Veteran Conservative MP Sir Peter Tapsell has suggested that Tony Blair should be impeached for allegedly misleading the House of Commons in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This might sound strange to an American audience, considering Blair left office back in 2007.
The basic outline of the British impeachment process should be familiar to an American. The House of Commons draws up the charges and presents them to the House of Lords, where accused is then tried (for the nitty-gritty details of impeachment procedure, see Hatsell, 250-322). However, there is one key difference. In the US, impeachment is reserved for government officials; in the United Kingdom, anyone can be impeached for any crime.
Perhaps the best example of this is the impeachment of Henry Sacheverell. Sacheverell was an Anglican clergyman of the high church party who got into trouble for an inflammatory sermon he preached during the commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1709. Sacheverell’s homily was a blistering attack on Protestant nonconformists, and he even included a thinly veiled attack on the Lord High Treasurer, the Earl of Godolphin (for a detailed discussion of the sermon, see Holmes, 48-75). The sermon did not go down well with the Whig-dominated government, as the Whigs generally favored toleration of ‘Dissenters.’ Sacheverell was duly impeached by the House of Commons and tried before the House of Lords. Ultimately, he was found guilty and prohibited from holding ecclesiastical office for three years. Furthermore, the offending sermon was to be burned at the Royal Exchange along with an earlier homily.
The last impeachment occurred in 1806 when Lord Melville was accused of misappropriating funds, though he was subsequently acquitted by the Lords. Since then, the process has fallen into desuetude. As a check on the power of the executive, it is no longer necessary since ministers are now accountable to Parliament rather than the Sovereign. In 1967, the Commons Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege recommended that the power of impeachment should be abrogated (House of Commons 1967, par. 115), but legislation to that effect was not introduced. In 1999, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege reiterated that “the circumstances in which impeachment has taken place are now so remote from the present that the procedure may be considered obsolete.”
Despite those findings, a small group of MPs attempted to impeach Blair back in 2004, but because the motion wasn’t government business, it never really stood a chance of being debated. An attempt to impeach Blair now would probably meet a similar fate. Labour is hardly likely to support such a move, and the Conservatives would likely be equally reluctant (after all, they officially supported the Iraq War). That leaves the Liberal Democrats, but despite their strong opposition to the war, I don’t see them rushing to dust off a procedure that’s been obsolete for over 200 years. If Blair is to be tried, it will have to be in the court of public opinion.
Hatsell, John. Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons. Vol. 4, Relating to Conference and Impeachment. London: Luke Hansard and Sons, 1818.
Holmes, Geoffrey. The Trial of Doctor Sacheverell. London: Eyre Methuen, 1973.
House of Commons. Report from the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege (HC 34). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1967.
House of Lords and House of Commons. First Report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege (HL 43/HC 214). London: The Stationery Office, 1999.