If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 3 January 2010

At last

A politician says something I can agree with about the Iraq war.

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major has criticised Tony Blair's handling of the Iraq war and his presentation of the case for invasion in March 2003. Sir John said he had reluctantly backed the war because he believed what Mr Blair had said as prime minister. But now, he said, big questions had been raised by the evidence given to the Chilcott Inquiry into the war.

I can understand Labour MPs not speaking out about the catalogue of deceit and spin that constituted the Government's 'case' for going to war. Not many of them have the courage of the late Robin Cook. And of course the Conservatives have been hamstrung by their pallid acquiescence in the Commons vote which - well, I was going to say 'took Britain to war', but it was more like a rubber stamp on a decision that had been taken many months before and a long way away. Only the LibDems spoke out against it, and I found myself in the curious position of agreeing with a party that I normally think of as irrelevant. Now, at last, someone in a senior position has said what I have been thinking all along.

In the run-up to the war, I was highly suspicious of the way things were going. Hans Blix had not completed his search for the WMDs that we were assured were there, and I was sure that no decision about war would be made until the facts were clear. I was wrong, of course. I certainly wasn't in favour of war, but neither was I completely against it either. It was only when Tony Blair made that claim - in Parliament - that Saddam Hussein had WMDs that could be mobilised at 45 minutes' notice, that I came down reluctantly behind the Government's position. I guess I was naïve enough to think that if the British Prime Minister said something in Parliament, it would be true. I know that Blair and his cronies now say that the 45-minute claim only ever referred to battlefield weapons, but that was certainly not the impression that they were giving out at the time. This was a massive piece of misinformation, and I was taken in by it.

I think my anger at Blair and the whole lot of them is because I allowed them to compromise my principles. I believe that war is sometimes necessary, but must always be a last resort, and must be engaged in for the highest ethical reasons. If Iraq is threatening Britain, or British people, or British forces, I reasoned, then a hard strike against them is unfortunately justified. Blair was quite specific with the British people - the war was not about regime change, it was about WMDs (the reverse of what Bush was feeding to the American people at the same time, incidentally). When it turned out that the war was indeed about regime change, and pursued partly to advance US interests in the region, partly about oil, and partly about Bush Jr finishing off the job that Bush Snr couldn't do, I felt betrayed.

Betrayed. It's a strong word, but Blair's lies to Parliament and the British people caused me to give my tacit support to something which I later realised was completely wrong, and something that on principle I would never have supported had I know the facts. Blair made me feel stained by my association with a vicious and unjustified act of aggression against a country that posed us no threat whatsoever, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent bystanders (people who, in theory, we were acting to protect against the evil Saddam). What no-one pointed out at the time, but which seemed a reasonable question, was that the War On Terror was a result of 9/11, but that Iraq had no connection whatsoever with Al-Qaeda. It was like having the bully from No. 15 set fire to your shed, and kicking the door of No. 28 down as revenge.

So John Major's intervention is welcome.

Sir John said it now seemed there were doubts before the invasion about whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said he wanted to know whether the Cabinet had known about those doubts. He said: "I had myself been prime minister in the first Gulf War, and I knew when I said something I was utterly certain that it was correct, and I said less than I knew. "I assumed the same thing had happened and on that basis I supported reluctantly the second Iraq war."

My position exactly.

Sir John said the argument that someone was bad was an inadequate argument for war. "There are many bad men around the world who run countries and we don't topple them, and indeed in earlier years we had actually supported Saddam Hussein when he was fighting against Iran.

There is a moral case to be made for going to war to remove 'bad men' from positions of power, although I wouldn't agree with it. But we don't do this anywhere else in the world. Zimbabwe and North Korea are two obvious examples. But then, those countries don't have oil.

Sir John said concerns about the Iraq war needed to be addressed if the public's trust in politics was going to be restored.

That's certainly true for me. I think the events of 2003 an onwards regarding Iraq are what turned my attitude from healthy suspicion to downright cynicism. I didn't use to follow Louis Heren's advice (when listening to a politician, always ask yourself "why is this lying bastard lying to me?"), but I am more inclined to do so now. If the Prime Minister can lie to Parliament and the people so comprehensively and with so little remorse, what else are they lying about? Then, of course, all the crime statistics and the educational achievements (which always sound so good, and never ever match what you see in the real world) start to look like the spin they really are. It is now commonplace, when presented with official figures about anything, to look first for the manipulation. The corrosion of trust in politicians may well be a truer legacy of Prime Minister Blair than anything else he did.

John Major says a lot more about Parliament and politicians, and it's worth reading. He might not have been the greatest Prime Minister we ever had, but he had integrity.

Integrity, that's what has been lost.


  1. Not to dispute what you have written or be awkard, but what is missing from this is what our European partners believed at the time... and this saga has further reduced our credibility in Europe.
    You may say so what, the inability to act over Yugoslavia was not a shining example of EU policy..but it would have been better not to have acted militarily in Iraq wouldn't it?

  2. Have to say, I flat-out didn't believe the WMD claim at all. Not that Saddam didn't, or couldn't, still have biological or chemical stockpiles. But deploying them on a meaningful level, in a way that could threaten any UK interests, requires some considerable launch platform technology for which there was no evidence whatsoever of in-house development or outside purchase.

    Likewise, extending the "war on terror" (perhaps the stupidest political catchphrase of all time) to include Iraq made no sense and was without evidential foundation.

    I'd always seen Blair as a facile, dishonest opportunist with no credible belief in anything other than Tony Blair. So it was actually quite easy to believe the conspiracy theorists of the time, who pointed out it was a done deal and The Will Of Bush before the invasion even got going.

    What the vote did do was dent my faith in other politicians, of all parties, who I assumed must have been equally aware of both Blair's mendacity and the appallingly tenuous presentation of "facts" on which to base a war, legal or otherwise. I could only assume that those who voted for that war were unbelievably stupid, dangerously naive or equally unconcerned by the truth.

    To be honest, I'm not sure if that opinion is changing as a result of Chilcot. There are a lot of people willing, now, to stand up and say they thought it was a crock - where were they all when it mattered?

    Is it inconceivable to someone within the Westminster campus that one of their number would stand up in Parliament and tell lies? That appears to be what Major is saying. Yet, routinely, obliquely and semi-politely, isn't accusing "the other side" of everything from misrepresentation to downright dishonesty what much of political debate is about? Or did they believe that war was too significant an item to be subject to manipulation and spin?

    My faith in politics cannot be restored by inquests, although criminal prosecutions might help. I would need to see proof of integrity, openness, and a system that prevented small, vocal cabals of self-serving individuals from bending Parliament and hence the entire country to their will. Something other than modern party politics, in fact. Wish I knew how in hell to implement it...

  3. I realised that I had missed a lot out when I wrote it, but there are several books in this issue, and lots of issues that can't be tackled in one brief blogpost. I agree entirely - our European friends had much the more realistic take on what was happening, and their reluctance should have been a warning to us. Although I am not a supporter of the EU, I feel very much part of Europe rather than America, and I think we did a lot of damage over this.

  4. Endo, I think our 'opposition' politicians did themselves and us a great disservice by their supine compliance over Iraq. I can only assume that, like John Major, no-one actually believed that the Prime Minister could be quite as blatantly dishonest as he was, and voted for the war on the assumption that, despite all the reservations, something you heard from the PM's own lips in the House of Commons would be broadly true.

    Tin hat time, perhaps, but I really feel that Blair and Bush should be standing trial for war crimes.


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