them, so I think he was making a point of principle which was not justified. On the other hand, he was very much against the exercise and he was my previous boss, he is the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and the fact he held those views weighed with me together with other considerations.

  Q294  Chairman: And it trumped this great sense of public interest you had previously had in publication?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: It is not for me finally to judge the public interest. I accept that. That is why I submitted my text for clearance. I did so in the expectation, which to some extent was borne out, that the process of discussion with the Foreign Office would refine my judgment on what could or could not be expressed against the standards which applied at the time, and that I would need to make some revisions. So that process was going on and I thought it was a perfectly fair one. The Foreign Secretary's intervention was rather a lot sharper than that, so it surprised both me and the people with whom I was discussing the norms which seemed to apply to what I was writing.

  Q295  Grant Shapps: To continue, if I may, on this point, you just said that Jack Straw had a point of principle which was not justified. Can you elaborate on that because I am not clear.

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I am only making the point that he seemed to be saying there should be an absolute restriction on diplomats, in this case, writing about their public experience, at least while most of the people who were involved in those affairs were still in public office. The point I am making is that that has to be judged in the discussion with your Department or with the Cabinet Secretary over the text you have written, it is a judgment on the specific rather than an absolute restriction in principle. That is where I differ.

  Q296  Grant Shapps: So if I understand your point correctly, you felt he was wrong to say that but nonetheless you would take his point of view into account. Is that a fair summation?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: Yes. I was a bit puzzled he was saying it without having looked at my text, partly I think because what I was writing was, in my view, in net terms helpful to the Government's case on Iraq rather than the opposite.

  Q297  Grant Shapps: From the outside I suppose it could look like you caved into political pressure. You have been to see the Foreign Secretary, he has told you he does not want you to publish, he has not read it, you have said what he said was not justified, I am curious now whether you did in fact cave into political pressure or was it more that he made your conscience catch up with you, he somehow pricked something in your own conscience?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: There are other considerations, of course. For a start, I think the effect of his intervention was to make the Foreign Office scissors and pen rather more active on my text than they had been previously, so it affected others as much as it affected me. Secondly, with other things which were going on and other books which were being published and public comment on all of that, the atmosphere was becoming considerably more febrile than it was when I started. There were judgments to be made against other considerations than just the Foreign Secretary's intervention.

  Q298  Grant Shapps: Your memoirs are an interesting case for us because of all the people we have interviewed as witnesses on this subject, you are the only one who openly says, and it obviously did happen, that there was direct political influence as to whether or not you published. When do you think you might well publish your memoirs?

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: I have not made that decision. The book is not in the deep freeze, it is in the fridge.

  Q299  Grant Shapps: That suggests three months, six months, and then you will have to throw it away.

  Sir Jeremy Greenstock: That is, it can be quite quickly recooked if necessary. I have a gentleman's agreement with my publishers that I will come back to them. The original contract is set aside, there would need to be a new contract, but that was by mutual agreement, they did not end the association on their side. I will judge by events and by the atmosphere at the moment when it might be relevant to return to it. The possibility is never.

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