The Iraq War was not about hard decisions; it was about bad decisions. The Chilcot Inquiry has clarified that much. The invasion was unnecessary at the time, the lack of post-war planning was disastrous and undeterred by facts Tony Blair exaggerated the case for war while dismissing evidence that it would increase terrorist threats to Britain. There are serious lessons to be learnt: forewarnings were dismissed as exaggerations, anti-war protestors were mischaracterised as idealists and voices of reason like Robin Cook were largely ignored.
Yet instead of reflecting on this, some MPs saw an opportunity for further infighting.
When I was 13, I made the journey down to London from Newcastle with my Dad to join the million people marching resolutely against the Iraq War in 2003. Walking through the throngs of protests who fervently disagreed with military action was for me, like many others, a politicising moment. But there is no “I told you so” ringing out from these ranks; most of us just feel sadness and despair at the needless bloodshed we were unable to stop.
Years later I learnt that marching against an ill-advised war could be a point of ridicule. The common line about anti-war protestors was that they didn’t get it; they didn’t understand the real, difficult decisions you have to make in a complex and uncertain world. The people who marched against the Iraq War were told: there was only one solution. War. Chilcot proves that was not the case. But this dismissive line of thinking remains with a similar logic applied to anyone supporting a leftward shift in the Labour Party. Those who want to challenge the stagnant status quo without sliding into the xenophobic morass made popular by the far right, which would include a move away from an aggressive foreign policy where Britain overstates its own role in the world, are dismissed. “There is only one way”, they’re told, “you are all living in a fantasy land”. That has been proven untrue.
There was no triumphalism in Corbyn’s statement in the Commons yesterday, nor cheap shots directed at Blair, because this was not an occasion where being proved right gives way to jubilation. In this sombre atmosphere, certain Labour MPs chose to indulge in factional infighting and heckled Corbyn. When the Labour leader was tearing apart the case for war in Iraq, Ian Austin MP shouted “shut up” and “you’re a disgrace”. Conduct like this undermines the Labour Party as a whole and suggests these MPs still have a lot to learn about healthy political debate that’s vital to improving the state of our lacklustre democracy.
Almost 140 Labour MPs voted against the war, that we should not forget. The others made a huge mistake under what turned out to be patchy evidence fed to them by a prime minister who had, unbeknownst to them, already pledged his support to war-eager President Bush. Indeed, the shift post-fact politics began some time ago. Decisions about military action are too often made without considering the evidence to hand.
The dead cannot be brought back to life and the painful sectarian divides in the regions, many of which were turned bloody by Western intervention, cannot be magically healed any time soon. What UK politicians can do is remember that robust evidence and a comprehensive understanding of countries’ histories should always inform decisions. Difference shouldn’t be dismissed as ludicrous nor challenges to the norm as pie-in-the-sky politics.
Understanding the calamitous path the British government chose in 2003 is not somehow an implicit show of support for Saddam Hussein. It is about realising that military action at that time was not the right decision and that the status quo is most certainly not always right. The US would have likely gone ahead with the war without British involvement but that does not make this country’s complicity any less damning.
“This is the most reckless war in modern times” wrote academic Edward Said in 2003, “…pity the Iraqi civilians who must still suffer a great deal more before they are finally ‘liberated’”. The British Government made this colossal decision to join the US intervention as warnings were tossed to one side; hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people and 179 British soldiers have been unnecessarily killed in a war of which this country never should have been part. Now instead of slinging insults at each other, MPs should learn from those mistakes.