I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War.
I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for enabling me to secure this debate, which has the support of colleagues across the House. It gives us a chance to reflect not only on the Iraq war but on Parliament’s role in that war. It is a debate that I believe our constituents would expect us to hold as we pass the 10th( )anniversary of the US-led invasion.
All of us will have in mind today the 179 members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in this conflict. I pay tribute to them and to their bravery, and my sympathy goes out to their families for their terrible loss. Other service personnel have suffered physical and mental trauma as a result of the war which, for many, will be with them for the rest of their lives. We also have in mind the many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children who were killed during the war or who have died since in military operations, bombings, acts of terrorism or through sickness and disease.
Possible estimates of the number of Iraqis killed in the invasion and occupation of Iraq vary wildly. A Lancet survey between March 2003 and June 2006 pointed to over 650,000 excess deaths, while an Opinion Research Business survey put deaths as a result of the conflict at over 1 million up to 2007. The Iraq Body Count, or IBC—an independent US-UK group—reports 112,976 documented civilian casualties and points out that further analysis of the WikiLeaks Iraq war logs may add 12,000 civilian deaths to that the number. The IBC has always said that its number is an undercount because proper records have not been kept by the coalition forces, a fact that tells its own story.
Whatever the true number, there is no dispute that there has been a grave civilian price, one that continues to be paid and threatens to get worse. For most of us today, this 10th anniversary of the invasion is largely history, but for the people of Iraq it is a state of continuing war. Iraqis are being hit by almost daily attacks, with tensions growing between the Shi’a Muslim majority and the minority Sunnis, raising fears of a return to the worst level of sectarian violence. Just this week we have seen harrowing reports of at least seven people killed in a single day in a wave of bombings and attacks in central and northern Iraq. Last month was the bloodiest since June 2008, with over 1,000 Iraqi civilians and security officials killed, according to the UN.
It is a grim understatement to say that the Iraqi people do not have security. There are deep concerns about human rights, massive corruption, unemployment and miserable basic services, such as electricity and water supplies. But even if Iraq finds a way out of its current difficulties, as we all fervently hope it will, there is the legacy of the last 10 years of warfare and terrorism as well. Part of that legacy is the deeply disturbing cases being taken to our High Court, involving more than
1,000 killings and acts of torture committed in Iraq by UK forces. We must have public scrutiny of the systemic issues arising from these cases and look to reform the training and oversight of our armed forces.
What of our own country? Do we feel more secure? Is the terrorist threat diminished because of those 10 years of bloodshed and chaos? In fact, the contrary is true. According to the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the Iraqi invasion increased the terror threat in Britain, radicalising a generation of young British Muslims and substantially increasing the risk of a terrorist atrocity on UK soil. A major unprovoked attack without UN authorisation took place with dire consequences. These terrible and deeply troubling outcomes add real substance to the argument that this was the biggest foreign policy failure of recent times.
As an individual, I opposed the war in Iraq because it was my view that the burden of justification for undertaking a major unprovoked attack had not been met. I joined the anti-war protest in February 2003, which saw between 1 million and 2 million people marching in London, the biggest political demonstration in history. In successive polls by different and reputable agencies, around two thirds of British citizens say the Iraq war was a mistake.
Ultimately, Parliament was responsible for that decision to go to war. It was MPs in this House who questioned, debated and voted on the decision, both on
These are not academic questions. Their relevance and consequences are all too real today. We cannot simply leave them to others to answer. The Hutton inquiry and the Butler inquiry had their own terms of reference. Hutton’s remit was the death of Dr David Kelly; Butler’s was a panel, handpicked by Tony Blair, that was insufficiently independent and held far too many hearings in private. Shamefully, we still await the results of the Chilcot panel fully five years after it was established, while battles continue over declassifying material. I know of at least one freedom of information battle that is still being had with the Foreign Office; the sticking point is not national security, but national embarrassment.
All of these processes can play a useful part in revealing some of the truth of what happened in the lead-up to the war and beyond. But it is not the job of these men, however eminent or well intentioned, to stand in judgment on Parliament. Parliament is sovereign, and must remain sovereign even when it comes to considering its own failures and necessary reforms. As parliamentarians in 2013, we can and must ask, and answer, whether sufficient evidence was available in the
public domain to allow Government Back Benchers and Opposition MPs to both question and oppose the Government’s case for war in 2003.
I have always found that hindsight in politics is a great thing and makes things a lot easier. The hon. Lady should look at the evidence that came not from the Government or the security services, but from Hans Blix in his final report. I had the honour of meeting him in New York the night before his final report was published and he clearly said to me and to Bruce George—a right hon. Gentleman at the time—not that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, but that he needed more time, with full co-operation, to determine whether Saddam did.
Does the hon. Lady recall that the weapons inspectors were not allowed to go back to Iraq because of the decision of the British and US Governments in January 2003?
Last night, I looked at the notebook that I had at the time. [Interruption.] No, it is in my own handwriting. What it said is not that Hans Blix needed more time, but that he needed more time if he was going to get full co-operation from Saddam, and at that time he clearly was not.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman and I will come to other quotes from Hans Blix, who made it clear that to a great extent Saddam Hussein was co-operating and that with more time we could have avoided the war .
We as parliamentarians have the role and the job of scrutinising the available evidence that was in the public domain. I entirely take the point that hindsight is a wonderful thing. The point I want to make is that plenty of information was in the public domain.
I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on securing this debate, but on the manner in which she is presenting the case. Following on from what the former loyal Minister of the previous Government in the Ministry of Defence said, it is not a question of the benefit of hindsight. Many Members of the House, both on the Opposition Benches and, in some honourable cases, on the Government Benches, scrutinised the evidence at that time and came to the conclusion that it was unwise in those circumstances to proceed with engaging in military action in Iraq.
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because I will shortly pay tribute to those hon. Members who did stand up in
this place, who did scrutinise and who did ask the right questions. The fact that they came to the conclusions that they did demonstrates that the evidence was there. Unfortunately, there was a will not to look at some of it.
Before the hon. Lady goes on, may I say in respect of Mr Hans Blix—I have made this point outside the House—that there is a profound disconnection between what he is saying now and what he said at the time? What he said at the time, and he repeated it in a book in 2004, was that he thought that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat. I know of no provenance whatsoever for the claim that the inspectors were prevented from continuing their work in Iraq by either the US or the UK in January 2003.
Moreover, the final reports from Hans Blix complained about a lack of co-operation, the inability of inspectors to interview scientists from Iraq inside or outside Iraq, and the continuing intimidation. The final report that he made, which I had to force him to publish, on
No. Will the right hon. Gentleman please sit down? I am trying to be very tolerant to facilitate the debate but there are lots of Members who want to participate, and making a speech on an intervention, however important the point, is not acceptable. Therefore the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait to make the rest of his points.
Does the hon. Lady also acknowledge that there was a huge amount of foresight on the part of people who were opposed to the war, not entirely on the existence of weapons? Many nations have weapons of mass destruction. What was totally implausible was the suggestion that Saddam Hussein would use those weapons against America and against the United Kingdom in a way that would be suicidal and guarantee own defeat. We know what the reasons for the war were, and they were in the mind of George Bush.
I welcome that intervention. We need to recognise that a threat is made up of the capability to use weapons and also the intention to use them. What Hans Blix made very clear at that point was that there was not, as far as he could see, any intention to use them. What he wanted to find out was what else there was.
I will give way shortly. Let me make a little more progress.
I keep coming back to the importance of MPs—ourselves—scrutinising the decision-making process that took place at the time. In that context, I was surprised and disappointed when, back in March this year, the Foreign Secretary, for whom I have a great deal of respect, wrote what was intended, I think, to be a confidential letter to members of his party, telling senior members of the Government that they should not be drawn on the controversial issues that drew the UK into the Iraq war. They should, he suggested, wait until Chilcot had reported, but that of course might not be until the next election—who knows? We are still waiting after five years, and in any case, Chilcot does not have a monopoly on the issue, and I doubt whether he or his team would want one.
I turn now to what went wrong. There is plenty of evidence that shows that the case for war set out by the Blair Administration in 2003 was deeply flawed. Intelligence was misused, concerns expressed by experts were suppressed, and the legal and political position was misrepresented. From this arises the belief among many journalists and members of the public as well as Members of this House that they were misled into supporting the war in Iraq. In fact, when one reads the documents and listens to the testimony, it is hardly far-fetched to call it a conspiracy.
In brief, Tony Blair decided to join the US in invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein. He knew that the British people and their representatives were dubious about the wisdom of this, to say the least, so he used every opportunity to twist the evidence to isolate his critics and encourage his supporters. Britain was indeed spun into war. This is the foundation of the familiar position that many former war supporters now take. Often they will say, “If I had known then what I know now, I would not have supported the war”, but is that enough? Does that really explain what happened?
In 2005 I went out to Iraq. Then, even senior military officers were questioning the legality of their being there and having gone in. So it is not simply a matter of us doubting it. They were unsure of the legal position as well.
Order. It would really help me to chair the debate if Members made brief interventions and stayed on their feet while they were doing so. I know the hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way under some considerable pressure, but I am sure she will bear in mind the length of time that she is speaking and the others wishing to participate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I was saying that many people will say that if they had known then what they know now, they would not have supported the war, and I said that that was not an adequate justification, precisely because of those Members of Parliament who were not taken in by the spin. Members of Parliament could have known then much of what they know now. A vast amount of the evidence available now was in the public domain then. We know this because of those hon. Members who did see through the lies and the deceptions, who asked the right questions,
who trawled through the documents, who stood up in Parliament and said that the war was based on a false prospectus, and many of those hon. Members are in the Chamber today.
Let me give an example of three others, starting with an hon. Member who is no longer in the Chamber, the former Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, Lynne Jones. She saw that Tony Blair and Mr Straw made the misrepresentation of the French position a centrepiece of their efforts to win the vote on
I quote from the transcript of the interview. Chirac says:
“My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote ‘no’ because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have set ourselves, i.e. to disarm Iraq.”
But by selectively quoting the words “regardless of the circumstances” when describing the French position on authorisation of the use of force, proponents of the war blamed France for blocking military action against Iraq, no matter what evidence emerged of a breach of resolution 1441. Tony Blair even included the selective and misleading quote in the motion in support of military action that was put to the House on
Giving evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, the right hon. Member for Blackburn suggested that President Chirac’s use of the phrase “this evening” did not describe the French position on the evening of the interview, thereby indicating that this could change in the future, but was simply an introduction to what he was going to say that evening. He put that argument to the panel by specifically stating the order of Chirac’s phrasing, down to where a comma is used. However, the transcript shows that he did not give the phrasing in the right order. The phrase “this evening” came after “regardless of the circumstances”, but he said that it came first, changing the meaning of Chirac’s words to suit the argument. The right hon. Gentleman said:
‘I know there has been some textual analysis of the use by President Chirac of the word “Le soir”, but I watched him say this and I took this as no more than saying, “This evening”, comma, and then he announces, “France will, whatever the circumstances”, he says, right?’
Well, that was not right. In fact, the transcript shows that Chirac explicitly ruled in the possibility that military action might be needed, stating in the same interview that if the weapons inspector reported after more time that they were unable to do their job, war would be inevitable. To quote directly, he said:
“But in that case, of course, regrettably, the war would become inevitable. It isn’t today.”
The French position, then, was that progress was being made on the weapons inspections and that France was therefore opposed to replacing the existing inspections process with an ultimatum that would lead to war in a few days’ time. The phrase “regardless of the circumstances” was not helpful, and it was unfortunate that Chirac used those words, as they were easily taken out of context. However, that does not detract from the responsibility of those, including Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Blackburn, who—I argue—misinterpreted, and continued to misinterpret, President Chirac’s interview of
Hansard shows that Lynne Jones was ridiculed when she tried to raise the misrepresentation of Chirac’s interview in the House, but the fact that she raised it shows that there were hon. Members who bothered to get the transcript of what was actually said before the vote and that it was not necessary to accept the interpretation being given by the Government at face value. It was not a detail; President Chirac’s words were placed at the heart of the motion that Parliament debated and voted on.
I got on well with the former Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, who was a very good Member of Parliament, but I think that the hon. Lady is reading far too much into this in order to support her conspiracy theory speech. On the same visit to New York, I also met the French ambassador to the UN, and it was quite clear that there was no way the French would vote for a resolution that endorsed action, and they were working with the Germans, who took the same position. It is not the case that the French were somehow up for negotiation.
They never were.
Well, I have seen the evidence from Chirac and the way it was treated when it came to the Chilcot inquiry, and I think that it is perfectly plain that Chirac’s intervention was deliberate misinterpreted. The words were taken in the wrong order and made to mean something different. [Interruption.] We can trade our beliefs across the Chamber, but the bottom line is that there was evidence out there that would have led Members to suspect that what they were being told at that point was not necessarily the case.
First, the transcript, and indeed the video, were available to all Members on both sides of the House, so they could make their own judgments on it, and the vast majority made the judgment that we made about what had happened. Secondly, what we were seeking in the second UN resolution was not war, but peace—I was desperate for it—by an ultimatum that included six tests, which were drafted by Hans Blix, by the way, and they were tests that Saddam could easily have passed had he wished to do so.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I will move on.
I want to talk about the former Member for Livingston, Robin Cook. Reading his resignation speech makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, because it is all there: the reasons why the war was unnecessary and unjustified, the critique of the Government’s position and the exposure of the misinformation and deceit. It was delivered with eloquence and with the authority and credibility of a former Foreign Secretary and member of the 2003 Cabinet. Yet his warnings were heeded only by the 23% of MPs who voted to oppose the war. How could that happen?
The right hon. Member for Blackburn said earlier that the transcript of what Chirac had said was in the public domain, and that is precisely my point. Given that the evidence was there, how is it that more MPs did not come to a different conclusion? The answer, which I will make in greater detail later in my speech, is that they were whipped massively through a system in this House that means they give up their responsibility to make their own decisions. My point is that that kind of whipping on a vote of such importance and conscience is not the right way forward.
There are many potential explanations for why Robin Cook’s warnings were heeded by so few, but most come down to the idea that Members perhaps trusted the view that there was a subplot to the invasion that the Government could not be open about, that perhaps the Government knew much more about the risk Saddam posed to the UK than they were able to say, and that perhaps the conditions were right for establishing Iraq as a democratic, pro-western state. In some cases, Members were taken to one side and given off-the-record briefings.
But I think that the answer is much more simple: too many Members put loyalty to their leader and to their party above their own judgment. They swallowed their private doubts, accepted what they were told and voted accordingly. That misplaced trust crossed party lines. It is deeply regrettable that the tradition of loyalty meant that hon. Members such as Robin Cook were not heard. It is also regrettable that the Tory leadership supported the war so unquestioningly. Perhaps there was a feeling that that level of deceit was simply inconceivable when it came to an issue as serious as war. Yet now we know that it was not.
Returning to the “If I had known then what I know now” defence and looking to the future, we can perhaps conclude thus: no Member of this House should ever take on trust the case for war. They must listen to all sides with open minds, even to the refuseniks and the usual suspects in case this time they might just be on to something. They must look at the sources themselves and ask themselves and their leaders the tough questions: is there an alternative, and what if it goes wrong? There is plenty more evidence of the fact that there was material in the public domain that should have enabled more hon. Members to make a more informed decision.
Does the hon. Lady not agree, then, that one lesson we can learn, and perhaps agree on in this debate, is the need for a war powers Act that would mean Parliament must be consulted and must vote specifically on any military action undertaken on our behalf?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because that is exactly the point I want to make. There should a mandatory vote of this House on issues as important as going to war. Moreover, and critically—this is the burden of what I am saying today—that vote must be a free vote based on conscience. We cannot allow ourselves to be taken along by the rhetoric of party leaders or to be bullied by party whipping and therefore, in a sense, to abrogate our responsibility to make our own decisions.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Conservative party. I was there and know what was going on in the party. The atmosphere was very relaxed. Although there was whipping, we were allowed to vote against it. Someone resigned from the Whips Office but immediately rejoined. I voted against it. We formed a judgment. I am afraid that most of my colleagues believed the Prime Minister and took the view that Iraq was a threat, but no pressure was put on Conservative MPs.
Clearly I do not have the inside information that the hon. Gentleman has, but I have heard many a different story told elsewhere.
In conclusion, I said at the start of my speech that the justification for the debate is that Parliament must accept that it made a mistake in 2003 and set out how it will prevent such a mistake from happening again. I believe that it comes down to the acceptance of one principle: there must be a limit to party loyalty, and even of loyalty to the leader of a party. Loyalty is in some way an admirable quality. There are times when it is right to bite one’s tongue, go along with the majority, set aside one’s opinions and accept the judgment and experience of others. But there are also limits. Committing our country to war, asking our young men and women to fight and accepting that men, women and children will die in our name must be beyond the sway of party loyalty.
I would like to see the end of the royal prerogative on war and the establishment of a constitutional convention that votes on war are not subject to party whipping. I know that some Members might dismiss that suggestion, but it is a serious one and I urge hon. Members to consider it carefully. Of course informal whipping would have taken place anyway, but it would have been different. Taking away the formal obligation to vote according to the party line would have pushed more hon. Members to look at the evidence for themselves and vote accordingly. It would have given their constituents more power and leverage and put more responsibility on the shoulders of each Member. Scrutiny would not have been dulled by loyalty in the same way.
Like the issues of capital punishment and abortion, committing troops to war is a matter of conscience, and MPs should be, at least formally, free from the heavy hand of the Whips. This principle is relevant now as we grapple with the terrible situation that is unfolding in Syria. Members should demand not just a vote on whether we arm the rebels but a genuinely free vote. If Iraq teaches us one thing, it is that if MPs are to vote on grave matters of conflict, for that vote to be meaningful it must be the view of their own conscience, not their party’s line. As individual constituency MPs, many of us have constituents who have died in Iraq—who have
lost relatives there. It is no answer to them to say that on a serious matter like this we did not challenge the case and satisfy ourselves that war was justified and unavoidable.
In future, when we are faced with a decision about whether to go to war, we simply cannot have a situation where the Government of the day tell the story and we take what they say on trust. MPs have to do the work themselves. In any future vote, we and our successors must establish, to our own satisfaction and on evidence that we have seen and heard ourselves, that the case for war has been made. Three lines on a Whips sheet are not enough.
It has been 10 years since we invaded Iraq, yet the experience still casts a long shadow, and lessons from the period are still relevant today. Perhaps the most important lesson is that the war threw into stark relief the importance of basing our foreign policy decisions on firm evidence. The intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s WMD and his links with al-Qaeda, which was used to varying degrees as justification and a pretext for hostilities, was infamously described by Tony Blair as “extensive, detailed and authoritative”. In reality, it was anything but. We now know that we went to war on a false premise; there were no WMD. The British intelligence community failed to approach the Iraqi material with its customary thoroughness and consequently allowed space for the Government to mould the evidence to suit their purposes, with disastrous results. Indeed, sections of the intelligence community became the mouthpiece of Government rather than their ears and eyes, and that must never be allowed to happen again.
We learnt only the after the event the extent to which No. 10 and Foreign and Commonwealth Office spin doctors were on the inside of the drafting process for the September 2002 dossier and strongly influenced it. The then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, was in regular touch with Alastair Campbell. A unit within the FCO, the communications information centre, promoted the case for war. This resulted in possibilities becoming probabilities and indications becoming judgments. One spin doctor wrote the first full draft of the dossier, at John Scarlett’s invitation, a full day before John Scarlett produced his own first full draft. This evidence has come out only subsequently, often having to be extracted like teeth from the Government through freedom of information requests and other means.
I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. Is not the biggest criticism of this whole sorry episode that having made the decision to go to war, the Government spent more time falsifying information to make the case for it than planning for the subsequent occupation, which has been a complete catastrophe?
I certainly think that the post-war reconstruction was a shambles that led to a serious civil war and many casualties.
I have highlighted the detail with regard to the role of spin doctors and the FCO in the drafting of the dossier because that detail is important. When Tony Blair recalled Parliament, we were encouraged to believe that the dossier accurately reflected the assessments of the intelligence community. We now know that this was inaccurate. The dossier upgraded or exaggerated assessments made by the JIC, while intellectual ownership of the dossier did not reside with the JIC alone. Indeed, the final dossier was not even approved by the whole JIC. Yet that September we were led to believe that the account was that of the intelligence community, and that was a false impression.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. Parliament needs to be reassured that we can get back to evidence-based policy making rather than policy-based evidence making, which appears to be the direction in which the civil servants went. We need an independent civil service that is capable of independently providing politically neutral evidence on which Parliament can assess these matters.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. For many of us, the lesson from all this is that we must be wary of Government spin when we are addressing foreign policy issues, in particular; instead, we must focus on the evidence.
Bringing this up to speed, I suggest that in the case of Iran, for example, no intelligence service, whether American, British, Israeli or any other, has yet been able to publicly produce any hard evidence, as opposed to circumstantial evidence, that the Iranian leadership has decided to build a nuclear weapon or is taking that course. Nevertheless, that has not prevented our policy makers from painting a very different picture, and tensions are running unnecessarily high as a result.
The Iraq war is also a reminder that interventions often produce unintended consequences that can turn out to be counter-productive to our interests. A woefully inadequate post-war reconstruction ushered in a vicious civil war, as other Members have outlined. Studies estimate that many hundreds of thousands died in Iraq as a result of the invasion. In fact, Iraq became a honeypot for extremists worldwide. In a bitter irony, al-Qaeda only gained a foothold in Iraq after Saddam’s downfall and then proved difficult to eradicate. Minorities suffered as well. The Iraqi Christian communities, resident for centuries, have suffered immeasurably in the wake of the invasion.
I have since visited the Christian communities and heard the harrowing tales of what has happened to them. Is not what happened in Iraq a lesson for future action in Syria?
My hon. Friend and I are very like-minded on this. We have a very bad track record of considering the consequences of our actions in relation to minorities within these countries. Syria is a good example, in the case not only of the Christians but of the Alawites.
Today, Iraq looks into the abyss because of economic failure, sectarian violence and political turmoil and corruption. Prime Minister al-Maliki, having centralised power, is a tentative supporter, to say the least, of President Assad, and a new wave of sectarian unrest
seems imminent. That is one example of how unintended consequences can come back and bite us when we do not think these things through carefully.
Furthermore, there is little doubt that the removal of Saddam Hussein fundamentally altered the regional balance of power. We tend to forget in this House that we supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s attack on Iran. At that time, there was an approximate balance of power in the region. In effect, by taking Iraq out of the equation we ourselves created a regional superpower in the shape of Iran, the consequences of which we are still living with today.
I also suggest to the House that the invasion ignored the lessons of history. Interventions have a tendency to support, reinforce or have an embedding effect on the existing regimes. Looking back at history, communism, for example, has survived longest in those countries where the west has intervened militarily, such as China, Vietnam, Cuba and Korea. Meanwhile, the neo-con dream of establishing a sort of liberal democracy in Iraq lies in tatters. Democracy is taking root in north Africa, in regions where the west has put in very little support, not in Iraq or Afghanistan, where the cost to the west, particularly to this country, has been very high in terms of lives and treasure.
Meanwhile, as we have heard, our intervention has radicalised elements of the Muslim world against us, not only in regions of the middle east, but on the streets of this country. Scandals such as Abu Ghraib reinforce this alienation. As has been mentioned, Dame Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, said that the invasion “increased the terrorist threat” and
“spurred some British Muslims to turn to terror.”
We are still living with the consequences of this radicalisation, as very sad recent news has highlighted.
One scratches around for positives from this period. Perhaps there are a few. If al-Qaeda was one of the reasons for the invasion, it is now abundantly clear that the Iraq war was a 19th-century colonial-style solution to a 21st-century terrorist threat. There is no point invading countries if we are chasing extremists and terrorists. Instead, our efforts against international terrorism must be much more nimble and nuanced. They must reflect the flexibility of the terrorist threat itself, focusing on intelligence and operations, supporting friendly Governments in their anti-terrorist endeavours and applying properly resourced special forces. Indeed, there are encouraging signs that we have learned lessons from that period. We must also better focus international aid on the poverty and grievances that al-Qaeda and others have all too readily fastened upon in the past.
Perhaps—I am coming to an end—there is a more general lesson to be learned. We failed at the time to carry the international community with us, and in doing so I would suggest that we lost the moral high ground. The view adopted by the US and the UK at the time was that might is right. This sets a dangerous precedent. The coming decades will see the emergence of at least regional superpowers—or even global superpowers—that might be eager to flex their muscles. Our invasion of Iraq will make condemnation of any future aggression by others less effective. The invasion showed international law to be no guarantee of sovereignty or, indeed, security. This in itself may have encouraged some countries to seek other guarantees.
If there is a positive, it is perhaps that this war may have served to lay to rest, once and for all, the view that the British electorate would instinctively support politicians advocating intervention or war. I would suggest that Blair was never trusted thereafter. As our Prime Minister considers possible responses to Syria, he would be wise to reflect on that. In conclusion, let us hope that these lessons have been learned, for the sake of future generations.
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, both Front Benchers and all hon. and right hon. Members that I will not be able to be here for the winding-up speeches.
I begin with a caveat over the word “anniversary.” In my lexicon an anniversary is something to be celebrated. There is nothing to be celebrated about the Iraq war, the most disastrous foreign policy certainly in my lifetime and possibly in the history of this country.
I congratulate Caroline Lucas on obtaining this debate and I heartily agree with many things she said. I have another caveat, however, in that I think she is much too harsh on Members of this House and, indeed, the electorate. Whether individuals supported or opposed the Iraq war, it is not the case that it was not a central topic of discussion, not only in this Chamber, but throughout the whole Palace and certainly throughout the whole country. I think she was a little unfair in a similar way to that in which my Government’s spokesman, rather more unfairly, dubbed all those who were opposed to the idea of a war in Iraq —this is just one example—as knee-jerk anti-Americans. There was also enormous pressure from the press that this war should go ahead, but it is not true that we did not examine, read or question the evidence on a cross-party basis. It was the major topic of discussion.
I do not want to rerun the arguments about all the dodgy dossiers and half-truths, which are now well and truly in the public domain, as they should be for what was undoubtedly a most immoral and possibly illegal war that, as Mr Baron has detailed cogently, is still continuing.
I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion about how important Parliament is in such situations and how totally its powers can be wiped away by the Standing Orders and mores of this place. I agree entirely that that should change. If there is anything positive to be taken out of the morass of the Iraq war, it is surely the lesson that we must never, ever go down that road again.
My current concern is for both the present and, partially, the future. Syria could so easily become yet another disaster for this country’s foreign policy. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister, although I would have liked him to have been more categorical on the possibility of arming one of the sides in what is essentially a civil war, which would be a total and unmitigated disaster. To give President Obama his due, despite his pronouncements about drawing lines in the sand—such statements are all too easily made by politicians, statesmen and powers—and even though the red line that he defined has apparently been crossed, perhaps in a minor way, with the use, we are told, of sarin in Syria, there is clearly no move on the part of the United States to engage its troops and weaponry in Syria, which is to be
welcomed. It is a scandal and an absolute disgrace that Russia, one of the permanent members of the Security Council, is completely abdicating her responsibilities in relation to this war, but that does not relieve us in this Chamber, in this country, from accepting the realities of the desperate tragedies that we created by going into a benighted war.
I have had occasion to say in this Chamber and will say again that if we are going to spend money on armaments, that would be another complete and unmitigated disaster. There is a desperate, overwhelming need for even more humanitarian aid to support those countries on the borders of Syria that are carrying the biggest burden, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, all of which have a major part to play in that part of the world. We should be supporting them, not opting for sides.
My major concern, in concert with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay, is what I perceive to be a movement to try at some point to encourage the western powers or other allies to engage in a similar conflict in Iran on the basis, as far as I can see, having read the evidence, of an entirely spurious argument that Iran is not only desperate to make a nuclear weapon, but even more anxious to use it. That is totally off the wall, if one reads the existing evidence.
I have sketched out some of the lessons that we must learn from the gross intrusion that was the Iraq war—that living example of how power can corrupt absolutely. We have learned that if a great power attacks a smaller power, it will win. Desperate and terrible though the results of that are, the true tragedy is that nobody ever sat down and asked seriously, “How are we going to win the peace?” That is the most overwhelming lesson. However, the same thing is happening with regard to Syria. If we arm one side in that civil war, what will we do when the bullets run out—although they never will—and when the bombs stop falling?
We pay lip service to the diplomatic way of solving such problems, but we do not push it to the extent that we should. I remember clearly the news, on the day before the Iraq war turned to shock and awe, that 52 British ambassadors had written a letter to the Government saying, to paraphrase, “Don’t do it.” Not only this country, but all western nations, have a wealth of experience of the middle east. It has always been a tinderbox. At the moment, it is more than a tinderbox. What is happening in Syria to absolutely innocent civilians is utterly untenable. We can surely do better than we are doing.
For me, that is the screaming message that comes out of the disaster of the Iraq war. It is desperately easy to kill, to wound, to maim, to destroy, but how does one rebuild? It is the responsibility of those who take such decisions to have a plan for how peace, prosperity, justice and democracy can be established or restored. I have yet to read a detailed plan anywhere or by anyone as to how western nations that intrude upon other nations, as we did in Iraq, will do that. That is the most important step forward for the 21st century.
Desperate enmities have been created. The Iraq war was not the exclusive cause of those, but it was certainly a major player. As the hon. Members for Basildon and Billericay and for Brighton, Pavilion have said, those enmities are being played out on our streets by a minority
of people, but we have also unleashed that horror on the world. It is our bound and duty—this House has an important part to play in this—to say that if anybody goes down that ridiculous—no, that is to make it much too banal—that desperate road, there must be a terminus at the end of the road that will produce, without any qualm whatever, the supposed desired result. That has not been brought about in Iraq, even though we were told that that was the main reason why the major power and its little assistant went into that war.
I say again, if any value has come from that disastrous foreign policy, it has to be that we have learned how never, ever to do it again.
I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing this debate and on her passionate introduction, in which she put on the record her strong views. Clearly, there is still significance and passions are still aroused 10 years on.
I also congratulate the other two hon. Members who have spoken, my hon. Friend Mr Baron and Glenda Jackson. I agree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay about the importance of removing the fundamentals that give support to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. He will be well aware that the United Kingdom has done that not just in Iraq, but in other conflict states, with a particular focus at the moment on Somalia and Mali.
More broadly, the United Kingdom has contributed directly towards reconstruction in Iraq. We have helped to provide vaccinations for millions of children, improve access to safe water for more than 1 million people in southern Iraq and provide additional electricity equivalent to that used by a city the size of Leeds. We have also trained tens of thousands of teachers and approximately 20,000 policemen and women.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn was right to point out that this matter was a significant part of the lives of those of us who were Members of Parliament in 2003, and that it exercised both ourselves and our constituents. I would suggest that it was almost the only point of debate at the point in time when Mr Straw and others were deciding what they should do.
As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion set out in her opening speech, the decision to go to war in 2003 was one of the key foreign policy decisions of the last decade. As I have said, I and other Members who were in the House at the time will remember it for ever. However, it is important to state at the outset that the policy of this Government is not to comment on the decision to go to war ahead of the report of the Chilcot inquiry. I will therefore not do so here, but will look at the future of Iraq and the UK’s relationship with Iraq.
If the hon. Lady will be patient, I will give the House an update on the Chilcot inquiry.
The decision to go to war has had long-lasting implications not only for Iraq, but for the region, the United Kingdom, our allies and international relations more broadly. Those implications are not necessarily yet clear, but they will be debated for many years to come. There were also more immediate implications. One hundred and seventy-nine British armed forces and Ministry of Defence personnel lost their lives in Iraq, as did a number of British civilians. We must also never forget the loss of life suffered by the Iraqi people. It is right that now, 10 years on from the start of the war, we remember all of them. We must also remember those who were wounded in the war and those who lost loved ones.
Those of us who opposed the war are often told, “If you’d had your way, Saddam would still be there.” Surely we are entitled to say that so would hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, because they would still be alive.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I say to him that the tragic loss of life, wherever it occurs, needs to be remembered. We must also bear in mind the huge disparities between the estimations of the number of Iraqi civilians who lost their lives. There needs to be better analysis of that. It must also be said that the vast majority of Iraqi civilians who lost their lives did so in terrorist incidents, not in military action.
The Minister must be aware of the massive refugee problem that the war created. There are still 450,000 Iraqi refugees living in Jordan. Palestinian refugees who went to Iraq from the Gulf states were expelled from Iraq after the invasion. The refugee crisis in the region is enormous as a result of that war and the Syrian war. Does he have any comment to make on that?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the plight of refugees and displaced people. He will be aware of the significant contribution that the Department for International Development makes to support displaced people’s camps. The only long-term solution is to create stability and security in the middle east to enable people to return to the countries from which they originated.
If I may move on, I want to make a few comments about the Chilcot inquiry because it has been one of the consistent themes in the speeches of Members so far and I am sure that other Members will comment on it as well. It is vital that we learn the lessons of the conflict. That, of course, is the fundamental and primary remit of Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry.
I want to make a little progress and then I will give way.
The inquiry is a complex and substantial task and it is considering an eight-year period. When he set up the inquiry, the then Prime Minister, Mr Brown, described its scope as “unprecedented”, and Sir John has said that its final report is likely to exceed 1 million words.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion asked when the process will be completed and the report published, and the short answer is that it is up to Sir John and his team. The inquiry is independent of the Government, although I assure the hon. Lady and other hon. Members that the Government are co-operating fully with it. Indeed, the Foreign Office alone has made some 30,000 documents available, which gives a further idea of the scale of the work. Those doing the inquiry have indicated that they intend to begin what is called the “criticism phase” of their work this summer. That will give individuals who may face criticism in the report the chance to make representations to the inquiry. Thereafter, the inquiry and Sir John will have to assimilate those representations into the final report. I do not have a definitive time scale for when that final report will be published, but it is essential that Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues do that work in a thorough and professional way.
That is absolutely right and it is important that John Chilcot gets all the information required for the report. He will have seen the remarks by David Owen that hint at collusion by Tony Blair and the Prime Minister’s office to ensure that private correspondence between George Bush and Tony Blair will not be available to the inquiry. Can the Minister say that that will now be made available and that we will be able to see the private correspondence between Tony Blair and George Bush?
Let me be clear with the hon. Gentleman. The debate about the private correspondence between Tony Blair and George Bush, and the Cabinet minutes from the time, concerns their public publication. The Chilcot inquiry has seen both sets of documents, which I hope goes some way to assuage the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
The inquiry is already two years late given the date it originally promised to report and, as the Minister says, it is an important report. Had the United Kingdom not joined the war, Saddam would still have been removed and the war would have gone on because our support was not needed. The crucial point— I do not know whether the Minister has confirmed this—seems to be what Bush and Blair cooked up in 2002, because the decision to take the United Kingdom into the war was probably taken then. That is the essential point—not why the war took place, but why the United Kingdom was dragged into it by Tony Blair.
Is my hon. Friend at least able to accept that we went to war on a false premise and there were no weapons of mass destruction?
No, I am not prepared to comment on that. As I said, the current Government will not comment on the process that led to participation in the Iraq conflict until after the Chilcot report has been published.
Even if the Government are not prepared to concede that point, does my hon. Friend agree that the issue raises questions about the capacity of Parliament to scrutinise the evidence? Even if we accept the evidence from the time at face value—although a lot of us were very sceptical of it—the only thing it concluded was that Saddam had the ability of potentially reaching UK assets in Cyprus within 45 minutes, and that was all. Was that really sufficient evidence for Parliament to decide that we should go to war?
Those are all matters that Sir John Chilcot will be looking at, and I am sure my hon. Friend would prefer there to be an independent inquiry looking at what happened, rather than a Government inquiry. We have made a conscious decision not to comment on the decision to go to war until the inquiry has reported, but as I have said, I recognise that it was a decision of huge significance.
I want to make a little progress and I will be happy to give way later. We must not get into a position of prejudging the inquiry’s conclusions, but I am sure that—quite rightly—that will not prevent other Members of the House from having a full and frank debate as they put their views on the record this afternoon. I would also find it helpful to hear the views of Members on where Iraq might be in 10 years’ time, as well as reanalysing events that took place a decade ago. We should look forwards as well as backwards.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion rightly set out some of the enormous challenges that Iraq still faces. Most visible and acute is the terrorist violence that continues to kill all too many people all too regularly, and I discussed that when I visited Baghdad in January—indeed, when I was in Baghdad a series of car bombs went off. In the past three months we have sadly seen an increase in such attacks, and the UN estimates that more than 1,000 people—mostly civilians—lost their lives in May alone. We continue to condemn utterly such acts, and almost all the Iraqi people believe that such violence has no place in their country’s future.
There are other longer term difficulties, and many fundamental political issues remain unresolved with no settled agreement on how power is to be shared. Ethnic and sectarian divisions remain, often exacerbated by those elsewhere in the region—particularly in Syria, as others have mentioned. Over the past six months, those factors have led to protests in west Iraq, and to disputes between Iraq’s political leaders that have prevented them from taking the decisions the country needs. That political deadlock holds back Iraq’s stability, and in turn its development. As has been rightly pointed out, public services and standards of living in much of Iraq remain poor, and corruption and bureaucracy are also problems that must be faced. As we consistently point out, Iraq’s human rights record remains a source of
concern, from the Government’s increasing use of the death penalty to the recent removal of licences from some media stations.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is being generous, which is to his commendation. May I take him back to the Chilcot inquiry? Probably like a lot of other Members, I have submitted evidence to that inquiry and we wait to hear its results. One thing Chilcot cannot do, however, is manufacture WMDs from his report. Given that the main pretext for war was WMDs, will the Minister at least accept the prima facie case that we went to war on a false premise because there were no WMDs?
I will make a little progress but I will be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman a little later if he still insists.
My point is that the challenges Iraq faces are not the whole story. Although the level of violence is unacceptably high, it is noticeably lower than at its peak during the very dark days of 2006-07. Life across much of Iraq, particularly in the south and the Kurdistan region, is peaceful for most people most of the time. Three democratic national elections have been held since 2005 with another due next year, and in April, 8,000 candidates contested provincial elections across most of the country. Two further provinces will vote next week, and the rest in September.
Iraq’s economy has been transformed. According to the World Bank, its GDP has increased from approximately $19 billion in 2002 to roughly $116 billion in 2011. It is now forecast by the IMF to grow by 8% in each of the next five years. That growth will hopefully turn Iraq into one of the success stories of the next decade, and mean that people no longer see it as a post-conflict state, but as a key emerging economy.
The International Energy Agency world economic outlook predicts that Iraq will be responsible for nearly half the increase in global oil production over the coming decades, and its production could double by 2020. The hydrocarbons potential represents a huge opportunity to drive economic growth for the good of the maximum number of Iraqi people, if used responsibly and properly.
We went to Iraq to defend ourselves against non-existent weapons of mass destruction. We are now being prepared to go to war in Iran to protect ourselves against non-existent Iranian long-range missiles carrying non-existent Iranian nuclear bombs. The Minister cannot postpone the Government’s responsibility and say that we must wait for the Chilcot report, which will be produced this year, next year, some time or never. They must take a decision on Iran, possibly in the near future. Should we not be informed of the truth of what we did in 2003?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that he will not tempt me away from the well considered Government line on the Chilcot inquiry. I will not get into the details of the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. His point on Iran has been made by other hon. Members. I acknowledge and respect his perspective and views, but the international community has serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. The Government continue to believe that the twin-track process of pressure and engagement offers the best hope of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. We are not advocating military action against Iran, but all options should remain on the table.
To return to the positive side of Iraq, the Iraqi Government’s task is to build on that progress and make the most of the opportunities, ensuring that Iraq’s economy is booming, and that that translates into a better life for normal people throughout the country. Improving the country’s security, which has been fully under Iraqi control for 18 months, is vital, but the Iraqi Prime Minister and other political leaders need to find an inclusive political process to resolve the underlying tensions that, I acknowledge, remain, and therefore to reduce the space within which the extremists operate. In that context, I welcome the holding of last Sunday’s Cabinet meeting in Irbil, which I hope sends a signal of serious intent to improve relations between the Federal Government and that of the Kurdistan region.
No doubt many hon. Members will want to raise Iraq’s relations with the region. Increasingly, Iraq has been making progress on rebuilding its relationships with countries that were once adversaries. I was particularly pleased to note that the Kuwaiti Prime Minister met Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad only yesterday. That is another sign of the increasing warmth of relations in the region.
The UK will continue to support Iraq as it faces those challenges. Indeed, the relationship between our countries is increasingly strong. That is true at the Government level. Four UK Ministers including myself have visited Iraq in the past nine months. We visited not only Baghdad, but Irbil and Basra—my right hon. Friend Lord Green, the Minister for Trade and Investment, visited Basra. We have relationships in the Defence Ministries—a meeting took place in London only this morning. I can assure the House that UK Ministers press the Iraqi Government and Ministers on a range of issues, including their plans to improve security.
Our relationship is strongly increasing on a commercial level. Exports were up significantly, and not only in the hydrocarbon sector. There are opportunities in sectors such as education, health care, infrastructure and financial services. The UK Government are doing what we can to help. For example, when the Foreign Secretary was in Iraq in September, he agreed we should set up a UK-Iraq ministerial trade council, which was launched in February by my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt, who has responsibility for the middle east.
We have opened a new visa application centre in Baghdad, and encouraged Iraqi Airways to schedule direct flights from London to Baghdad for the first time in more than two decades, which it has done. All of that will help to cement the closer ties between the UK and Iraq at individual level. Hon. Members will be aware of
the large and significant Iraqi diaspora in the UK. Iraqi students are keen to study here, and we are even beginning to see British tourists return to the Kurdistan region.
Many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I hope those links continue to strengthen. It is right for us to look forward to the future of Iraq even as we look back on the events of 10 years ago. As I have said, the Government have not come to a conclusion and will not comment until we see Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, to maintain internal security, which is vital to restoring the Iraq economy and keeping civil peace, we need to ensure that external actors in the region do not participate in stirring up ethnic conflict within Iraq?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. When I was in Baghdad in January, there was significant concern across the political spectrum and the religious divides in Iraq about Syria, and about the potential spillover into Iraq. It is right that the international community, and the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, focus on using all the levers they have to try to find a lasting political solution to the challenges in Syria.
Iraq is undoubtedly a country of great potential, with an economy that is expanding at 8%, but it has challenges. The UK wants to assist in resolving those challenges for the benefit of the maximum number of Iraqi people in the minimum time scale.
I pay tribute to Caroline Lucas for securing this important debate. She spoke powerfully and with great eloquence and passion. Mr Baron and my hon. Friend Glenda Jackson have said, essentially, that we need to learn profound lessons from the decisions made at the time of the Iraq vote 10 years ago and what has happened since. It is clear that the events and considerations of the Iraq vote set the context for the House’s current foreign affairs discussions on, for example, Syria and Iran. In that respect, at least one lesson has been learned.
I pay tribute to all those who died in the conflict in Iraq, remembering in particular those 179 British troops, who have been mentioned, who died in the service of their country. They served in profoundly difficult and dangerous circumstances, and we owe them a profound debt of gratitude.
The discussion has touched on the various and profound issues relating to the vote back in March 2003, and hon. Members have referred to the Chilcot inquiry. I am grateful to the Minister for the update he has provided today. We will consider the outcome of the inquiry very closely.
My hon. Friend will have heard earlier interventions on the need for a war crimes Act in this country. The vote on Iraq was unprecedented, but the royal prerogative prevails, so the Prime Minister
could take the country to war without a parliamentary vote. Does my hon. Friend believe it is now time for a war powers Act?
The hon. Gentleman did not vote for the Iraq war. What part of the case for war did he not agree with? Several people said there was a solid case, but what made him vote against war?
The hon. Gentleman has beaten me to my next paragraph—I was about to mention my position in respect of the March 2003 vote, which I remember very well indeed. The Minister said that little else was in the minds of Members of Parliament at the time, and there was certainly little else in my mind. I made the decision to cast my vote against the Labour Government, the first of only two occasions when I have done that—I was right the other time, too—and I will explain why.
In 2003, I sat through the entire debate on the Back Benches, but was not called. It was only in 2006 that I had the opportunity to speak and explain why I had made my decision. I had an advantage then, because the weapons inspector Hans Blix had spoken following the end of the Iraq war. He said—this is very important—that in March 2003 his belief was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. I believed, and still believe, that the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. It was on that basis that those who voted in favour of the war made their decision.
My decision was not made on the basis that I opposed any intervention, but that the weapons inspectors needed more time. I looked at all the evidence, thought long and hard, and decided that it was right and appropriate for me to vote against the war. I do not regret that decision and I never have. It is important to recognise that 139 Labour MPs made the same decision. Some suggestions that MPs were sent down the wrong path by representations made at the time could be put in a misleading way. Many of us made the decision on the basis of all the evidence we had at the time, and we made the correct decision.
I recall those days of great turmoil well. Does my hon. Friend think it is a matter of regret for this House that the three Committees we had to oversee these matters—the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee —were cheerleaders for the war and did not act with the kind of independent scrutiny that they perhaps should have?
I cannot pass judgment on the work of the Committees, because I have not looked in great detail at the position they took at the time. I am sure that the vast proportion of hon. Members will have made their decision honestly and in the way that they thought was right.
We know that the decision was important not just to Members of this House, but to an enormous number of people outside. It had a profound impact on British politics. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, the war led to a fundamental loss of trust in the Labour party, and it is right that the Labour party should acknowledge that. Those who knocked on doors in the subsequent general election were made well aware of that, which is one of the great qualities of our democracy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend not just on the position he took 10 years ago, but on the way he is presenting his case today. A number of Labour MPs took the same decision. Indeed, if it had not been for the votes of the Conservative party and others, the motion would not have been carried. Has he given consideration to the suggestion that votes on war should be matters of conscience, and not be whipped?
The 2003 vote was whipped and I still did what I thought was right. Members of Parliament should always do what they think is right.
May I echo the point made by my hon. Friend and by Mr Leigh that it was a whipped vote in name only? The vote was perfectly open. Given the extent of the rebellion on both sides, people were able to make their own judgments. Inside the Government, there was a clear expectation that anybody taking the Queen’s shilling would vote with the recommendation of the Cabinet, but it was open to Ministers to resign—two did, very honourably. Others chose to stay.
I think that votes on important matters in this House always have consequences. This vote had consequences for those MPs who did not support the Government on that particular occasion.
May I make a little progress? I think I am getting stuck.
Regardless of individual positions taken by Members across the House at the time of the invasion, all of us agree that 10 years on we need to reflect on the consequences of the conflict and on the procedures that led to the vote, and to draw important lessons for the future.
As I touched on earlier, the Iraq war casts a long shadow over the House, setting the context for debates on foreign policy and, in particular, current debates on the middle east. Ten years on, the effect of the intervention on Iraq itself is that the negatives still outweigh the positives. There has been a protracted period of internal conflict within Iraq. As the Minister said, terrorist attacks continue, with people killed in Baghdad only this week.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for the tone he is adopting. It is refreshing to hear such personal thoughts from the Front Bench. I am concerned about what we did once the decision was made and we took responsibility for Basra. My concern, which I put to Clare Short, was why a diktat had gone around the Department for International
Development to say that the war was illegal and that the Department should not have any involvement or take any responsibility. Does he agree that that put huge pressure on our armed forces, who created an umbrella of security but were unable to progress with governance and reconstruction?
The position of the troops following the war was one of the issues that weighed on my mind. It is always important to pay tribute to our troops. Following the vote, we asked them to serve and it was important that we supported both them and Iraq, so that it could develop and rebuild. The tragedy is that that did not happen. We need to focus on that issue and learn from it.
The massive instability in the middle east currently is caused partly by the Arab awakening and the response to it, but also by the perceived increased reluctance of the west to get involved in the region. I believe that the roots of that reluctance are the events in Iraq in 2003. There are, however, some positives. It is right to acknowledge that Saddam Hussein and his sons are no longer in power. None of us in this House mourn the passing of that dictatorship. That was brought home to me this week. I returned last night from a visit to the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, as a guest of the regional Government. It was my first visit to Iraq. In Barzan, I met victims of Saddam Hussein, including women who had lost husbands, their faces still etched with grief 30 years on. There is no doubt in the minds of Kurds—the victims of Halabja and the Anfal—that the 2003 intervention was justified. I also visited the Domiz refugee camp, where the Kurdistan regional government, working with UNHCR, has provided refuge to 150,000 fleeing Syrians, mainly Syrian Kurds. For someone who voted against the Iraq war, this was an important visit.
We must all today accept that foreign policy is made in the long shadow of the Iraq war—that cannot be denied—but it should inform, not paralyse policy. Intervention took place in Libya, authorised by the UN, backed by the UK Government and supported by the Labour Opposition. The consequences there are still unfolding, only serving to confirm the lesson of Iraq: that winning a military victory in the short term is merely the start of any process of building a stable and functioning democracy. Ten years on from the Iraq war, I saw earlier this week that in parts of Iraq we have the beginnings of a new democracy. Prime Minister Maliki visited Erbil on Sunday, as the Minister said, to work through issues and disputes that have arisen between the different parts of Iraq. A political process is going on to resolve those difficulties, and that is progress, but there are still massive challenges in Iraq and we must not overstate the progress made.
The international community is most effective when it works collectively, through the UN, to take necessary action. I hope and pray that the next decade will be defined by the kind of international co-operation that was regrettably absent in Iraq.
I was not in the House for the 2003 vote, and I certainly do not want to focus on it today; I am far from sure that I would have made the right decision. In fact, I think I would have been on the wrong side in 2003. It was not until I was stuck in Iraq in 2003 that I saw what a mess it was. I want to reflect briefly, therefore, on the lessons we might be able to draw, not so much from the decision to intervene, but from the questions about how we got stuck there and why we find it so difficult to acknowledge our failure.
The starting point for any discussion of Iraq has to be an acknowledgment that it was a failure and a scandal. However we look at the costs and benefits of what happened there, it was probably the worst British foreign policy decision since the Boer war or the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839. Never have the British Government made a worse decision. By that, I do not mean that had I been in the House I would have voted differently. In fact, I suspect that I would have voted in favour of the war, wrongly. I hope, however, that this is an opportunity to reflect on what Parliament is, what the Foreign Office is, what the military is and how Britain as a whole—or at least the British policy establishment—could get something so wrong.
This matters because there are many similarities between what we did in Iraq and what we are doing in Afghanistan, and many similarities between those things and what we occasionally think of doing in Mali or Syria. At the base of the problem is our refusal to acknowledge failure, to acknowledge just what a catastrophe it was, and the House’s refusal to acknowledge how bewildering it was, how little we know and how complicated countries such as Iraq are. Sitting in Iraq for 18 months from the middle of 2003 to 2005, I found myself facing, in a small provincial town called al-Amara, 52 new political parties, many of them swarming across the border from Iran and many of them armed.
Nobody in the Foreign Office or the military, and certainly nobody in the House, would have been able to distinguish between Hizb-e-Dawa, Harakat-Dawa, Majlis Ahla, Hezbollah—which turned out in the Iraqi context to consist of two men with a briefcase—or any of the other Shi’a Islamist groups that emerged. None of us in the British policy machine predicted in January 2005 that 90% of the votes in the south of Iraq would go to only three Shi’a Islamist parties. Everybody in the foreign policy machine then predicted that it would be different at the end of 2005, and we were all wrong again. Why were we wrong? We were wrong because we did not have the right relationship between politicians, diplomats, soldiers and the local reality of these countries. We have not got it right yet.
We have not got it right because it is not realistic today—as it was not realistic at the time of the Boer war or the first Anglo-Afghan war—to expect people in Parliament to be experts on the internal politics of Iraq. What really began to go wrong after the invasion, beyond the decision about WMD, was all to do with micro-relationships in Nasiriyah and al-Amara and in the relationships between the different grand ayatollahs in Najaf. These are not things that anyone in the Chamber, however well briefed, can pretend to understand or judge. Instead, we have to rely on the military, the Foreign Office and the intelligence agencies, and there the problem starts. The problem starts because the entire structure of our organisations—their incentives,
their promotions, their recruitment, how they interact with policy makers, politicians and Ministers—does not help us ever to acknowledge failure. In fact, these institutions are designed to trap us in these countries.
Careers are made by people going out for short tours. I remind the House and those in the Foreign Office that the initial tours in Iraq were for six weeks, extended to three months, then to six months. The idea—that people living in heavily defended compounds, moving around in armoured vehicles, generally unable to speak a word of any local language, unable to interact with an Iraqi for more than half an hour or an hour at a time, except if surrounded by heavily armed men and operating through translators, could really get a sense of whether Iraq was stabilising or what, to use the Minister’s words, Iraq would be like in 10 years—was of course misleading. The advice and challenge that they could provide to the Government, therefore, was not good enough.
It is not good enough that not a single senior British diplomat formally recorded on paper their opposition to what was happening in Iraq. Many of those who were inside the system now say that they made private comments, that they were worried, but nobody, from the political director downwards, formally objected on paper to the Prime Minister.
Was that not compounded even further by the American Administration, where if someone questioned what was going on, either strategically or tactically, they were sent back to the states, their future career very much in question?
That is a very good point, and perhaps it is a way for me to wrap up my analysis of the Foreign Office. Of course, this is not a uniquely American problem. Within any British civil service Department, there is no great incentive to admit failure. When I look back at the reports I wrote stuck in al-Amara and Nasiriyah, I find it extraordinary how every week, I claimed great success. Every week, I would write, “We’ve hired another 300 people into the police. We’ve held a new sub-district election. I’ve just created 3,000 jobs. We’ve just refurbished another set of clinics and schools.” To read report after report, week after week, it looks as if the whole thing is getting better and better. In retrospect, I know differently, of course. When I began, I could go into the bazaar to get an ice cream, but by the end, I was stuck in my compound with 140 rocket and mortar-propelled grenades flying at the compound, and we had to abandon it and retreat back to a military base, essentially surrendering Nasiriyah, a city of 600,000 people, to the insurgents.
The situation is not helped by the way we talk about it in Britain today. We do not really think very much about Iraq. We do not think very much about what exactly Iraq is doing with Iran or Syria at the moment, why exactly Iraq got involved in dubious banking transactions to bust sanctions on behalf of the Iranian Government or why exactly our great ally, al-Maliki, appears to have been allowing trans-shipment of weapons from Iran into Syria. Why do we not think about these things? It is because we are not very serious. At some level, this country is no longer being as serious as it should be about foreign policy. Our newspapers are not
writing enough about Iraq. The Foreign Office is not thinking enough about the failure. The military is not thinking enough about these things. Unless we acknowledge that something went wrong in Iraq and that something went deeply wrong in Afghanistan, we will get ourselves stuck again.
What do we do about it? We need to reform. It cannot be business as usual. We cannot just go around pretending it was all fine. We cannot simply blame Blair and Bush.
The hon. Gentleman has raised exactly the point that we need to talk about. We believe that somehow it is all the fault of Blair and Bush—this is the myth that has entered the national consciousness. My experience as someone inside the system is that we have to look much more deeply at ourselves. We need to look at the Foreign Office, the military, the intelligence services and Parliament. These people, Blair and Bush, do not operate in a vacuum; they operate in a culture that did not challenge and shape the debate sufficiently. It is not realistic for Blair or Bush to know deeply about these situations and it is simply a constitutional convention, of course, that the people who make the decision are the Blairs and the Bushes. However, if we look at what got us trapped on the ground in Iraq—at why, for example, Mr Brown found it difficult to get out of Iraq or why President Obama found it difficult to say no to the surge—it is because these people are part of a much bigger system.
The reform of that system is threefold. First, we need radically to reform the way in which the Foreign Office operates. The Foreign Secretary has begun; we need to go much further, thinking all the time about the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to focus on people with deep linguistic and cultural expertise. We need to ensure that we change all the bureaucratic mechanisms. The core competency framework for promotion in the Foreign Office needs to be changed. The amount that people are paid for learning languages in the Foreign Office needs to be changed. The posting lengths need to be changed. The security conditions for the Foreign Office need to be changed, because unless we begin to understand deeply and rigorously what is happening on the ground, it is difficult to challenge the Blairs and the Bushes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making such a powerful speech, but when it comes to whether it is right or wrong to blame Bush and Blair, I think he is being a little too generous in his assessment of them. He is giving the impression that they were sitting waiting to hear what the evidence was, when it seems clear—certainly in the case of Bush and maybe in the case of Blair—that they had already made up their minds. They already had an agenda.
I am sure that much of that is true. I am not here to defend that decision—it was a terrible, catastrophic decision—but I think it is dangerous to put
the whole blame simply on Blair and Bush, because the implication is that if we do not have Blair and Bush around, we will never get in these messes again. We will get in these messes again because we have not created the proper Government policy structures required to think these things through—not just to avoid the decision to invade, but above all to get out more rapidly once we have made a bad decision.
Military reforms—you have very kindly given me some time, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I do not have enough to talk about this today—involve accepting that the military have too much power in the policy debate. That is not the military’s fault: they are filling a vacuum. The military feel that the Foreign Office is not taking the lead and that somebody needs to do something. I saw that all the time on the ground in Iraq. I remember a major-general saying to me, “The diplomats and aid workers aren’t doing anything, so we”—the military—“need to take those things over,” but that is not the military’s job. It is extremely dangerous, because its puts generals in positions where they make optimistic predictions about their capacity to sort things out, albeit without a detailed understanding of the politics or the reality of those aspects of governance or diplomacy.
We in Parliament need to look at ourselves—it is on this that we need to conclude. Paul Flynn was exactly right to ask us to look hard at how the Select Committee on Defence, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Intelligence and Security Committee got this wrong. What reforms have we introduced to those Committees to ensure that we do not get it wrong again? How do we as Members of Parliament operate in a very complicated world? It is not realistic for any of us in this Chamber to understand exactly what the difference is between Harakat-Dawa, Hizb-e-Dawa and Hizb-e-Dawa Islamiya. Everybody is learning desperately from briefs, trying to sound plausible, but there are 200 nations in the world. Ministers are busy. Politicians are busy; they are worrying about their constituents. They are not deep experts on these issues. We therefore need to create a system that we can rely on in the Foreign Office, the military and the intelligence services. We in Parliament need to know how to question those people, how to listen to them and how to promote people who disagree with us. We need in Parliament to learn how to look at which civil servants got it wrong and hold them accountable, rather than promoting, as we did, almost everybody who was implicated in the Iraq decisions.
I am very pleased that Caroline Lucas has been able to secure today’s debate. It is timely, obviously, and it is important that we should have plenty of time to talk about this issue, even 10 years down the line. She made a fine and impassioned speech and set the tone for the debate.
I do not always see eye to eye with Ian Lucas, who speaks for the Labour party, but I must say that he made a very fine speech. It was a balanced speech, it came from the heart and it was refreshing to hear such a speech from the Front Bench. It is also a pleasure to follow Rory Stewart, who speaks with great knowledge about things diplomatic and military. They are things that I know very little about—I will place that on the record now, lest it becomes too obvious later on.
Does the hon. Gentleman follow the significant point made by Rory Stewart about the unimportance of being right on these decisions? Those who sided with error saw their careers flourish, while those who were right and objected to their Ministries saw their careers wither.
That is absolutely right, obviously. That is a feature of the system that we are all embroiled in at the moment, imperfect—greatly imperfect—as it is.
I want to start by quoting something that was said recently:
“I let Parliament have the final say on me decision to go to war. I made statements, answered questions, took part in debates. But in the end there was a decision that had to be made: on the basis of the information available, to decide whether to join the US coalition and remove Saddam; or to stay out. I decided we should be in. The job of the Prime Minister is to make such decisions based on what he believes is in the interests of the country.”
Those words are taken from the end of former Prime Minister Blair’s statement to the Chilcot inquiry—an inquiry that, as we have heard, has so far failed to report, despite almost exactly four years having passed since it was first announced in this place by the then Prime Minister, Mr Brown. As I shall briefly outline today, I have reservations about the Chilcot inquiry, which I suspect was as flawed and compromised from the outset as the then Government’s decision to go to war.
Let me nail one other myth. The Liberal Democrats are very pleased to go around saying that they were the only party to vote against. We voted against, the Scottish National party voted against and many Members of other parties voted against. We were described as jellyheads and all kinds of things.
I do not recall us often saying that we were the only party to vote in that way. I am happy to acknowledge publicly the support of Plaid Cymru and the other parties that stood alongside the Liberal Democrats in the Chamber in opposing the war. Is not the truth that the most chilling words were those of Tony Blair in the recent BBC documentary, when he said that he had reflected that it was time to remake the middle east? Did not the combination of that kind of messianic leadership and the enormous momentum towards war mean that no amount of political or even expert diplomatic advice would have changed their minds?
I am very pleased to agree with the hon. Gentleman. He has made a good input into the record.
our colleagues in the SNP, were unanimous in our opposition to the incursion into Iraq and, on
“That this House…recognises that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and”—
“long range missiles, and its continuing non-compliance with Security Council Resolutions, pose a threat to international peace and security”.—[Hansard, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 760.]
The motion was flawed in several regards, so we were meant to vote on a flawed motion in any event, quite apart from the fact that the evidence did not stack up to create a credible or immediate threat from Saddam’s regime. Thus the basis on which Mr Blair led Parliament to decide was a false premise. The jury is still out on the extent to which Mr Blair and the Cabinet knew that the claims were counterfeit.
On the day after the House voted for the invasion, the Prime Minister said:
“We want to ensure that any post-conflict authority in Iraq is endorsed and authorised by a new United Nations resolution”.—[Hansard, 19 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 932.]
There were of course those of us who argued even then that the Government were not acting under the endorsement of an existing UN Security Council resolution, because as Sir Jeremy Greenstock admitted, there was no automaticity in resolution 1441 and our incursion into Iraq was therefore illegal under international law.
With hindsight, and following debates on this topic, that one sentence of Mr Blair’s seems almost to override all else: he had decided that “we should be in”. He had made that decision without a second UN resolution, when most of the world was against the incursion. He had decided that the UK would lend its support to President Bush’s war on terror, whatever the cost. Let us be realistic; Bush had the might to do this in short order in any event. He wanted a cloak of legitimacy, and that is how he lured Tony Blair in to support him—and at what a cost it has proven to be.
Today, Iraq is the state fifth most at risk of terrorism in the world, and the eighth most corrupt. It is a country marred by car bombs and corruption. Under the Shi’a Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, power is divided along ethnic lines. Economically and physically,
the country has been all but destroyed. In a poll published in September 2011, 42% of Iraqis said that they were worse off as a result of the invasion, compared with only 30% who thought themselves in some way better off.
The war has arguably resulted in the other members of the so-called axis of evil, Iran and North Korea, obtaining nuclear weapons, and the risk of terrorism at home has definitely increased. We have heard quotes from Eliza Manningham-Buller and others on that subject. There is no basis for claiming that al-Qaeda had a real presence in Iraq before 2003, but the war itself has established one. The human cost has also been devastating. Between March 2003 and the end of UK operations in May 2011, 179 UK armed forces personnel died as a consequence of operations in Iraq. Of those, 136 were killed in combat. I join other Members across the House in paying tribute to them. Whatever foreign policy decisions are arrived at in this place, they always do their best and carry out their duties bravely. I respect them for that. The question of whether the war was lawful or otherwise is our problem.
I accept everything that the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not agree that there also needs to be some reflection on the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and on the many atrocities that were perpetrated on ordinary Iraqi people by occupying troops in that country?
Absolutely; the hon. Gentleman is quite right. He also voted against the war and took part in the debates at the time. We have not even touched on that important subject in today’s debate, but I hope that, if he catches the Deputy Speaker’s eye, he will develop that theme. It is vital that it should be brought into the debate.
According to the Iraq Body Count project, an unofficial survey of Iraqi civilian casualties, between 113,000 and 123,000 civilians have died as a result of violence in Iraq since March 2003. According to the same source, 883 civilians died in May 2013—the highest number of civilian deaths in any month since April 2008. That is the ugly legacy of this war.
Let me tell the House that it gives me no satisfaction whatever to stand here today and say that we who voted against the motion were proved right. The damage to Iraq, has, as they say, already been done. However, many unanswered questions remain about our descent into war in the spring of 2003. I want to quote from the words spoken by the then Member for Blaenau Gwent, Llew Smith, who said:
“We…need to know whether Ministers simply proved to be very bad judges of geopolitics, stubbornly refusing to listen to the millions who marched against the war…or—worse—deliberately distorted the evidence, cherry-picked the details that suited their case for invading Iraq, and pressed the Attorney-General to provide an opinion that endorsed a political decision already taken two years earlier to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam.”—[Hansard, 9 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1426.]
Personally, I have little doubt that the evidence was indeed distorted, as the decision to go to war had already been made months, if not years, before a motion was ever put before the House. I saw proof of this dating from 2002, and I will return to that point later if I may.
“Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.”
I argued at the time and I argue now that it is in the wider public interest on going to war that disclosure should be made, for heaven’s sake. What is more, I set out the precedents for publishing the advice of the Attorney-General—including, for example, the Belfast riots and the Archer-Shee cases. I cited the opinions of five distinguished international lawyers who each had differing views about whether the war in Iraq had been legal, but who were unanimously in favour of publishing in full the advice of the Attorney-General. One of these, James Crawford, who was then—and still is, I believe—professor of international law at Cambridge, observed:
“If the war was conducted in private, there would be every case for hiding the advice. If it’s going to be fought with public funds, in public and expending the lives of members of the public, then it should be published”.
Another, Lord Archer, QC, said that the Attorney-General’s arguments constituted
“the most important legal opinion given in the last quarter of a century.”
To this day, however, that advice has remained unpublished.
Interestingly, that debate was tabled by us in Plaid Cymru and our friends in the Scottish National party. What I think was then a joint group of nine secured a vote of about 285, as I recall, so there clearly was some concern around, and I am pleased that we brought the matter to the fore.
As I have outlined before, in 2002 I was sent documents from an unknown source which put me in no doubt whatever that Mr Blair had been determined to go to war with Iraq from the very outset. The documents had with them a note saying that they were top secret documents, some British and others appearing to emanate from other intelligence sources—American, I believe. The documents showed me that as early as 2001-02, discussions were being held about toppling Saddam, in which mention was made of the term “regime change”—which we all know is unlawful in international law.
Soon after I received the memorandums, my then colleague, Adam Price, and I were visited by two senior police officers from a special section of the Metropolitan police. I did not have the documents in my personal possession at the time, so I was unable to surrender them to those police officers. When the Chilcot inquiry was established in 2009, however, I decided to hand over
the documents. I searched for them, found them and handed them over to the inquiry. I took them down to Victoria street and handed them over to the secretary of the inquiry, Ms Margaret Aldred.
Several months went by without my receiving any response to my submission. Nine months later, following a number of unanswered letters, I was finally granted the courtesy of a reply. As a result of this treatment, I had my misgivings about the secretariat of the inquiry, which I set out in full during a Westminster Hall debate on the issue on
Suffice it to say here that I discovered that Ms Aldred, the gatekeeper for the inquiry, who had previously acted as the Cabinet’s deputy head of foreign and defence policy secretariat, was put forward for her new role, in which she would inquire into the actions taken in that same foreign and defence policy, by the Cabinet Secretary himself, Sir Gus O’Donnell. The potential conflict of interest was breathtaking. I discovered that in her previous role, Ms Aldred had regularly chaired the Iraq senior officials group. Let us not forget either that it was the Cabinet Office, for which Ms Aldred had worked previously, that drew up plans for regime change and that it was the Cabinet Office and the Joint Intelligence Committee and its staff that produced the “dodgy dossier”. Her hands were hardly clean for that particular job. Thanks to the detective work of Dr Chris Lamb and others, we further discovered that this appointment had not followed the procedures set out in the civil service code and was neither open nor indeed transparent. I countered that her appointment to this role obviously made it questionable whether the inquiry was a Cabinet Office subsidiary. In the continued absence of the Chilcot inquiry’s report into the war, I am unable to comment further on this issue. But let us not hold our breath, folks.
By way of a parallel and supporting point for the case that the right hon. Gentleman has just made, when I was a Back-Bench Member of the Education Committee in the last Parliament, there was an independent inquiry led by Lord Sutherland. I found out that the personal secretary to the permanent secretary at the Department for Education was one of the tiny number who made up this “independent inquiry” team. In fact, when we looked at the report in Word, we could see who authored certain parts of it. It was frightening to discover that the author of the section that exculpated the Department from all responsibility for the SATs fiasco was none other than the former personal secretary to the permanent secretary at that Department.
There we are—another unhappy coincidence. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which shows that this kind of conduct may be prevalent in this place. Clearly, going back to what was said by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, we need to look more into the procedures of this place and to challenge them; otherwise, we might be in throes of a similar disastrous position again. There is a still a catalogue of unanswered questions.
In a memorandum from Mr Blair to his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, dated
“The immediate WMD problems don’t seem obviously worse than three years ago. So we have to re-order our story and message.”
Why, then, did he tell Parliament mere months later that Iraq’s WMD programme was growing? The re-ordering to which Mr Blair referred in his memo was his decision to focus on Saddam’s monstrous nature. He went on to say:
“A political philosophy that does care about other nations—eg. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone—and is prepared to change regimes on the merits, should be gung-ho on Saddam.”
There can be little wonder, then, why Hans Blix was denied the further two months he had requested to continue his weapons inspection in Iraq. His testimony would not have been necessary.
I noticed that when we began this debate, Mr Jones was firing off interventions at a rapid rate at my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion. If his points were so valid and so worthy of consideration, it is a shame that he did not stand his ground and make a speech, as we are all doing.
Mr Blair began this same memo to his chief of staff by saying:
“I do not have a proper worked-out strategy on how we would do it…I will need a meeting on this with military folk.”
“It”, we can surmise, refers to military action. Mr Blair had evidently decided, even in March 2002, that “we should be in”—despite the fact that, as I have said, regime change is unlawful under article 2, paragraph 4 of the United Nations charter.
What is all the more deplorable is the fact that Mr Blair’s deception in the run-up to the vote in March 2003 had disastrous consequences for post-invasion Iraq. Military plans were not constructed properly because they were not properly discussed. In his evidence to Chilcot, Mr Blair admitted that only 14 of the 28 meetings he held with key figures to discuss the possibility of war were in fact minuted. The most compelling documents, of course, have not been made public. The still classified material includes the exchanges between the former Prime Minister and President Bush.
In March 2005, I visited Iraq, going to Baghdad and Basra. During the visit, which was arranged by the Foreign Office, I had the opportunity to meet local politicians and women’s groups as well as national politicians and trade unionists in Baghdad. It was obvious that while there had been great efforts to plan for war, there had been little or no effort to plan for the peace. There were open sewers and people were complaining—I presume that the Foreign Office approved of our meeting these people. They were saying openly that they used to have electricity, running water and a decent sewerage system, but that they had nothing of that kind now. I am led to believe that, in many instances, that remains the position. We have left the country in a terrible state.
We met several senior military officers. It is interesting that they were prepared to confide to someone like me, who could hardly be described as a renowned establishment figure, their concern about the lawfulness of their being in Iraq in the first place. They were greatly concerned about whether the war was legal. I gave them my opinion, for what it was worth, but I also told them “You are doing your duty, as you are trained to do. Any question of illegality is not on your desk, but on the desks of people like me—the politicians back at home—so
please do not divert your attention to that and put yourselves in harm’s way.” However, I respect the fact that they were asking those questions then; it demonstrates the feelings that were around at the time.
Saddam, as we knew, would be overthrown in days, or weeks at the most. The Americans could have done it themselves. The only plan for peace was to allow some limited western-funded repair of the Iraqi infrastructure to be carried out by American companies in which the neo-cons advising Bush had considerable financial interests. There is no interest now in returning Iraq to anything resembling a 21st-century country. Shame on them!
In February, Caroline Hawley, the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent between 2003 and 2005, wrote this in the New Statesman about her recent return to Iraq:
“Iraq remains a troubled place. During my recent visit, I saw little of its restored oil wealth being spent on badly needed social services. The nation, collectively traumatised, has only three child psychiatrists. The ubiquitous checkpoints and blast walls fail to stop…many bombers. Iraqis complain of rampant corruption. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government is seen as increasingly autocratic and its relations with the country’s Sunnis continue to sour. That Iraqis now seem to be fighting on both sides of Syria’s war…doesn’t bode well.”
As we teeter on the brink of entering yet another conflict in the middle east, I urge the Prime Minister and his Cabinet to learn from the obvious mistakes of our recent history. Mr Blair decided that we should go in; the history books will be the judge of why.
I pay tribute to Caroline Lucas and my hon. Friend Mr Baron, who secured the debate. I am very pleased to be participating in it. I also pay tribute to those on both Front Benches, who gave us an evocative, and also reflective, perspective on the war. I agree that this is not an anniversary but an analysis—an analysis that is crucial for the future of foreign policy, for people’s trust in Government, and for the institutions surrounding the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development.
I pay tribute to our soldiers, and also to the civilians in Iraq who have lost their lives. I was pretty horrified by the fact that, for the first couple of years, the Americans in particular seemed to have no interest in counting the civilian casualties. It struck me as extraordinary that we, who had entered the country on behalf of the civilians of Iraq as, in many respects, their advocate against their authoritarian leader, did not pay enough attention to what was happening even to count the number of those civilians who had lost their lives.
I became involved in Iraq in 1993, just after the ejection of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. My responsibility was to travel around the capitals of Europe highlighting Saddam’s human rights abuses. Halabja has been mentioned; I was there, showing videos of people’s suffering. I was in and out of Kurdish police stations where the police showed videos of torture to their prisoners before embarking on torture themselves. This was a brutal, disgusting regime. Saddam Hussein’s authoritarianism ran through the veins, and created fear in every single household in Iraq.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight Iraq’s appalling human rights record during that period, but will she reflect on the fact that Britain was selling arms to Iraq throughout it? Even after Halabja, Britain took part in the Baghdad arms fair of 1989, and continued to supply weapons right up to the start of the Gulf war.
That is evidently true. I am in no doubt about our relationship with Saddam Hussein, or about our relationships with many leaders around the world. Those relationships involve big ethical issues. What I am highlighting is human rights abuse, the brutalisation of a country by a man and his family, and the fact that such a small group of people were able to hold Iraq in so much fear.
It was against that backdrop that I was explicitly, and very vocally, opposed to our invasion of Iraq. I do not claim to be a great expert on Iraq like my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, but I had a little more insight into Iraq—its dynamics, and the interrelationship between the different communities there—than most people, and I felt at that time that the debate was extremely superficial. It was group-think. It was very binary. It was us and them. It was evil people and good people. As can be seen throughout the international foreign affairs perspective, the “cowboys and Indians” analogy works very poorly except for those who are sitting on the very outside.
I was a member of the Conservative party at the time, although not a member of the House of Commons, and I recall the cacophony. Does anyone remember how many times Richard Perle came over and appeared on television shrieking with fear and anticipation of our untimely demise? There were the neo-cons, and there were some colleagues who adopted quite a shrill tone. I was very concerned about the war and I wanted us to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but to do so by means of other mechanisms. I wanted Iraqi solutions to the Saddam Hussein problem. However, I found myself being accused of being anti-war, accused of being a pacifist, and accused of walking away from trouble. Well, those who know me are aware that it is unusual for me to be seen to be walking away from trouble.
The question of weapons of mass destruction was a fascinating aspect of the situation. Many Members have explained the whole issue of Hans Blix and the inspectors; however, those who, at the time, kept saying “But Saddam Hussein is not standing up and saying he has no weapons of mass destruction” did not understand enough about the regime itself. None of them understood the position that Saddam was in. At that moment, just before the war, he was extremely weakened—weakened internally. The republican guard had started to create a fair amount of tension in his regime, although the special republican guard was still on his side.
Saddam Hussein—the man of terror, the man of weapons of mass destruction—could not stand up and say “I do not have these weapons.” We were asking him to do something that would have constituted, in a sense, the disarming of every element of authority that he had. We were asking him to do something that he was not going to do, although many of us knew—and I worked with military intelligence during the war—that the weapons did not exist, or at least had an extremely limited capacity.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, first for giving way, secondly for her kind comments, and, thirdly, for making a powerful case for the importance of an Opposition holding a Government to account in relation to events in the middle east. Is that not a very important lesson for this Government?
Opposition on an issue such as this can come from all sorts of different directions.
It was frightening to see how the group-think had emerged and how, for example, the issue of 45 minutes to London arose. Do we remember that claim? The Evening Standard front page was in many ways a motivation, a call to action, and I was told by friends, colleagues and people who I would say are less than colleagues, “Laura, your position in being against the war is putting families in London at risk.” The debate became really quite vicious. It was not friendly, and it was not constructive in respect of understanding Iraq per se and—I say this having worked in the defence sector myself, and having worked in academia in the defence sector—understanding the potential and the possibilities of ballistic missiles.
What was fascinating about that whole 45-minutes-to-London claim is that No. 10 said afterwards, “Oh, we didn’t endorse that leak, wherever it came from,” but did they question it or contest it, saying to the Evening Standard and the other newspapers, “This actually is wrong”? That was an omission that allowed untruths to permeate the debate and created a very toxic environment, in which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, an opposition needed to thrive.
The hon. Gentleman will have to ask them. I was not a Member of this House at the time. However, lots of people from very different political perspectives—people on the right, the left and across the board—were against the war, and there were also people from all the parties who felt it was the right thing to do. I would also say this to the hon. Gentleman: I have seen some of the videos, and I have spoken to people who were tortured by Saddam Hussein, and I can see why people right across the board might have found the humanitarian motive extremely compelling.
One of the gravest failings was mainly constructed in America: the lack of planning post-Saddam and for the future. From my perspective, that was extraordinary. I was part of the “red team” working with military intelligence, and we met three times a week in the run-up to the Iraq war and then during the Iraq war. The minute the so-called conflict stopped, we were all disbanded because we were not needed—because there was no need for anybody with any expertise in Iraq, because the roses were going to be thrown on to the tanks and the Americans and the Brits were going to be embraced in every street, and there were going to be parties and we were going to have liberation right across the board. That naivete was, as has been said, in many
I have subsequently heard that there were two opportunities for our armed forces to support the Iraqis to topple Saddam: as we arrived in Kuwait as part of our preparations for war, and as we were arriving close to Baghdad. At both times, leaders in the republican guard—not the special republican guard—approached the allies and said, “Can we instigate a revolt against Saddam? Then we will invite you in to support us.” That has received very little coverage and created little interest, but, from what I understand, there is truth in it, and I would be interested to see some of the papers to get to the bottom of it. We were there, and if our objective was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, we should have understood that it was important to do that in conjunction with the many forces and interests within Iraq that wanted to get rid of that brutal dictator.
My final point is that we must learn the lessons of history. I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, and many other Members, would agree with me on that. We went into Iraq in 1917 and had a very difficult and torrid time, and many of the issues we faced in 2003 were identical, both in intention and implication. We must make sure that we do not end up across the region with three countries: a Sunni country, a Shi’a country and a Kurdish country. My group at King’s college at that time was explicit about that, and we see the same issue arising again now in relation to Syria. If we end up with those sorts of conflicts arising over the next few years, we will have to see our invasion of Iraq as being the first step in causing some deep fragmentation, some great destabilisation and some great global challenges, faced as a result of this decision on Iraq, which was not well thought through.
I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing this debate from the Backbench Business Committee, and for her forceful, eloquent and moving opening speech. It is difficult to say the same of the Minister, who, constrained by the unpublished Chilcot report, chose to say, in almost half an hour, very little of substance, although he did give what I thought was a distinctly Panglossian view of the improvement in the state of Iraq, grossly overstating the case.
There has, however, been a great degree of honesty and frankness from all Members, which is extremely refreshing. I particularly congratulate in that context my colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend Ian Lucas, and although it is always invidious to pick out one person, I thought Rory Stewart gave a remarkable speech, making what I think, in my lengthy experience, must be a unique statement in this Chamber: that we should be more willing to admit our own failings. It is true that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, but that is not a doctrine we normally find expounded here.
I want to go over some of the fundamentals. Now, 10 years on, the facts cannot seriously be held in doubt, and they are stark. The United States went to war in
Iraq because of oil and because American control of the middle east region was considered important for their foreign policy, as clearly set out in the Project for a New American Century document published by the Bush election team in September 2000. As we now know from then US Treasury Secretary O’Neill, that war was planned from the very first day of the Bush Administration, and 9/11 simply provided the pretext for launching it.
The United Kingdom went to war because President Bush wanted UK support. I do not think there is any doubt that at the Crawford summit in April 2002, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in effect committed to providing that support, publicly pledging that he was going to stand shoulder to shoulder with President Bush. From that point on, the assessment of the intelligence data conflated analysis into advocacy, to find a rationale for the war which had already been decided on for other reasons. That, I believe, is the explanation.
The decision having been made to go to war, Whitehall provided a briefing that any rationale depended on being able to show incontrovertible evidence of large-scale—I emphasise: large-scale—activity by Iraq to obtain weapons of mass destruction, but because the UN inspectors had left Iraq in 1998, evidence was non-existent or certainly flimsy. The CIA admitted that its resources on Iraq were “thin” and the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee had already concluded, in March 2002, that
“Intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction . . .and ballistic missile programmes is”—
in words we will always remember—
“sporadic and patchy.”
The key point is that in the evidence put together in those crucial five months between the Crawford summit and the publication of the September dossier to justify the war, all the specific data were flawed. The first and central point is that the inventory of chemical and biological weapons and weapon parts that the then Prime Minister presented to the House dealt with weapons that were unaccounted for in the first Gulf war, 12 years earlier, but they were not presented as weapons that were unaccounted for; they were presented as weapons that Saddam Hussein was definitely believed to possess.
Secondly, the 45-minute claim referred to battlefield nuclear weapons, but the impression given was that the threat went much wider.
The case for going to war was bunkum and nonsense, but the right hon. Gentleman voted for the war. Does he feel that he was lied to, misled or duped?
Yes—I am glad the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to say, in the spirit of honesty and frankness of this debate, that I am utterly ashamed of what I did on that occasion. It is the worst political mistake that I have made in my lifetime, but I want to say why I did it. I did it because I listened carefully to the then Prime Minister during those two crucial debates. He spoke with enormous assurance and authority, and I believed that, as Prime Minister of this country, he would have been presented with the fullest degree and comprehensiveness of UK intelligence, and he would use those data in a proper and honest manner to make the case. Perhaps I was naive to think that—I now believe that I was—but that is what I believed. I am
speaking today because I am so angry at having been deceived. That experience has deeply damaged my trust in the role of Prime Ministers and in the link between intelligence and the various Departments of State and the Prime Minister, who speaks for the Government. I hope that that will be repaired in future, but the damage done has been considerable, certainly to me.
I was talking about the 45-minute claim referring to battlefield nuclear weapons. When the media took it up—Laura Sandys forcefully recalled the Evening Standard headline—that was not corrected, even though the authorities knew very well that the wrong impression was being given.
Thirdly, the claim that Iraq tried to buy 500 tonnes of yellowcake, which is required for nuclear fission, from Niger was included in the dossier, despite its having been confirmed by a visit by the former US ambassador to that country six months before that it was completely bogus. None the less, the claim was included.
The fourth point, which is very important but which has received little attention, is that the then Prime Minister of this country claimed to the House on
“the offensive biological weapons and the full extent of the nuclear programme”.—[Hansard, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 123.]
However, as we now know, from a Newsweek exclusive just a few weeks later, what Hussein Kamel actually said during his debriefing was precisely the opposite. He said:
“All weapons—biological, chemical, missile, nuclear—were destroyed.”
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the tenor of his speech and for putting that fact more strongly in the public domain. To clarify: that piece of information was available in February 2003. The fact that it was covered up to such an extent—not even covered up, but completely contradicted—is one of the most shocking deceits in this whole process.
I entirely agree. That is precisely why I feel so let down by someone who was in the unique role of Prime Minister behaving in such a way. I do not expect any Prime Minister of any party ever to behave in that way.
As the Butler report points out so poignantly, all the ifs, buts, qualifications and caveats in the raw intelligence data were dropped from the dossier, while the positive allegations were distinctly overhyped. We all know that. Sources were treated as reliable when they were clearly not, and they were not checked against the expertise of intelligence staff. Anyone who has read appendix B of the Butler report, which was excellently put together, can see set out, step by step, how the massaging and accretion steadily accumulated until we were told in the final September dossier that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programme was—in words that have echoed for the past 10 years—“active, detailed and growing” and that the intelligence on which that judgment was based was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”. In fact, as we now know, Blair had been told just over a month previously, by the UK intelligence community, that
“we…know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988”.
The first great issue is accountability in relation to the Prime Minister’s own judgment, his deceitful presentation and his over-eagerness to take Britain into a war on grounds that far exceeded the evidence to justify them. One cannot take a country into a war under false pretences and then proclaim, as the Butler committee did, that no one can be held responsible.
Indeed the most striking characteristic of the Butler report is this disjunction between analysis and judgment. It is excellent on analysis and very poor, very cautious and very fearful about judgment. It catalogues a litany of failures and then pulls all its punches by declaring that, in effect, no one was to blame. I have to say that George Tenet was sacked as head of the CIA for intelligence failures over Iraq, but John Scarlett, who held the equivalent position in the UK and was equally responsible for the intelligence failures, is still recommended by the report for promotion, despite all the damning evidence in the report to the contrary. It is a very British establishment charade, when what is really needed is genuine accountability. I think everyone on all sides of the House is seeking that. But that the excuse is made that no one can be held to account and that it just somehow happened is completely unacceptable.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech but, on the point about the Joint Intelligence Committee, it is the responsibility of Government to digest intelligence. The information is slid across the table and then it is the Government of the day and Whitehall who make the assessments. If the intelligence is scant, the Government need to respond on the day. Does he agree that people such as Mr Scarlett did their job? It became difficult for them when the documents were slid back across the table by people like Alastair Campbell, who were saying “You need to replicate what they are finding in America.”
I agree that the intelligence community can only do what it can do. There are limits to the amount of information it can provide and the politicians then have a responsibility to reflect that. I completely agree and one’s anger is not that politicians were selective, but that they said the opposite of what they were being told, which I believe is unforgivable.
There are two issues on which those responsible must be held to account. One is the presentation of the evidence to the House to agree to war. Being sinuous with the truth may not exactly be lying but it is certainly not open or honest. Presenting a seriously misleading account of the facts may not be lying either but it is certainly not truthful or straightforward. The second question is about the framework of governance that allowed this to happen. On that point, of course, it would have been much better if we had had the Chilcot report, but we still have to wait for its recommendations. I think everyone in the House agrees that it is far too long delayed and we need the report urgently.
Even 10 years on, we still have not been told the crucial evidence of the secret pledges that Blair made to Bush at his Crawford ranch in Texas some 10 months before the war began and, of course, before consulting the Cabinet, Parliament or the British people. Chilcot has seen this evidence but, as I understand it, has been prevented from publishing it, even though Blair himself, as well as Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell have
disclosed privileged information when it has suited their case when they have given evidence to the inquiry. Being told, as we have been, that it is not in the public interest that it should be disclosed is, in my view, the strongest possible indication that it is very much in the public interest that it should be revealed.
The second fundamental dimension of this whole saga is clearly what the war achieved in the long term.
My hon. Friend is giving a very interesting narrative of the process in government. Does he think that there is now case for legal action at an international level against those who deceived successive Parliaments in this country and in other places, which resulted in this terrible war?
That is why I say that we need the Chilcot report, in the light of which my hon. Friend’s point will be a serious consideration. The truth is that, in realpolitik, to the victors the spoils, with only those who are defeated paying the penalty. I take my hon. Friend’s point, which is an honest and fair one, and we should return to this when the report is finally published.
The second dimension is what the war has achieved. On this 10th anniversary, it has been said that the US won the war, Iran won the peace and Turkey won the contracts. But did the US win the war? At a cost that has been estimated at $1.5 trillion, something over £1 trillion—Joseph Stiglitz, a former member of the presidential economic council, thinks it is actually twice that level—and at a cost to the US of a death toll of 4,500 troops, 32,000 wounded and with thousands of survivors still struck down with post-traumatic stress disorder, the US completely failed to anticipate the insurgency that eventually forced it out. Moreover, the war actually produced the one thing that the US was desperately anxious to prevent; namely a Shi’a autocracy in Iraq, closely aligned with a resurgent Shi’a Iran. Even the US goal of securing control of the enormous Iraqi oil reserves, second only to those of Saudi Arabia, it was forced to forgo. If one had to pinpoint the moment when the US lost unipolar power as the world’s hegemon, it must surely be this comprehensive disaster of the Iraq war.
As for Iraq itself, it remains a bitterly divided and violent country, as others have said. It is not only the hundreds of thousands of dead and, at the height of the war, the 4 million refugees, but after nine years of occupation by US and British troops, thousands are still tortured and imprisoned without trial, health and education have dramatically deteriorated, the position of women has horrifically gone backwards, trade unions are effectively banned, Baghdad is still divided by the checkpoints and the blast walls, the electricity and water supplies have all but broken down, and people pay with their lives if they are honest enough to speak out.
In the longer term, the war has undermined the moral standing of the US and the UK across the world, not only in the middle east. It generated the al-Qaeda presence, which certainly was not there before, and it sent a clear message, which has emboldened Iran and North Korea, that the only way to deter US blackmail and attack was indeed to acquire weapons of mass destruction. It could even be said about the war without
exaggeration that the greatest weapons of mass destruction were those wielded by the Americans. We saw the comprehensive and systematic demolition of Falluja, the US-led massacres at Haditha, Mahmudiya and Balad, and the biggest refugee crisis in the middle east since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.
My third and final consideration lies in the lessons, briefly, that can be drawn from this disaster. The chief one, as I said, concerns the governance structure that allowed it to happen in the first place. As we know, there was the mendacious, illegal and devious manner in which the US and the UK claimed authority in launching the war at all. Saddam had no involvement whatever in 9/11. There were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as was widely suspected by western intelligence at the time, but suppressed by the politicians. The ways used by Bush and Blair to take their countries to war were, as we know all too well, brazenly deceitful.
Much is made of the fact that there was a vote in the House of Commons, and there was, but that vote was on the very eve of war, hours before the bombing started when, with 45,000 British troops already deployed in the field, it was virtually impossible to draw back. So the first lesson is obviously that in any such future scenario—God forbid that there ever should be such a future scenario—the House of Commons vote must be at a much earlier stage in the process when war is first seriously being contemplated and at that stage the documentation must be provided to justify, or purport to justify, the war, and that must be fully disclosed to the House before the vote is taken.
As somebody who has so much more experience than I do in Parliament, will the right hon. Gentleman speculate what would have happened if we had voted against the war? Would we have been able to roll ourselves back? I think it was almost too late and it would have been a very big dilemma for the Prime Minister of the time to be in that position—an interesting dilemma and one that we need to resolve if we are to have votes before intervention in the future.
That is indeed an interesting point. It would not just have been difficult for the Prime Minister—it would have been a massive humiliation and embarrassment if that had happened. One has to ask why the vote was taken so late. Maybe—I can only speculate—it was precisely to put pressure on Members of this House for what was virtually a fait accompli, which would compel a majority of them to support it. I pay enormous tribute to the 139 MPs who voted against the war. Most were Labour Members, but some were Tories or Members from the smaller parties. They need to be given the credit and honour that they are due.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for commending the parties that voted against the war. He was just speculating on what might have happened if the House had voted against the war and whether that would have stopped it. One clear conclusion is known, because Tony Blair said that he would have resigned if the vote had gone against him. I think that was as big an incentive as any to vote against it that evening.
We all can have our views on that opinion.
I was one of the organisers of the rebellion, and it was with great sadness that I rebelled against my party and my Prime Minister. Will my right hon. Friend concede that the vote was not gifted by the Government, but hard fought for? Many of us worked for many months to obtain the vote. Indeed, there was to be an alternative convening of Parliament in Church House, at which we would have had a critical mass, and only 48 hours before the Government conceded that there would be a vote. We had enough Members to convene a Parliament to discuss the Iraq war, and the former Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, was prepared to chair it. It would have included Members from across the House, including some very brave Conservative Members, Members from the Liberal party and friends from the smaller parties across the political spectrum. But 122 Labour Members voted on the first occasion, and indeed the numbers went up on the second vote, which is unheard of, given the whipping operation against those who did not want us to go to war. It was not a gift of the Government; it was hard fought for—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an intervention, not a speech. We have only two hours remaining for this debate and at least six Members still wish to take the Floor. I would be grateful if Members wishing to intervene did so briefly, because otherwise those who wish to make a speech will be disappointed.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend provided the House with that information, as I do not think it is well understood. It has been claimed in this debate is that the whipping was not very strong, but that is absolutely not the view that most of us take. It was an attempt to corral Members of all parties to support the war. I think that he has skilfully shown the work that was done under the counter, which forced what was necessary. Without it, the vote might well never have happened.
The second lesson—I will be quick, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that I have been speaking for some time—is that the power and wilfulness of a Prime Minister who can so brazenly override normal democratic procedures, quite apart from the personality of Tony Blair, is a very serious issue. He made a commitment to go to war at Bush’s Crawford ranch in Texas 10 months before that vote and without consulting anyone. He regularly told Parliament, right up to the very start of the war, that no decision had been taken. Clearly an unstoppable momentum had been deliberately built up. He lent heavily on his Attorney-General between 7 and
“If you had known then that there were no WMDs, would you still have gone on?”
“I would still have thought it right to remove him”—
that is, Saddam Hussein. To that end, he even colluded with what his own head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, said in July 2002, eight months before the war—that
“the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
That background of the contumacious wilfulness of a Prime Minister dragging this country, virtually single-handedly, to war—as it turned out, a war of momentously disastrous consequences—makes it the duty of this House to set down inviolable conditions to prevent any such catastrophe from ever happening again. That must, at the very least, embrace unquestioning compliance with UN resolutions; a clear and unwhipped vote of the Commons and, indeed, the Lords, long before any envisaged hostilities; and a full disclosure of all the data and evidence that can be used to justify war. Only when those conditions are made to apply will we have learned the lessons of this dreadful episode.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. Please excuse my croaky voice, but I was very keen to speak for two reasons. First, as a Royal Air Force officer I served in Operation Warden, the no-fly zone over Northern Iraq in the 1990s; and secondly, just a fortnight ago, I was honoured to return Iraq 18 years on from my military service there. I want to give my perspective on Iraq pre and post the war of 2003.
In the 1990s, Operation Warden was the no-fly zone over northern Iraq which operated from Incirlik airbase in Turkey. Aircraft from the UK, the US, France and Turkey prevented Saddam Hussein from waging his war against Iraq’s 5 million Kurds. Prior to the no-fly zone, Saddam Hussein’s forces slaughtered many thousands of Iraqi Kurds. This included chemical weapon attacks at Halabja and mass executions culminating in the Anfal campaigns of 1988.
In 1995, during my tour, I joined coalition officers from the military co-ordination centre in Zakho, northern Iraq. We toured Kurdish villages near Dohuk and Irbil. Meeting village elders, we spread the word that the only aircraft flying above were coalition ones and that we could help with medical supplies and other immediate necessities such as electricity generators. We were given a warm welcome. The no-fly zone saved lives and has meant that Iraq’s 5 million Kurds have experienced relative stability since the end of the 1991 Gulf war.
After the war of 2003, Iraq’s 2005 federal constitution gave the Kurdistan regional government an unprecedented level of self-government. Eighteen years on from my military service, I was back in northern Iraq two weeks ago as a guest of the Kurdistan regional government via the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I saw the peaceful and increasingly prosperous Erbil and its surrounding areas. This fairly secular region sees Christians, Jews and Muslims living side by side. In fact, over 2 million tourists visited the region last year. The Erbil citadel, 6,000 years old, is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement and a big tourist attraction. Again, the welcome was warm and friendly.
For many years I have spoken of my opposition to the 2003 Iraq war. I come at it from a slightly different angle—a military angle. My view was that Saddam
Hussein was a caged animal because the northern no-fly zone, like the one in the south, was preventing any repeat of his previous atrocities. However, it is clear that the dictator’s removal has allowed Kurdistan to move on. Weapons of mass destruction or oil are often cited as reasons for going to war, as they have been in this Chamber today, but it is the regime change that has made a huge difference in the north of the country.
Having been helped themselves, the Iraqi Kurds are now helping others. On this month’s trip we spent an emotional day at the Domiz refugee camp near the Iraq-Syria border. Some 130,000 Syrian Kurds have fled the fighting in Syria. I spoke with many refugees, including children, who continue to be educated in specially constructed schools. The Kurdistan regional government deserves praise for funding and arranging that.
As has been said, however, all is not well in Iraq. There are tensions and rifts between the Kurdistan regional government and Baghdad, the capital is plagued by violence—a post-2006 record of 1,000 people were killed in May alone—and there is a bitter dispute over revenue sharing, as a new oil pipeline from Kurdistan into Turkey nears completion. With an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil reserves—the fourth largest in the world—and a century’s worth of natural gas, the Kurdistan regional government has become a major player and its dispute with Baghdad is now based on the breakdown of revenue sharing. KRG is supposed to get 17% of national revenues and, by the same token, should pay 83% of whatever it earns into the national treasury.
Kurdistan’s relative stability is now a strong pull for foreign investors. It is not just about oil—hotel and leisure groups are investing there. I hope that this can be a model for the rest of Iraq. Given recent events in neighbouring Turkey, the violence and civil war in Syria and the upcoming elections in Iran, the region and western nations need a stable Iraq more than ever.
Ten years on from the Iraq war, the outlook for Iraq is mixed. The absence of the violent dictator Saddam Hussein has heralded peace and prosperity in the north, while the south and the capital face uncertainty and, potentially, an even more violent future.
As I come to the end of my brief speech, I want to pause to remember and pay tribute to those who died in the Iraq conflict, which started in 2003. There have been 179 UK military deaths and 43 UK civilians have died, as have, as we have heard, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children. We must remember them all. With Syria in mind, perhaps these are the lessons we need to heed when pondering the removal of another murderous dictator.
To take up the final point made by Jason McCartney about honouring the 179 dead, I have in the past read out their names. I am sure it would make a deeper impression today if I read them out again, but unfortunately that is forbidden by the rules of the House.
That is part of the feeling we have—Rory Stewart made this point—and our reluctance to face the truth. Only the
future is certain; the past is always changing. We have heard today so many attempts to fictionalise what happened and we refuse to face our failures. The hon. Gentleman made a marvellous speech on which I would like to base my remarks. He said that what characterises this Parliament is the unimportance of being right and the rewards for failure and the punishment for the truth. I am afraid that that is the abiding culture of this place.
I have received a message during the debate from someone expressing, in very strong language, incredulity at the suggestion that there was not a strong Whip on that day in March. I have been here for 26 years and it was the strongest Whip I have ever encountered. Many of those who were opposed to the war—about 30 or 40 of them—who had signed motions and early-day motions against it were bribed, bullied and bamboozled into changing their minds to either abstain or vote in favour of it. Almost all of them regret that bitterly. It was the most important vote of our careers and it is not true to say that it was easy to make our minds up. It was not. The threat was there that we would lose our seats and that the Prime Minister would resign. Members who were in any doubt were called in to see Ministers to be persuaded. Members of the Committees who had knowledge that we did not have, such as the Intelligence and Security Committee, went around cajoling Back Benchers saying, “If you knew what we know, you’d vote for war, but we can’t tell you because it’s all secret.” They were being fed nonsense and exaggerations as well.
Our reluctance to accept the truth seems extraordinary to me. It would be flattering to describe today’s speech from the Government Front Bench as vacuous. Even now, the Government cannot admit that there were no weapons of mass destruction. It is little short of insanity to suggest that anyone still believes that there were such weapons.
Members have questioned whether anyone foresaw what would happen. A great many people foresaw it at the time. To suggest otherwise is another attempt to rewrite history. I have dug out a letter that I sent to the then Prime Minister in March 2003 to point out what the consequences of the invasion would be. I see with nausea that Tony Blair is now explaining that the inherent nature of the Islamic religion was responsible for the terrible event that took place in Woolwich a few weeks ago. It was not. That event was a reaction to what happened in 2003. My letter stated:
“Our involvement in Bush’s war will increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks. Attacking a Muslim state without achieving a fair settlement of the Palestine-Israeli situation is an affront to Muslims, from our local mosques to the far-flung corners of the world.”
That is when it started and it continued in Afghanistan. The only decision that has been taken without a vote that is comparable to the decision to join Bush’s war in Iraq is the decision to go into Helmand province. There were two dead UK soldiers at that time. The figure is now 441. Nothing has been achieved in Helmand province. Indeed, conditions are worse than in 2006 when we went in.
This House was deceived. We failed. The organs that should have defended us and given us the truth—the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee—were all part of the hallelujah chorus of praise for the messiah,
Tony Blair, who thought that he could walk on water. He had been successful in Kosovo. He had been successful in Sierra Leone. Although there were people who opposed him, he thought that he was infallible and was determined to go on.
Tony Blair was asked about the crucial decision in a splendid television programme that was aired recently on BBC2. The decision was not about whether we should stop the war. We could never have stopped the war, because Bush was determined to go in. Saddam would have been removed anyway. The decision that we had to make in Parliament was whether our soldiers should be involved in that. Tony Blair admitted to the shoulder-to-shoulder comment. He almost certainly made his decision in 2002, when he shook hands with Bush and said, “I’ll be with you.” They then invented the facts in order to present this House with a false agenda. If he had not persuaded 40 or so Labour Members to vote the other way, we would not have gone to war.
Tony Blair was asked in the programme why he did not pull out. His comment was:
“I thought it was the right thing to do, I wanted my country to be a part of it. I admit what I said about standing shoulder to shoulder with the US and I would prefer to have gone and left as Prime Minister than to have backed out on the basis that it was too politically difficult.”
There are a large number of “I”s in that statement, but 179 British dead is a hell of a price to pay for one man’s vanity, which I believe was the situation.
Tony Blair did persuade the House; he was very persuasive and used his great talents. He thought it was a special day; it is the only time, I believe, that he invited his family up to the Public Gallery to watch his performance. He saw this; he was the great actor-manager of politics and he gave a splendid performance in the Chamber. There was the invention of the 45-minute claim, and the sexing-up of the introduction to the dossier. Because of that, we sent those young men to their deaths.
The awful thing is that those families who saw their loved ones die have constructed their own justification by saying, “Well, they died in a noble cause; they did not die in vain. Iraq will be a better place because of it.” Slowly, tragically, they must come to terms with a different reality that their loved ones died because of the ego of one man who used his position to send them into an avoidable war.
We must consider all the other wars we are faced with, and the extent of the deceptions. We went into Iraq to defend ourselves against non-existent weapons of mass destruction; we went into Helmand province to defend ourselves against a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat to the United Kingdom. We are now being told that we should perhaps go into Iran to defend ourselves against non-existent Iranian long-range missiles carrying non-existent Iranian nuclear bombs.
One issue that has come to light but received very little publicity is the activity of people such as the Kagans. Kimberly and Frederick Kagan are a married couple who were at Petraeus’s right hand. They were privy to all the private conversations, went to every secret meeting, and wrote Petraeus’s report to the Defence Secretary on what was happening in Afghanistan. Each time, they wanted a more hard-edged approach to military activities and more aggression, and each time, they tried to sabotage the peace initiatives. The Kagans were not employed by the military or by Petraeus—their paymasters
were the defence industry and contractors. There was a strong element of that in Iraq and certainly in Afghanistan, and we must look to such things and to the revolving door that means that wars go on. We are at a stage where we are being told to go into perpetual wars. When one is over, we are softened up for the next one, and on and on it goes.
It gets worse. Mr Baron spoke about the error of saying that might is right. That works on the day and we win victories, but we store up huge resentment—just as we are doing now with the use of our vastly superior technology in drones and robot weapons. The price must be paid in the end, and we are paying it with the division between the western, Christian part of the world, and the Muslim side. Those divisions are deep and we did a great deal to cause them through our errors in the past.
I will conclude with a poem that was read the other day about the start of the first world war, because it is something we could apply to the former Prime Minister. It is a poem by Kipling, who spent his life celebrating and glorifying war. He managed to get his son, who was almost blind, into the war by pulling a few strings, but he was then tormented because his son died in the war as a result of his efforts. That changed his view, and if any poem will apply to Tony Blair when he becomes—this is the title of the poem—“A dead statesman”, it is this:
“I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?”
I have just returned from a brief all-party visit to Berlin, where, with other parliamentarians, I had the opportunity to visit checkpoint Charlie. Anybody who visits will be aware of the big sections of the Berlin wall that remain, covered in graffiti, as symbols of how divided that city was. We find the same walls and constructs—blast containers—all over Baghdad, Kabul, Helmand and so on. When will sections of walls in Baghdad or Basra serve no other purpose than to remind us and remain as symbols of events in the past?
I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing this important debate. I am grateful for it. It is appropriate to discuss the lessons learned, considering that almost 200 lives were lost, and that the campaign cost the taxpayer almost £8 billion. I declare an interest as a former regular member of the armed forces and a serving member of the reserve forces. I pay tribute, as other hon. Members have, to those who served and to the fallen—those whose lives are permanently changed through injury and, particularly, those who did not return.
The analysis should be divided into three different areas: first, the justification for intervention; secondly, the military campaign and defeating the enemy; and thirdly, the stabilisation and reconstruction phase. General Petraeus, who had a long-term involvement in Iraq, famously said that it was not enough to defeat the
enemy, and that, if we are to intervene, we need to enable the local. Those are wise words to remember no matter where we want to go, whether upstream or on any campaign or intervention.
Although we might disagree with intervention, I am not sure we would be having this debate and making the cases we are making if the stabilisation and reconstruction had been more of a success story. I would go further than that and say that Tony Blair would probably have continued as leader of his party and not been taken over by his Chancellor had peace prevailed, had Basra been a success, and had the situation not deteriorated as it did in the aftermath of the invasion.
Like other hon. Members, I await the outcome of the Chilcot inquiry, which will be illuminating. I and other hon. Members attended a number of its sessions. It was interesting to hear people giving direct accounts of their roles, small and large, in the decision-making process, not least the military leaders who gave evidence who felt pulled between commitments in Iraq and continuing commitments in Afghanistan, to which hon. Members have referred. Unfortunately, I believe the inquiry will make unpleasant reading for the Labour Government in respect of some of their decisions.
On the justification for intervention, I spoke out prior to invasion against intervention. I made that absolutely clear, even though the Conservative party seemed to be in favour. As a military person, I define a threat as it is defined militarily—a threat is the ability and intent to cause harm. A threat is not just the desire to cause harm to another person, region, community or state; it must be matched with the means. People must have capability to pose a threat. If the two are not together, in military terms, the threat does not exist. That is why I began to question the justification for the invasion.
I do not have the same problem as other hon. Members with the build-up of armed forces, because that shows intent. We needed to build up capacity to allow the politicians to make the decision. Building up armed forces can persuade the enemy to change their minds. We cut the oak for the ships used in the battle of Trafalgar well in advance of any admiralty decision to attack, but it was in mind and preparations needed to take place. I also do not have much of a problem with the vote in the House on the war itself. As I said, I would have put my hand up to say that I was not convinced. Many in the House were convinced by the intelligence that was presented to them.
We realise now that there were many flaws in the intelligence and that the House was misled on, for example, the 45-minute claim that our British bases in Cyprus were somehow under threat from tactical weapons of mass destruction. There was the very sad role of Alistair Campbell interfering with John Scarlett’s report and directing British intelligence dossiers to complement US intelligence. He was then forced to resign following the tragic death of David Kelly. There was the role of General Colin Powell, for whom I have a huge amount of respect. Not long ago, he admitted that his Adlai Stevenson moment—if I can put it that way—when he addressed the United Nations to give evidence for the justification of war in February 2003, was one of the most regrettable moments of his career. There was
the CIA’s claim about yellowcake coming from Niger, which was used in President Bush’s state of the union address, leading, when the truth came out, to Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, going to prison.
The issue of what Hans Blix knew has been raised a number of times and is still debated. It is clear that while working for the International Atomic Energy Agency and leading the weapons inspectors, he continued to have full access in the country, even if Saddam Hussein was not co-operating fully. He had not found any evidence and could have continued in the country for as long as he liked, but was told leave by the Americans because of the impending invasion. We now realise that there was a single intelligence source—an exiled scientist living in Germany—stating that Saddam Hussein had tactical weapons of mass destruction. That was never corroborated. Finally, United Nations resolution 1441 did not actually give the right to invade—a point made clearly by France. It leant on previous resolution 687, which provided for the right to invade if certain conditions were not met. The UN Secretary-General said that he was uncomfortable with that.
I do not stand here as an apologist and say that war was not avoidable. It might have been, but I do not believe that invasion was justified at that juncture. As has been said a number of times, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but one wonders whether Saddam Hussein would have survived the Arab spring or whether, through a natural process of change in the middle east, we would have seen him removed. It is difficult to say.
In his book “State of Denial” Bob Woodward quotes General Franks, the United States central commander in the middle east, on being asked, in December 2001—when we had just gone into Afghanistan—to draw up plans to invade Iraq. That puts into perspective the energy and determination to push forward with intervention in Iraq.
On the intervention itself, Operation Telic went as well as it could have done. In the first three weeks of March 2003, we managed to defeat the enemy completely and were seen as liberators. I pay tribute to the 7th Army Brigade, which had to set up in a very awkward and difficult environment to establish the peace. The one lesson to be learned relates to the shock and awe policy. It is a matter for further debate, but I do not now think it is right for us, armed with these incredible long-range weapons, to destroy infrastructure on such a scale—the very same infrastructure that we will need a couple of weeks after putting boots on the ground. When a decision to invade is taken, we have to be more cognisant of the need to disrupt and take out the enemy without causing more damage and costing us more in the long-term.
It was not long after the initial invasion that the British started patrolling in berets, using our skills base from Northern Ireland to win over hearts and minds by looking less offensive in our military outfits in order to work with locals. It soon became apparent, however, after the successful invasion, that there was no plan or strategy—no idea what to do or how to harness the euphoria following Saddam Hussein’s fall in order to sow the seeds of governance—and so nothing happened and we went from liberators to occupiers. Where was the army of civil servants, linguists, engineers and planners—the people with the skill sets to rebuild Basra
and help its people move forward? And let us not forget the significance of Basra, whose people were elated to get rid of Saddam Hussein, who was never a friend of the city, and whose strategic importance cannot be overestimated: as Iraq’s only port, it was a lifeline for moving oil out of the country.
Yet nothing happened. We created an umbrella of security, and our soldiers, having done a brave job, looked over their shoulders, expecting somebody else to come in and deal with governance, reconstruction and development, but nobody was there. I intervened on Ian Lucas—who, as I said, spoke with passion and concern for the position of the then Government, and whom I congratulate for taking a stand at the time—and explained how Clare Short, then at the Department for International Development, which was the one organisation with the money to provide reconstruction and development planning, decided not to participate and sent a message around the Department to that effect. As a result, our armed forces were left on their own. She should have been sacked immediately. I am pleased to say that now the relationship between the Ministry of Defence, DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has improved immensely, but the culture at the time, underlined—I am afraid—by her stance, did not allow DFID even to consider participating in war zones. It was focusing far too much on poverty.
The former right hon. Lady to whom the hon. Gentleman refers made strenuous efforts to get the Prime Minister to plan for the peace, even before entering the war. She did everything she possibly could, and it was directly as a result of his not taking her advice that much of the reconstruction work was not done and the humanitarian resources were not invested immediately. She did everything she could, but she found it impossible to get through to him.
I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman at all. We had a debate on Iraq when Clare Short was in the Chamber. I asked her directly—it is in Hansard—whether she sent a diktat round her Department and to her directors saying, “Do not do any planning for participating in post-conflict reconstruction, because I believe the war is illegal and I do not want to get into trouble.” I paraphrase, but those were roughly the words. She replied, “Absolutely. I did that. That was my belief at the time.” That is what happened, but whether there is more to it—
There is more to it.
I shall wait for the right hon. Gentleman’s speech for him to elaborate.
I think it is a bit late for that.
As the Minister said, there have been a number of successes of which we can be proud, so we should not be too dismayed: the referendum has led to a new constitution, there has been a series of elections and to some extent all-out civil war has been avoided, but there remains huge sectarian violence and a number of challenges ahead.
My hon. Friend Rory Stewart, who spoke very articulately and has huge experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that Iraq was not Britain’s finest hour. This was there with the Suez crisis and our invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. There was no conflict plan. The decision to disband the army and de-Ba’athify Iraq in one fell swoop was bizarre and ignored the fact that teachers, nurses and others were forced to be part of the Ba’ath party. As soon as we made it illegal and those who were part of it unable to work, we lost the mindset of support from an important swathe of the middle-class population.
The timeline makes for grievous reading. In summer 2007, we failed to do any development and reconstruction. Our military were forced to withdraw from the city centre, as it became untenable to stay there, and relocate to the airport. The Prime Minister, Mr Maliki, said:
“Basra has been left to the mercy of the militia men”.
In the absence of anything happening, a vacuum developed. Gangs formed, which turned into militia, which then ran the city. In 2008, it was not the British who liberated the city; it was the Iraqi army. Maliki came down to Basra and decided the situation needed to come to an end and that the Mahdi army needed to be pushed out. In spring 2009, our military interest in Iraq came to an end. We did not hand the base over to the Iraqi army; we handed it over to the Americans.
Is it not true that Maliki—who is hardly an ideal figure—was holed up in Basra, surrounded by the militia and about to be killed, when the American army came in and rescued him?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. The details are that Maliki was surrounded and the Americans came in. Once the Mahdi army was removed and the militia brought under control, that was the first occasion when, finally, governance was possible and a mayor of Basra could be put in place to move the city forward.
In my view, after any invasion or intervention, we have a window of three to six months to get things right before the enemy can regroup and the locals then decide, “Actually, life is no better under the new regime than it was under the old.” We missed that window of opportunity, which cost Britain lives—as it did others in the international community—because of our reluctance to do what was required. My concern is this. We sit at the international top table. We are a power with nuclear weapons, we have a place on the Security Council and we have centuries of serious war fighting experience, and we could not even hold a medium-sized conurbation. The armed forces were under immense strain during this period. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, this was tied in with, and happened at the same time as, our decision to make an even grander commitment in Afghanistan, with two air bridges operating, to the point that our armed forces were almost unable to cope.
The Minister talked about some of the success stories. Many of us have visited Iraq many times. I recently went to Irbil. It is very pleasing indeed to see how much the region has moved forward from the atrocities it endured under Saddam Hussein. I only hope that such success can be emulated in the rest of the country. Unfortunately, Iraq is not in the headlines anymore, because our troops are not there, but as hon. Members
across the House have mentioned, there were as many deaths in this last month as there were in 2008. The scale of continuing atrocities is quite shocking.
In conclusion, there are serious questions about our decision to go to war in the first place, about how Parliament debates these matters and about our ability to do post-conflict reconstruction. This House regularly pays tribute to our armed forces for their commitment and professionalism and the sacrifice they make for our country, but in the long history of British military engagements, Iraq was far from our finest hour. That was no fault of theirs, I should say, but falls totally on the shoulders of the Government of the day, who failed to plan for peace. I am pleased that the Prime Minister, in looking at other interventions, which have also been mentioned in this debate, has introduced three conditions for this House to approve any intervention. First, is there a legal basis for intervention? Secondly, is there regional support? Thirdly, is there an international commitment to the cause? I hope that, as we look for solutions in Syria and the Sahel, the Prime Minister’s conditions will not be forgotten.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Ellwood. He is of course right to mention the sheer bravery and commitment of our service personnel, the effectiveness with which they conducted Operation Telic, and the speed with which Iraq was defeated, if can use that word. I remember those days clearly, as the MP representing the regimental headquarters of the Black Watch, which was engaged in the operations. I also recall the time of the surge in Falluja, when the media came to me for comment on the many losses sustained by the Black Watch at that time. That was a difficult period for all those Members of Parliament with a military interest in the Iraq war. Those interviews, in which I paid tribute to the many soldiers from my constituency who lost their lives during that war, were among the toughest interviews I have ever had to do. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is also right to mention what happened after the war: the total lack of planning for a sustainable reinvention of Iraq and the stripping of all state infrastructure relating to the Ba’ath party. That was a massive mistake and it led to many of the difficulties that followed the invasion.
I want to go back to
nonsense about the case for war. Many Members of Parliament, particularly those on the Labour side, knew that, but they were dragooned into providing that perverse support for their Prime Minister and their Government.
I remember listening to Tony Blair that day. I actually watched the YouTube video of the speech this morning, just to refresh my memory of the atmosphere in the debate. We had to listen to endless drivel and nonsense. He said that the case for weapons of mass destruction was beyond debate, that they were really there, and that they could reach us in 45 minutes. He talked about collusion with al-Qaeda, and said that Saddam Hussein was preparing a nuclear programme using uranium from Niger. It was all total and utter bollocks—
Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should use that word, and I am sure that he will want to withdraw it immediately.
I withdraw it, of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. It was not that, but something very similar, that we had to listen to on that day.
The House passed the vote on Iraq by 412 votes to 149, and 217 hon. Members voted for the amendment tabled by Chris Smith. I was among those who voted against the war, as were my right hon. Friend Mr Llwyd, my hon. Friends the Members for Angus (Mr Weir) and for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and Jeremy Corbyn. I am looking around the Chamber to see who else is here: I see Ian Lucas, whom I commend for his fantastic speech today. It was excellent to hear a speech from the Front Bench from a former Minister who meant what he said and I thank him for that. He was listened to very carefully throughout the House. All of us here on these Benches today voted against the war. Caroline Lucas was not a Member of Parliament at the time, but one thing is certain: had she been a Member, there is no doubt that she would have been in the Lobby with us that evening.
That vote is the one that I am most proud of in my 12 years as a parliamentarian. It defined my first Session in Parliament. I, a young whippersnapper of an MP in short trousers, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, first came here in the Session that lasted from 2001 to 2005, and the Iraq war was the defining feature of that parliamentary term. That was the context and the subtext of a lot of the debates we had on similar and other issues. I certainly remember during the 2005 election the sheer anger on the doorstep about the invasion of Iraq and how the war went.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As a new MP at that time, I too remember the huge anger on the doorstep and the great pressure being put on MPs to vote for war—by the press, for example. When my right hon. Friend Mr Llwyd, my hon. Friend Hywel Williams and I voted against an earlier motion, I recall that one newspaper named us and provided our phone numbers to get people to ring us up. A stream of people—with Geordie accents, I do not know why; the Scots did not seem to
bother—then wanted me thrown out of the Labour party. That was news to me, as I had never been a member of it.
I am, of course, very grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. Lots of strange things were going on at that time, particularly to people who were associated with an anti-war position. He is absolutely right to mention the role of the press in all that. They helped to create the environment, the culture and the mood for invasion and war.
The funny thing is that this did not have any effect on the public. The public loathed the idea of going to war in Iraq. I was at a march in Glasgow where 100,000 people were out opposing the war, while 1 million people in London marched against it. There were worldwide protests, too. It is reckoned that the protests against the Iraq invasion and war were the biggest protests ever witnessed since Vietnam—yet we still had the invasion and the war.
We have heard about the case for war and how compelling it was, and we have also heard about people being duped. The public saw through the case; the public knew that the case was flimsy; they viewed it as nonsense; they knew that there was no case for war. They were against the war because they knew it was wrong to attack Iraq. That is why they went out on the streets in such numbers to ensure that the war would be opposed. The Blair Government, however, were determined to go to war.
Parliament was even recalled in September 2002, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd reminded us, and we came down to listen to the case for war. I remember arriving and there in my pigeon-hole was the dodgy dossier. I remember sharing it with my hon. Friends, and we were almost in hysterics at some aspects of the case for war. It was drivel, but we had to listen to it again and again that day. We now know, of course, that the dodgy dossier was compiled from all sorts of plagiarised sources and that the most notable contribution came from a graduate student called Ibrahim al-Marashi. It seems almost like some sort of script for a failed comedy film kicked out because it lacked credibility, yet this was the case to go to war. I know I cannot say the unparliamentary word again, Mr Deputy Speaker, but that is what this dodgy dossier was.
Of course, there were no weapons of mass destruction, still less any that could have been deployed in 45 minutes. There was no collusion with al-Qaeda either, but al-Qaeda is certainly there now. Al-Qaeda is all over the region, following the political instability caused by this conflict. Of course, there was no evidence of any uranium project and nothing whatever could be found relating to any nuclear programme. We now know that Tony Blair and his Government knew this. How they knew this was revealed in the “Panorama” programme, to which some of my hon. Friends have referred. The programme said that the intelligence case to go to war, which was in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Government, was so flimsy that it lacked any credibility. It was based on an agent called “Curveball”, who saw evidence of WMD being compiled, which he passed on to the Germans. It subsequently spread like wildfire around the US and UK intelligence services, so determined were they to find any shred of credibility in the evidence to justify going to war.
We were misled; that is all we could say about all this. This House was misled. I regret that more Members are not here today. We need to hear more testimony, particularly from those who voted for the war. We have to hear from them, as we did from the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton, to understand that they were misled, lied to and given the wrong evidence. The only way this House can get any sort of closure on this issue is if we massively confess. Those who voted for the war need to come here and say, “We got it wrong. We were lied to by a former Prime Minister, and I wish I had never voted for the war.” That would be the honourable thing for hon. Members to do in this House—but I doubt whether it will happen.
The war was not, of course, based on intelligence. Intelligence was just a useful gimmick—a useful tool to ensure that Tony Blair could do what he wanted, which was to fulfil the almost perverse obligation that he felt that he owed to George Bush. He had probably told George Bush that he would take this country to war.
The night on which the five SNP Members voted against the war, as did our colleagues, was indeed a proud occasion, but let me tell the House about something else of which I am particularly proud. When that man, that former Prime Minister, came into the Chamber for his lap of honour, the House got up like a circus to clap him, but I would not rise to clap that warmonger. I sat rooted to my seat, and I am proud that I did so.
Members were almost hissing us for sitting still, but I am glad and proud that I never rose to my feet to clap that warmonger.
The Iraq war is, of course, associated with Tony Blair, and always will be. It is his legacy. He might as well have had it tattooed on his head, such is his association with that illegal war. Conflicts tend to become associated with prominent figures and leaders: we have had Thatcher and the Falklands war, Churchill and world war two—and Iraq and Blair.
What was it all for? What was achieved? More than 100,000 dead, a region destabilised, a country divided along sectarian lines, and international diplomacy discredited as never before. We may never retrieve our credibility in the international community following Iraq, and that is a sad, sad indictment of what happened here. I will not even bother to go into the details of the millions of people who have been displaced. But another dreadful thing happened, and it is the thing that we will most regret: we have alienated a generation of people living in the Muslim world. Furthermore, we have dangerously radicalised a proportion of them, and that is what we are having to deal with now. That is another legacy of the Iraq war with which we have continued to contend, and we will live to regret it.
By any standard, Iraq has been an absolute and utter disaster. That illegal war was one of the most regrettable and damaging foreign policy adventures ever undertaken in our name. Some Members have gone on about Suez, but the mighty Suez is nothing but a little stream compared with the foreign policy damage that has been
created by Iraq. Those responsible must be held to account. History will eventually judge them, but I should like to think that it will be done now, while I am still a Member of Parliament. I should like to think that some justice will be delivered. So far, the only people who have lost their jobs because of Iraq are people who worked for the BBC. One person lost his job because he said that the dossier was “sexed up”. That dossier was more sexed up than some teenage starlet in her latest pop video.
What is even more regrettable is that after the war, those on what was then the Government Front Bench continued to assert that there were weapons of mass destruction, and that, as a matter of faith, they would be found. Eventually, of course, they had to concede, but it was a matter of belief and not of fact.
The Minister has been asked today whether there were weapons of mass destruction, but even now—10 years on, and with a different Government —they cannot concede that there were no such weapons. If the Minister were to rise in order to say, “Yes, we concede that now,” I would give way to him, but so far no UK Government have conceded that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and I think that until a Government do that, we will not have political closure.
We have had five useless reports on Iraq. That is the only thing we can call them: useless. They might as well have been made out of whitewash, given their validity when it comes to trying to discover and understand what actually went on. Now worrying issues are starting to emerge in relation to our best hope of ensuring that those responsible are held to account through the Chilcot report. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd referred to some of the current difficulties with Chilcot.
I mentioned to the Minister David Owen’s view that there is collusion between Tony Blair and No. 10 to ensure that the private correspondence between George Bush and Tony Blair is not revealed. We must see that correspondence, because it will probably tell us more than anything else about the reasons for going to war. We will be able to see how the plan was shaped and designed between the two of them, and to see the commitment that was made by Tony Blair to George Bush.
The Chilcot inquiry started four years ago, and with every year that passes, the Iraq war recedes and the Chilcot conclusions lose their potency. I say this, however, to the current Government and those who were in the last Labour Government: we will not forget. We will not forget this, and we will continue to hold this Government to account for what they do.
History will judge these people. At some point, what actually happened will have to come out. If Chilcot does not do that, it will come out later. I am not confident that we will get the truth about Iraq before the end of this decade, however. I think it will take another generation before the true story of Iraq is told, because there are too many big reputations at stake, and too many pillars would come down if it were actually
revealed. The Foreign Office and the foreign policy of the United Kingdom would probably be totally discredited if the truth about Iraq came out.
That is why I am not confident that we will find out the true story about Iraq before the end of this decade, and I will be out of here by then. I do not want to be part of a country that does this. It is appalling to be part of a nation that indulges in illegal wars. I am from Scotland. Scotland is the nation that defines me, and I want my country to make a peaceful contribution to the world and not get involved in these illegal wars, so I am glad we will have an opportunity next year to ensure that we are no longer part of a nation that is prepared to indulge in such things.
It was not a Tory Government who took us into this illegal war; it was a Labour Government, for goodness’ sake—the last type of Government we would expect to take us into an illegal war. It is not all about the evil Tories, therefore. It was a Labour Government who did that, and I am glad that next year my nation will get the opportunity to vote for independence and ensure we will never be part of illegal wars again.
I think the case for independence is overwhelming, but this issue really helps it. The issue has politicised so many people. We have heard about the Stop the War coalition, which did so much great work on it, and Stop the War lost one of its greatest advocates in the last few days: the iconic author Iain Banks. I remember when he came down here and participated in the activities of Stop the War. He was an author without peer, an iconic Scot and a great, great guy. He was heavily politicised by the Iraq war. In fact, he tore up his passport and sent it to Tony Blair, such was his disgust at the war.
“it was Blair who bowed to Bush in the first place, and Blair who convinced the Labour party and parliament of the need to go to war with a dossier that was so close to lying that it makes no difference.”
I could do no better than echo the words of Pete Wishart about Iain Banks. He was a great writer and a great supporter of the Stop the War coalition, of which I am the current chair, and he gave enormous political, practical and financial support to the anti-war movement. We thank him for that, and for all the other great things he achieved during his life.
This debate falls 10 years on from that desperate, fateful time when this country went to war with Iraq. I remember the debate on that here as if it were yesterday. The Chamber was full. We were told there was an ever-present threat from weapons of mass destruction. We were told that there were nuclear weapons and yellowcake, and all the other canards were brought up throughout that debate, and at the same time there was a massive whipping operation going on all around the Chamber. I have to say that I was totally unaffected by that whipping operation—it seemed to pass me by completely—but I observed it going on in dark corners around this building.
It was a shameful day for Parliament, and it was a shameful day for the whole political system in this country. Outside in Parliament square, there were thousands of people. They thought, naively perhaps, that they would be listened to. Some 1 million and more had marched in central London—maybe 2 million were on the streets of London that day—and 600 demonstrations on every continent of the world, including Antarctica, had been held a month before, and the opinion polls all showed that there was no support for this war against Iraq. They thought that Parliament would reflect their views and their wishes.
The vote that day in which Parliament, sadly, endorsed going to war not only did enormous damage to Parliament, but did enormous damage and a disservice to a whole generation, because they had put their hopes in the political process to carry out their wishes and it did not do so. That engendered cynicism and we are still dealing today in many ways with the legacy of the war in this country. Let me deal first with the role of Parliament.
My hon. Friend Mr Allen was correct. Up until the Iraq war, taking this country to war at any time was completely a matter of the royal prerogative exercised by the Prime Minister. That royal prerogative remains in operation. A number of us, particularly my hon. Friend, argued strongly that we should have a vote in Parliament on the war—previously, only procedural votes had been possible. Eventually the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, agreed that there could be vote, although I think it was a matter of self-interest on his part: he wanted to share the responsibility and the burden. We were pleased to have the opportunity to vote against the war, and I suspect he was pleased to have the opportunity to get a lot of MPs through the Lobby in support of his view.
Some people think that whipping, lobbying and pressure are the only things that matter in politics, but, quite honestly, we are sent here as representatives of our constituencies; we all have a conscience that we have to live with and decisions that we have to take. At the end of the day, an MP cannot blame anyone else; it is his or her own decision and vote, and the record will stand. I think our constituents understand that, but the very least we can do in recognition of what happened then is, first, in the immediate future, ensure that we have a vote before any arms are sent to Syria; and secondly, ensure that we have a proper war powers Act, so that Parliament must vote before British troops are deployed.
The hon. Gentleman is making a wonderful speech, as we knew he would. He spoke just now about the importance of having a vote before war. Does he agree with me that it should be a free vote—that we need to be voting from our conscience, not from the Whips’ list?
Absolutely. On something so fundamental as the deployment of armed forces, a free vote is the right thing to do. Many have said it is easy to
send other people’s sons and daughters off to die and then hide behind a veneer of party loyalty, but the issue is much bigger than that.
May I suggest a further prerequisite, which is that some machinery should be adopted whereby we are all made privy to a certain amount of the delicate intelligence information that has led the Government to their conclusion? Otherwise, we could be duped into acting the same way again.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct. The legal advice given to the Cabinet is still the subject of debate. The Chilcot report is yet to come out—I understand it is heading for 1 million words, leaving “War and Peace” well behind, and goodness knows how many volumes there will be when it is finally produced. The information we are given is very important if we are to make an informed decision. It is, however, simply not credible to say that we were unaware of the dubiety of the information we were given. I came here at 8 o’clock on the day the dodgy dossier was published to pick up a copy and read it, and by a quarter past 8, I had realised it was a load of utter bunkum and that we had been dragged back to the House on false pretences. The same is true of Colin Powell’s address to the UN that September, when he claimed that chemical weapons were hidden in ice cream vans all over Iraq.
I received hundreds of messages, e-mails and so on from people who were involved in the anti-war movement, and I spoke at 200 anti-war meetings in this country and others before the decision was taken. Just think of the commitment of those people who went on the march in February 2003. Many of them were not of the left and many were not necessarily pacifists—anti-war as such—but they were convinced that we were being led by the nose into disaster. Frankly, the whole political establishment should have woken up and understood that, because the consequences were so huge for us and for the rest of the world.
I say all this not because I am any apologist for Saddam Hussein—I am not—and not because I do not recognise the abominable human rights abuses he committed; I do. But I remember that, in the 1980s, raising questions about arms sales to Iraq, human rights abuses in Iraq and the British relationship and trade with Iraq was a very unpopular thing to do in this place. There were not many people supporting that. Even after Malabar—as I said earlier—in 1988, we still participated in the Baghdad arms fair only a year later to continue that relationship. Of course the west did support Iraq against Iran. The consequences of all this are absolutely huge.
I just want to raise a couple of more general points as a lesson from this. What happened in 2001 was wrong, obviously; what happened at the twin towers and the killings was a disaster. Then we merrily invaded Afghanistan, the point at which the Stop the War coalition was founded. We proceeded to occupy the country very quickly and then found that it was not as simple as that. Here we are 12 years later; still in Afghanistan, still not controlling the country and still losing lives there. We denied international law by allowing the Americans to call people enemy combatants, not prisoners of war. Guantanamo Bay was set up. Extraordinary rendition took place. The Homeland Security Act was passed in the USA and a whole raft of anti-terror legislation was
passed in this country. Civil rights of people all over the world were damaged by the decision to invade Afghanistan, and that was compounded later by the decision to invade Iraq.
Then we invaded Iraq, after the infamous George Bush speech in 2002 in which he talked about the axis of evil without any evidence whatever and tried to claim that Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were as one. They did have one thing in common, actually. There is some evidence that, at various points in their lives, each tried to kill the other. That was roughly the only thing they had in common.
The behaviour of the occupying forces in Iraq has been far from perfect. We have seen Abu Ghraib, Falluja, the bombing campaigns, the torture of individuals and the driving of hundreds of thousands of people into exile both as internal and as external refugees from Iraq. I have very sad memories of visiting a refugee camp on the borders of Iraq and Syria, where there were a few hundred poor benighted Palestinian people whose families had been driven out of Haifa in 1948. They had been though countries all through the Gulf states, ended up in Iraq and were driven out of Iraq into Syria. Goodness knows where those families are now. They have joined the steady stream of refugees across the region. We have to think for a moment about the Palestinians and so many others.
I conclude with this thought. We have to learn a lesson, and it is a harsh one. We are not a global power. We cannot afford to be a global power, and why would we want to be one? Have we been enhanced as a country by our activities since 2001 in Afghanistan or Iraq, or have we been diminished? Do we have a better image or a much worse image around the world? It is time for us to take stock. Do we have to be a nation with a predilection to go to war and to have a global reach for our armed forces? Or do we wish to become a force in the world that supports international law, human rights and recognises the limits of the environmental destruction of our planet? Do we need Governments or Prime Ministers who say, to use the words of Tony Blair, that this is a chance to remake the middle east? The best way of remaking the middle east is to recognise the injustices done by colonialism, occupation, wars and the treatment of people who are trying to live their own lives, and to try to promote peace. The legacy of this war is a disastrous one. The enmity between the west and the Muslim communities, the enmity that is played out on the streets of this country, is a result of that. It is time for us to learn some very harsh lessons and, above all, to put them into practice.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in the debate and to congratulate Caroline Lucas on the efforts that I know she put in to secure it. I know that a great deal of work was done over some time to get to the point where today was chosen as the day of the debate.
I shall use most of the time available to me to focus on a legacy issue in relation to Iraq. That may have come to the attention of some Members when they have seen television footage of families who have experienced
the effects of depleted uranium and other weaponry used in Iraq. It seems to have resulted in very unusual levels of birth defects and other conditions, especially among children who were conceived during the Iraq war. I intend to focus on those issues mainly because they are not often talked about and because those are issues on which the Government could be taking more action so that we can understand what happened and learn the lessons from that for the future.
The use of depleted uranium in weapons has been controversial from its development in the 1960s to the present. Much of the work in this area has been done on the effects on veterans, rather than on civilian populations. The Ministry of Defence discovered in the early research and development programme that depleted uranium released a chemical that was toxic and radioactive and that contaminated areas that it had been fired into. The scientific work that has been done, as I said, related mainly to veterans, but in recent years more evidence has been collected from civilian populations, including in Iraq.
The work relating to veterans shows clearly that in certain circumstances depleted uranium has the potential to cause cancer and damage to DNA. It can lead to birth defects and contaminate soil and ground water. Depleted uranium was used in the first conflict in Iraq in 1991 and also in the more recent conflict in very significant quantities. It is thought that 290,000 kg of depleted uranium was fired during the Gulf war in 1991, and that in the first six months of the Iraq invasion 140 kg of depleted uranium was used. Studies of the effects on civilian populations which have been made public so far show a staggering rise in birth defects among Iraqi children conceived in the aftermath of the war, with high rates of miscarriage, toxic levels of lead and mercury contamination and spiralling numbers of birth defects ranging from congenital heart defects to brain dysfunctions and malformed limbs. Compelling evidence seems to link these birth defects and miscarriages to military assaults.
We cannot sure whether these are due to depleted uranium or the effects of other ammunition used in the area, but it is clear that there are particularly high levels of birth defects, for example, in Falluja, where the United States has admitted using white phosphorous shells, although it has not admitted using depleted uranium. Findings published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology are the latest in a series of studies suggesting a link between bombardment and a rise in birth defects. Its findings in 2010 prompted the World Health Organisation to launch an inquiry into the prevalence of birth defects in the area affected. Although that report was expected to be published last year, it still has not appeared. Some claim that it is being buried and 58 scientists have written to the Iraqi Government and the World Health Organisation calling for its immediate publication. It is right that we, as elected politicians, ask the British Government to use their influence and power to do everything they can to ensure that as much information about these issues is brought into the public domain.
As a result of previous work, the Work Health Organisation is looking at nine high-risk areas in Iraq, including Falluja and Basra. We need to say clearly that we want that information in the public domain. We must do more to work out exactly the impact that some of the weaponry used in modern warfare has on civilian
populations. Perhaps in previous centuries the effects of war were felt predominantly by military people and those who went to war, but one of the clear effects of modern warfare is that many of the types of weaponry used have long-term implications for civilian populations.
Of the studies that have been made available in the public domain, one shows that more than half of the babies born in Falluja between 2007 and 2010 were born with a birth defect. Before the siege the figure was more like one in 10, and prior to the turn of the millennium fewer than 2% of babies were born with a birth defect. According to that study, in the two years after 2004 more than 45% of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage, whereas the figures before the bombing were below 10%. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage. The research that is in the public domain is clearly incredibly concerning.
Another piece of research looked at the health histories of 56 families in Falluja and examined births in Basra in southern Iraq, which was attacked by British forces in 2003. It found that more than 20 babies in 1,000 were born with births defects at the maternity hospital in 2003, which is 17 times higher than the rate recorded a decade previously. In the past seven years, the number of malformed babies born has increased by more than 60%, to 37 in every 1,000.
We have spoken a great deal today about the politics that led up to the decision to take forces into Iraq in 2003, and that is absolutely proper, but the reality is that families in Iraq are now dealing with the aftermath of decisions that might have been taken by the British Government and the action of British and other troops. I think that it is beholden on Parliament to insist that the Government do everything they can to ensure that this is researched more thoroughly. We must try to find the facts and see whether there is evidence linking the use of particular types of weaponry and the effects on civilian populations, and we must ensure that any lessons are learned for whatever future actions we might be involved in.
It is an honour to follow such a passionate and well-informed speech from Katy Clark. I think that we are all indebted to Caroline Lucas for securing the debate, and I apologise to her for not arriving in time to hear her speech—I was opening a job show in my constituency first thing this morning—which by all accounts was a powerful introduction to the debate.
Although I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, I am very proud that the Liberal Democrats played such a strong role in opposing the war. I am particularly proud of the role played by my right hon. Friend Mr Kennedy, who was leader of the Liberal Democrats at the time, and my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell. Jeremy Corbyn talked about the breadth of the coalition that opposed the war and said that it was not just made up of predictable left wingers. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife is far from being a raging pacifist leftie. He is a thoughtful and
distinguished advocate and is now, as he was then, a distinguished spokesman on international affairs. That voices such as his were ignored at the time is a measure of just how dogmatic certain people in the Labour Government were.
I have found this debate very humbling, not only because of the first-hand accounts of intelligence, diplomacy and military experience that we have heard from people who were connected to the war in different respects, but because of the emotion shown by those who were, in effect, forced to vote against their own colleagues in their own party. Ian Lucas made a very powerful speech about that. We have heard about the bitter regret felt by those who feel that they were misled into voting for the wrong thing. We should also remember the members of the Government who honourably resigned over this issue—Robin Cook, John Denham and others who gave up their ministerial careers. The emotions are clearly almost as strong now as they were then.
We have heard powerful descriptions of what felt like the inevitable momentum towards war. That was certainly felt outside Parliament as well. Those of us who were watching from the outside might not have picked up on all the details of the parliamentary debates, but every day we saw the pictures of the troops gathering in Saudi Arabia and had the sense that it was something that simply could not be stopped, no matter how many people marched, no matter what arguments were deployed and no matter what intelligence was presented to counter what was in the dodgy dossier.
If Mr Meacher is right, that momentum had started long before. He mentioned the Crawford summit in April 2002, when Tony Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with George Bush. That was reinforced at subsequent summits between the two of them. Although I have a lot of respect for Rory Stewart, it is not really credible to say that the leaders did not know the detail or had not had time to read it. I am sure that the detail of the intelligence on the military situation and the situation inside Iraq was all gone into in enormous detail, as was the legal advice. As everybody has said, the Chilcot report is long overdue, and we need to start to hear about the detail of the decision-making process. Some of the documents that are still not public need to be made public. It looks from the outside as though there was a deliberate collaboration in creating that momentum towards war in order to make it inevitable.
We have to allow that some aspects of that political mission had, in a sense, some honour to them. Saddam’s was a despicable regime. Thousands died in the chemical attacks in Halabja in 1988. There was also the massacre and destruction of the entire lifestyle of the Marsh Arabs in 1991 following the first Gulf war. There might have been a psychological element for George Bush in the sense that, according to the conservative psychology, his father had left the job half done in allowing the massacre of the Marsh Arabs to take place, because they had risen up in the expectation that they would be supported by the allied forces, but they were not.
We should remember that since 1991 there had been a safe haven in Iraq for the Kurds, reinforced from 1992 by the no-fly zone described on the basis of first-hand experience by Jason McCartney. Perhaps George Bush felt that he
did not want to repeat his father’s error of betraying people in Iraq who were opposed to the regime. Perhaps the psychology of 9/11 also made people feel the need to do something to give some substance to the supposed war on terror, which, to me, has always had a slightly Orwellian ring to it.
The hon. Gentleman will perhaps recall the light-hearted quip at the time that for the US and UK to invade Iraq would be as though after Pearl Harbour the United States had invaded Mexico—it would have been as peculiar and as odd as that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
There was the emotional declaration of the war on terror but then a feeling that it did not have much substance. I think that those in the conservative right in the United States were searching for something to give it more edge and substance, and perhaps that was part of the psychology that led them to towards war. The psychology of the British Prime Minister involved is something that I will not go near.
I am not one of those who now hope that the decision will be proved wrong by the failure of Iraqi democracy. I hope that Iraqi democracy will succeed and that a stable, federal state will emerge from the continuing conflict. I do not want to paint everything that is happening in Iraq as being as bad as or worse than it was under Saddam. Nevertheless, I think that those hon. Members who voted against the war made the right decision and I am very proud that Liberal Democrats did so. There are three central reasons why I think they were right to oppose the war.
First, there really was no case: there were no weapons of mass destruction. A few years later, after I had become an MP, I remember Hans Blix telling a meeting in Parliament that he had wanted and had pleaded for more time and that, had they been given it, the weapons inspectors could have established the facts of the case, but of course they were evacuated to make way for the invasion. It was not Iraq that stopped the weapons inspections; it was the United States and the UK. As the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton has said, the intelligence on which that action was based was old and out of date.
There was no immediate humanitarian crisis. In Syria and Libya, and even in Bosnia, people were dying or being threatened with blood baths, but that was not the case in Iraq. There was no immediate humanitarian justification for intervention. If there was a secondary reason—this was sometimes mentioned—it was the idea that Saddam might be in cahoots with al-Qaeda, but that also turned out to be completely imaginary. In fact, the precise opposite, if anything, was true. Subsequently, of course, we have seen the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq as a substantial force of Sunni jihadists, and it is now spilling over into Syria, where a direct offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra, is making that conflict worse. The repercussions of the intervention are extraordinary, but there was no fundamental case for it, as we were told there was.
Secondly, our party’s view is that the war was illegal. We have still not seen the then Attorney-General’s advice to the Government. UN resolution 1441 is cited,
but as other Members have said, it did not provide a legal justification for invasion. Actually, its central concern was with the weapons inspection regime, which, as I have said, was brought to an end by the invasion. The weapons inspectors were evacuated because of the invasion. They were not prevented from continuing their work by Iraq.
Hon. Members’ speeches and the recent excellent BBC documentary have highlighted how the real political objective was clearly regime change and that other arguments and cases were deployed tactically to try to support it. Perhaps regime change was a laudable objective—Saddam was a terrible dictator—but the only complication is that regime change is illegal under international law; we therefore participated in an illegal invasion.
The third crucial reason why it was wrong to go to war was the political and diplomatic effort behind it. It was not a united international effort. In the end, the troops were from, I think, the United States, Britain, Australia and Poland. Others might want to correct me. Perhaps Spain was involved as well. NATO was disunited, the French were in opposition and the region was disunited. The United Nations was certainly disunited and the Secretary-General warned that the invasion would be in contravention of the UN charter if it went ahead. This was cowboy diplomacy. It was almost the kind of unilateral interventionism of which the world needs to be very fearful. The decision to invade posed a danger not just to the people of Iraq—although it certainly did—but to the whole world, because it could be used as justification for anybody’s decision to intervene without international sanction, regional support or a proper legal case.
I think that the coalition Government have learned those lessons. The recent intervention in Libya stands in stark contrast to the invasion of Iraq. There were no allied boots on the ground. It was a limited intervention, even though militarily it was a simpler prospect than Iraq. There was clear sanction from a UN resolution and an immediate humanitarian case. There was also united regional support in the Arab world. We can say collectively—those who are in the Government in particular—that we have learned the lessons of what went on in Iraq.
We now have the strange situation in which we are still waiting for the final chapter: the Chilcot report. We have been waiting for four years. That is almost as long as Britain’s military intervention in Iraq. If it carries on for much longer, it will outlast the war itself. That report will raise deep and serious questions that we still want answers to. For the former Prime Minister, it will raise some threatening legal issues and some deep questions about his role in taking us to war. The irony of ironies is that in the meantime, he has been made a peace envoy to the middle east, which I find extraordinary. All credit to him for the role that he has played subsequently in trying to bring peace to the region. However, we still need to ask how and why he took us to war. We need the Chilcot report and we need it soon.
I join other Members in congratulating Caroline Lucas on securing this debate. I know that considerable effort went into that, and it is good that
many hon. Members have been able to share their various insights. Some Members have recalled the events in Parliament during the build-up to the vote. Others have shared their experiences of the situation in Iraq before the invasion, of delivering the invasion or of coping with the consequences of the invasion and making the best of the difficult situation that had been created for all.
Like other hon. Members, I acknowledge at the outset that we have heard some telling contributions. As well as the opening speech by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, which I heard only part of because of other commitments, there was a particularly telling contribution from the Opposition spokesman, Ian Lucas. His measured and well-meant speech got to the heart of the issue in a way that should make all of us feel uncomfortable, although in a positive way. All of us in Parliament, before we just bunch with our herd, put on our blinkers and vote the way we are asked, should think deeply about the issues. We need to inform ourselves and must not just rely on Whips’ whispers. Whatever we are paid, we are paid well enough to inform ourselves and we get a further allowance to help others inform us as well.
I was struck, as were other Members, by the speech by Rory Stewart. I cannot match the insights of the hon. Members for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), who spoke of their personal experiences in situ and showed an understanding of many of the complications in Iraq.
Along with other politicians from Northern Ireland, I have taken part in exchange visits with Iraqi politicians and those who are trying to build civil society in Iraq. We know that the insights that we get into their situation and the aftermath of the invasion are limited. However, while I do not disagree with anything that other hon. Members have said about the poor state of Iraq, its levels of corruption and the deep economic mire that it is in, I would not want our words about those issues or the political questions that we exchange to detract from the good work that many people are undertaking in Iraq, not least those in civil society and those who are trying to build honour and purpose in what passes for the democratic process in that country. We must reinforce those who are trying to do good and take things forward in that very difficult situation. No matter how we try to write off this war and what followed it as a foreign policy and military misadventure on the part of the Government, we should not do anything to write off the democratic purpose and progressive effort that elements in Iraq are trying to undertake.
I was not a Member of the House in the period building up to the war, but I am glad to say that SDLP Members opposed the war, along with the other nationalist parties, the Liberal Democrats, a significant number of Labour Members, and some considerate Conservative Members. At the time, I was leader of my party and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, although of course we were all suspended in October 2002. During that period, however, I had a number of exchanges and meetings with Tony Blair at which—believe it or not—we talked about more than just Northern Ireland.
I recall that in November 2002, Tony Blair convened a meeting in Downing street with leaders of the European socialist and Labour parties. We were supposed to be
discussing common challenges across Europe, but the working lunch that Tony Blair addressed was very much focused on Iraq. In particular, he was trying to allay the concerns that he knew were felt by members of his sister parties across the EU. I remember being struck by the argument he was making for what he was trying to do. He used language saying that he was trying to be the mooring rope that would keep the American impulse closer to where Europe would want. He said he was trying to be a bridge between America and Europe, and that was why he was getting so close to George Bush and maintaining a strong relationship with the American Administration.
He said he believed that if the Americans were committed to the war anyway there needed to be a restraint on any intervention, and he believed that his strong alliance could provide such a constraint. He argued that action could contribute to reigniting the peace process in the middle east. He felt that if America ended up going in on its own, it would be hopeless to think that anything positive could be done in the middle east, whereas if America went in with European support, the requirement that would come with that support would involve a new beginning to the peace process in the middle east.
Some around the table seemed impressed and mesmerised by that, but I was not. I made it clear—with no discourtesy to our lunch host—that I was not there to admire Tony the bridge, and neither did I believe that what he saw as a mooring rope was how the Americans saw things. From my visits to Washington it was clear that they saw him not as a mooring rope, but as a tow rope by which they hoped to take as much of Europe as they could, and they did not care if Europe was ruptured in the process. In my broad political movement of European sister parties I could see exactly where the strains were showing.
I should acknowledge that whatever criticisms anybody may have, Tony Blair did make a significant contribution to our process, although not as much of one as some of his writings and memoirs suggest, as they seem to write out the fact that everybody else made contributions as well. I did not always agree with his judgment and I certainly never always trusted his word, but I never doubted his motives in relation to our process. I am, however, as confounded as anybody else as to how he got himself into such a position and the mental convolutions of his rationale on Iraq.
I had the opportunity to talk to both Tony Blair and George Bush in Hillsborough in the weeks after the invasion of Iraq. I was the first party leader to protest at the fact that George Bush’s visit to Hillsborough conflated meetings on the Irish peace process with meetings on the prosecution of the war in Iraq. Despite attempts by the Northern Ireland Office and the British Government to limit or put conditions on people’s presence in Hillsborough, I was allowed to present a petition of two wallpaper scrolls, which was organised by Amnesty International in the Foyle constituency and the north-west region more widely. The petition was not simply a protest against the war; as we would expect from a thoughtful organisation such as Amnesty International, the petition focused on the responsibilities that the invading powers had to the civilian population in Iraq—their duties were not just observing human rights and security, but ensuring infrastructure, utilities and the proper operation of commercial or other transactions.
Protocol did not allow me to hand the petition to the President of the United States, as he was a visiting Head of State. Instead, the two scrolls rested on a chair. I was able to tell the President they were there for him. Not entirely condescendingly, he told me, “You’re a good man, Mark, but you’re wrong and we are right and we are proving it.” Richard Haass, who worked at the State Department and was a special envoy to Northern Ireland, said, “You will see. We will have this finished in weeks.” I asked, “Will we have proof of the weapons?” He said, “Yes, we will have that in weeks, too.”
Looking on was a frowning Tony Blair, who looked a bit peeved and a bit jealous. He was obviously annoyed that I had taken that opportunity. I said to him, “Don’t worry, Tony, we haven’t forgotten about you,” and gave him two large bags of postcards containing similar protests and making similar points. Richard Haass probably genuinely believed what he told me. I therefore do not know whether I can join in the sweeping judgments against everybody involved and all parties to the enterprise, which led to such death.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the parliamentary aspect. We have heard hon. Members’ recollections, including those of Mr Meacher, of the considerations and conditioning going into the vote. In my time in Parliament, that same occasion was recalled by Frank Cook, then the hon. Member for Stockton North, when the House voted on 42-day detention. He compared the whipping and briefing that day—he was told, “If you don’t vote for this, the Prime Minister will be forced to resign and it will be a humiliation. Out of loyalty to the Prime Minister, you have to vote for this, otherwise there will be an election”—with the arguments to which he was subjected on the day of the Iraq vote. He said that succumbing to those arguments on the day of the Iraq vote was the biggest regret of his life, and that he would never make that mistake again for any Prime Minister or party.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made a key point. We want to ensure that there will be votes in future, but we must ensure that they are honest and honourable. Free votes ensure that people cannot turn round and say, “I voted how I did because it was a vote of confidence. I was opposed to what I voted for, but I voted on a different issue. The issue was confidence and whether we stayed in government or had an election.” We need to ensure not only that there are votes, but that the terms on which votes are taken are the right ones. That is why, when we debated the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, I opposed any amendment that would have given the Speaker the power to decide what issues were issues of confidence. As issues of confidence can trigger an election and abort a fixed-term Parliament, they would have been abused to confuse what Members were actually voting on. Members would have been told to vote not on the issue, but on whether they wanted an election next week, or their leader out.
On the Chilcot inquiry, I met John Chilcot in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process. Again, I would give a mixed account of his contribution. I worked and talked with him very early on in the Hume-Adams process, and he was encouraging of new engagement and new lines of dialogue opening up between the
British Government and all interests in Northern Ireland. After the Castlereagh break-in, he was appointed by the Government to undertake an independent inquiry into it. As I pointed out in a previous debate in the House, his report did not deal with findings on what had happened, how it had happened and who had been involved. Instead, it came up with an ulterior agenda of trying to ensure that MI5 and the security services would in no way find themselves accountable to, or constrained by, the Northern Ireland policing measures introduced under the Patten report. The intention was to try to reroute intelligence policing away from the Patten model—under the chief constable—to one entirely under MI5, beyond any review by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Policing Board or anybody else.
I made the point, when we discussed the establishment of the Chilcot report, that I knew John Chilcot and that he was someone in whom I could recognise skills and articulacy, but he was not someone whose phone number I would expect to find in Yellow Pages under either I for independence or C for challenging. I hope that my jaundiced judgment is proved wrong when we finally see the Chilcot inquiry report. At times during the inquiry, I was given hope that I would be proved wrong. However, we have been waiting a long time. I was particularly struck by the contribution from Mr Llwyd, who was able to tell us of colourful issues regarding the background, character and composition of the inquiry team. Parliament must be able fully to digest the report, not just respond immediately to a statement on the day. It must be debated subsequently.
In all future debates, as in today’s debate, we need to remember that the issue is not just about what happened here on a parliamentary or political level, and not just about the wrongs of dodgy dossiers and undue whipping. The real issue is the story of what happened to the people in Iraq: the people who were sent out in the name of this Parliament and sacrificed their lives and limbs. They and their loved ones are still wondering what it was all about, and I hope we are not adding to their sorrow, misery or sense of futility by speaking the truth today. The contribution by my hon. Friend Katy Clark was important, because it focused on some of the legacy issues for which we in this House bear a collective responsibility. We still have a responsibility towards the people of Iraq.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this important and useful debate. The honesty and frankness with which Members have taken part does credit to this place: it has shown the House at its best. I note with interest that no one spoke in defence of the UK’s support for the war. Over and over again, hon. Members emphasised the heavy price paid for the invasion, not only by people in this country, but crucially by people in Iraq, where sectarian violence continues to grow.
The debate focused on looking forward as well as back, and I want quickly to underline a few of today’s conclusions. Hon. Members expressed a lot of support for having free votes—and, crucially, votes based on information—when the House debates going to war. Many hon. Members spoke about the importance of basing our decisions on information. We also heard
about the importance of reforming the relationship between the Foreign Office, the military and Parliament to ensure that it works better; about the need for structural changes to the Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Intelligence and Security Committees; and about the significance of Iran and Syria.
Many Members spoke about how the war undermined Parliament’s reputation. I hope that this debate has been a step towards reinvigorating confidence in Parliament. I pay particular tribute to the contribution from the shadow Minister, Ian Lucas, whose comments, as everyone said, were from the heart and delivered with a frankness that made us all listen. I would like to pay tribute to other colleagues, too. The anger with which Mr Meacher spoke about the level of deception rang out across the House and, I hope, much wider. Rory Stewart spoke powerfully and with an expertise that not many of us in this place have about the importance of acknowledging when we get things wrong and of being able to say that we are failing. He warned of the dangers of thinking that we can only ever succeed.
I thank the Minister for loyally sitting through just about the whole debate, although I cannot thank him for the substance of his remarks, given that he was constrained, as he explained, by the convention preventing him from speaking before Chilcot reports. Waiting for Chilcot is like waiting for Godot. It would be helpful to have that report as soon as possible. The debate lacked a contribution from a Minister made with the same degree—or any degree, frankly—of honesty and frankness about what went wrong as other speeches. [Interruption.] I wanted to give credit to all my wonderful colleagues, but I am being told that my time is up. Is that correct, Mr Deputy Speaker?
You have had your two minutes, but I am allowing you to continue. I am sure you are coming to an end.
Mr Llwyd made an important point about the conflict of interest of those on the Chilcot inquiry and about the importance of the Attorney-General’s advice being put in the public domain. Laura Sandys talked about the problem of a lack of planning post-Saddam. Paul Flynn catalogued many of the deceptions and reminded us that the rules of the House prohibit us from reading out names of the dead.
Mr Ellwood shared with us his interesting perspective as a serving officer and what it felt like to be in that position. He stressed that threat is a combination of intent and capacity, which needs to be borne in mind when trying to judge what constitutes a threat. I welcomed the contribution from Pete Wishart, because he put it clearly on the record that there was very heavy whipping during the vote and that that day,
Katy Clark raised the crucial issue of depleted uranium, while Martin Horwood rightly reminded us that Hans Blix pleaded for more time. He did not say it was a lost cause and that war was the only option—on the contrary. Finally, Mark Durkan gave us some fascinating insights into the mind of the Prime Minister. Quite how he thought the invasion would help the middle east peace process is a question that will keep me thinking for the rest of the day and beyond.
I apologise to those I have not mentioned in my brief winding-up speech, which has already stretched your kind patience, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War.