I beg to move,
That this House
recognises that the Chilcot Inquiry provided substantial evidence of misleading information being presented by the then Prime Minister and others on the development of the then Government's policy towards the invasion of Iraq as shown most clearly in the contrast between private correspondence to the United States government and public statements to Parliament and to the people and also in the presentation of intelligence information;
and calls on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, further to its current investigation into the lessons to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry for the machinery of government, to conduct a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and of the presentation of intelligence, and then to report to the House on what further action it considers necessary and appropriate to help prevent any repetition of this disastrous series of events.
I move the motion on behalf of myself, my hon. Friends and hon. Members representing seven political parties across this House—[Interruption.] I see Labour Members are already in an excitable state; I just said “Members of”.
It is a great pleasure to move this motion on St Andrew’s day—Scotland’s national day. The leaders of the political parties complimented Scotland in their remarks at Prime Minister’s questions. When the SNP parliamentary group discussed what motion should be tabled, there were many obvious candidates: Scotland in the world or the meaning of St Andrew’s day—a broad debate given that this is a St Andrew’s day motion. However, we thought it would be better to focus on issues of signal importance to the people. The second debate to be moved by my hon. Friends this afternoon will be on the injustice perpetrated on the WASPI women—the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—to see whether a debate can advance their cause. This debate is on the issue that has dominated the past two decades of politics, both here and internationally: the war in Iraq.
One hundred and seventy-nine Members are left in the House of Commons who were present when the debate on the war in Iraq took place in March 2003. I remember the figure exactly, because the same number of British soldiers died in the conflict. The deaths of thousands of American soldiers and 200,000 Iraqis, the birth of Daesh in the prison camps of Iraq and the conflagration in the middle east are all directly sourced to the disastrous decision of March 2003. The intention of today’s debate is not to rerun the Chilcot debate of July—we have had that debate—but to try to identify from that debate how we can take matters forward in terms of parliamentary accountability.
I mentioned a few seconds ago that Members from seven political parties in the House put their names to the motion. We do not want to rerun the Chilcot debate, because the generally accepted view of both the press and the public was best summed up in the headline in The Times the day after Chilcot:
That is a reasonable summary of the general tenor of the reaction to the Chilcot report. What was unstated and unsaid in the Chilcot report was what to do with both the amassing evidence, and what to do in terms of parliamentary accountability if, as we believe, this House and the public were grievously misled into that disastrous conflict.
The hon. Members representing seven political parties in this House commissioned a report from Dr Glen Rangwala of Trinity College, Cambridge. I put the report in the House of Commons Library this morning. All Members would do well to give it a good reading. The report considers, in exact terms, the statements made over a period to this House—not just in the March 2003 debate—and takes into account Chilcot’s findings from the wider canvas of information now available, and contrasts and compares the two. It might help the House if I make a few remarks on Dr Rangwala’s general findings.
In summary, from late 2001 to March 2003, Tony Blair repeatedly made three interrelated statements to the House of Commons: no decision had been taken to use military force against Iraq; military action could be avoided by Iraq’s disarmament of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; and that regime change was not the goal of Government policy. The report of the Iraq inquiry, published on
It was not just Hans Blix who thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even countries that thought we should not go to war—Russia, France and Germany—thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, too. In fact, the only way Saddam Hussein was able to enslave the people of Iraq was by leading them to believe he had weapons of mass destruction.
And those countries the hon. Gentleman mentions voted against the war in Iraq for very good reasons.
“Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction…and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy… We continue to judge that Iraq has an offensive chemical warfare (CW) programme, although there is very little intelligence relating to it. From the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of CW agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons… There is no intelligence on any BW agent production facilities.”
That highly qualified assessment from the Joint Intelligence Committee was presented to the House of Commons as a certainty that Iraq possessed weapons that were an immediate danger to the United Kingdom.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that if we do nothing following the seven-year, £10 million inquiry and take no steps towards accountability for the clear evidence that the former Prime Minister was fixing the evidence around the policy to go to war, it will be almost impossible to begin to restore the faith that has been lost in our political system?
Yes. The loss of faith in the political system is another dramatic consequence of the disastrous events in Iraq.
Let me finish this point, before I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
This point was raised in the Liaison Committee, when Chilcot was asked about weapons of mass destruction. He was asked repeatedly whether a reasonable person could have come to the conclusion the Prime Minister had come to. The best exchanges were between the Chair of the Committee and Sir John Chilcot on the well understood test of a reasonable man. The Chair asked:
“Would a reasonable man—another human being—looking at the evidence come to that conclusion?”
Sir John Chilcot replied:
“If you are posing that question with regard to a statement of imminent threat to the United Kingdom”—
The Chair said: “I am.”
Sir John Chilcot went on:
“In that case, I have to say no, there was not sufficient evidence to sustain that belief objectively at the time.”
Given the length of time the Chilcot inquiry spent considering this exact point, it may be the opinion of many hon. Members that Sir John Chilcot’s expression of this carries rather more weight than that of hon. Members desperate to defend the indefensible.
“I absolve him from…a decision to deceive Parliament or the public”.
We cannot have it both ways. We have had the Chilcot report and parliamentary accountability: Chilcot said that the former Prime Minister did not deceive this House or the public.
The trouble with that intervention is that the right hon. Gentleman does not go on to read the next sentence in that exchange, which I shall read for his erudition:
“However, he also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion, rather than laying the real issues, and the information to back the analysis of them, fairly and squarely in front of Parliament or the public. It was an exercise in advocacy, not an exercise in sharing a crucial judgment”.
As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, I agree with his description regarding the catastrophic nature of the invasion of Iraq. I agree with him that the former Prime Minister has a lot to answer for. He will no doubt continue to do so, although he was cleared by Chilcot of deliberate misbehaviour. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that if we turn post-Chilcot debates into an attempt to pursue and hound Tony Blair, the whole thing turns into a party political argument, with Labour Members trying to defend the position of their Government?
Will the right hon. Gentleman going on to address—he is entitled to go on for a bit—the most important matter: how do we ensure that the system of Cabinet government, handling intelligence, and taking on board and properly communicating defence advice to all members of the Cabinet and to Parliament, cannot be repeated, so we do not have another catastrophic foreign policy decision? By personalising the issue we will, if we are not careful, lose the point, which is whether we are satisfied that everything possible is being done to ensure that cannot happen again.
As the Chilcot report concluded, this was very much a personal campaign by the Prime Minister in doing things unbeknown to both Cabinet and certainly Parliament. I am going to address the point the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes, but the question of parliamentary accountability is in my estimation central to this case. Committees of this House have been examining the conduct of the processes of government. If he reads the minutes of the meeting that the Committee to which we intend to refer the question of parliamentary accountability held with the Cabinet Secretary, I do not think he will find much reassurance that there has been a tremendous advance in the process of government. The overwhelming impression is that a headstrong Prime Minister could still create a situation where sofa government drove a country into an illegal war. I suggest that parliamentary accountability and an examination of statements made to Parliament and public against the facts as we now know them would be a valuable additional sanction and tool in restraining future Prime Ministers from any such course of events.
I was here in 2003. I was a frequent visitor to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds believed prior to 2003 that chemical weapons were going to be used against them again. The Iraqis were in the Gallery; it is a pity we are not having this debate in front of them, because they could point out their concern at the time, and their pressure for this country to help them in their action to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was not simply an idea that Tony Blair had in his head; we had a full debate in this Parliament in 2003 and I, among others, voted for the action.
The right hon. Lady’s position on that issue has been consistent through the years, but that was not the case presented to this Parliament. The case presented to this Parliament was that there was a real and present danger to the United Kingdom that required the abandonment of diplomacy internationally and the immediate process to war.
I say this to Labour Members, and correct a point made by Mr Clarke: it is not all Labour Members. Many Labour Members, throughout this whole sad story, have been prepared to vote with their conscience in condemning their own Government. Indeed, we are all well aware that the leader of the Labour party would, if he was free to do so, be joining us in the Lobby this afternoon.
I say again to Labour Members that I am not really interested in the civil war in the Labour party; I am interested in the real war that took place and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Therefore, it is reasonable and important to consider whether parliamentary accountability can be a major weapon of this House in making sure such events do not happen again.
I wish the right hon. Gentleman and Scots everywhere a very happy St Andrew’s day. He mentioned seven parties; none of my party’s MPs in this House has signed this motion. I do not for one minute doubt the sincerity of many Members who have signed the motion and their desire to get to the truth, but is he not, following on from Mr Clarke, in real danger of turning a very important issue into a party political issue—the SNP trying to attack the Labour party—rather than making it an issue of real national concern, drawing the lessons that need to be learned? That is one of the reasons we did not sign up to his motion.
I would have been very pleased if the right hon. Gentleman had made it Members from eight political parties signing the motion, but the whole point of the cross-party group, which has been working on this issue for months, is to make it not a straight party political issue. On attacking the Labour party, I think it is more that Labour Members wish to attack me in this debate, but I do not mind that because I am driving on to make the points of parliamentary accountability and the information we had from the Chilcot report that makes it unsustainable to argue other than that this Parliament was grievously misled.
The report in the Library—
If the right hon. Lady will forgive me, I will make some progress.
The report in the Library from Dr Glen Rangwala analyses this in enormous detail and I hope Members read it, although even that report is not exhaustive. Mr Davis in the Chilcot debate in July listed five, as he put it, clear instances of misrepresentation in a single speech from the Prime Minister—in the war speech, the greatest speech of his life, in March 2003. I want to look at just three of the key things that have arisen and that we now know about from the Chilcot report.
The first of those things is the question of prior commitment. Through the long debates on Iraq, many of us suspected that the Prime Minister had given commitments to the American President which were unrevealed to this House and to the public. The Chilcot report outlined these in spades. The famous phrase
“I will be with you, whatever” will go down in infamy in terms of giving a commitment. Chilcot says that after giving such a commitment it would be virtually impossible for the Prime Minister to withdraw from it.
My constituent Mr Matt Walton, an ex-serviceman, contacted my office several months ago regarding the Chilcot report. Matt is clear that Mr Blair’s actions ensured that many of his colleagues’ tragic fates were already decided before they left the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an outright scandal that ex-members of the armed forces are even thinking this way, and that the then Prime Minister has utterly let down those who were allegedly sent out to protect us?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating case, but I do not think he does himself a favour when he refers to this communication with President Bush and says that it was a commitment to military action come what may. There were in fact specific areas where the Prime Minister said that progress would need to be made before he could commit to military action, and he also said that there was a need to commit to Iraq for the long term. I simply say that because, if we are going draw appropriate lessons from history, yes, absolutely, draw critical lessons, but please put them in context.
The right hon. Gentleman will understand that my point was that no evidence or information about these commitments was ever presented to this House or to the general public. Indeed, it was not, as we know from Chilcot, presented to the Cabinet. Only Downing Street officials saw that letter and advised the Prime Minister, apparently, not to send it, which he did anyway. The Foreign Secretary, Mr Straw, saw it after the event. It has been said by some that that phrase did not mean what it clearly seems to mean. I just point out that after the Foreign Secretary did see the letter to President Bush, he himself wrote in a memo to the Prime Minister on
“We will obviously need to discuss all this, but I thought it best to put it in your mind as event[s] could move fast. And what I propose is a great deal better than the alternatives. When Bush graciously accepted your offer to be with him all the way, he wanted you alive not dead!”
The Foreign Secretary was referring to being politically dead, not really dead like the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. That point shows with absolute seriousness and clarity that there was no doubt in the mind of the then Foreign Secretary of the extent of the commitment that had been made, and there was no doubt in the mind of the Chilcot inquiry when it commented on the range of letters and correspondence to the President of the United States, which it said would have made it very difficult for the UK to pursue any independent policy after the commitment had been made. That is what the inquiry says on the question of prior commitment.
It is a matter of regret that this is being turned into a party political debate. It is worth remembering that 139 Labour MPs voted, against a strong three-line Whip, against the war, including Members who are present now. The great majority of Conservative MPs did not, but with honourable exceptions—half a dozen of them. Three Select Committees of this House were gung-ho for the war, and what is on trial today is the reputation of Parliament. It is Parliament who voted for an unnecessary war that ended in the deaths of 179 British soldiers, as we have been reminded. The loved ones of the British soldiers need the truth and they need a debate, and a serious debate, not a party political row, which this is turning out to be.
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. As I have been trying to point out, that is why Members from seven parties in this House have put their names to this motion.
There is a real argument, which has been put forward by the hon. Gentleman, me and others who voted against the conflict, that if we suspected there was something grievously wrong with the Prime Minister’s case, why did other people not come to the same conclusion as the late Robin Cook that in his estimation weapons of mass destruction did not exist in respect of a clear imminent threat being commonly expressed? Why did other people not see that? The hon. Gentleman and I have to understand that when the Prime Minister went to the Dispatch Box in March 2003 and told the House conclusively that a real and present danger to the United Kingdom existed, it was reasonable even for those with misgivings to think that he must be seeing something that they were not seeing and that he must know something that they did not know. Those Members were thereby misled into the Lobby to vote for the conflict.
No doubt, but I think I have been more generous in giving way to Labour Members than they have ever been to me in any Committee or debate that I can remember. I say this reasonably gently: when I first came to this House, the Scottish National party had three Members here and the Labour party in Scotland had 50. I was used to taking constant interventions, and that was entirely legitimate. It did not faze me at all when I was a young Member, and it certainly does not faze me now. So let us make some progress.
On the question of the imminent threat, Chilcot said after assessing all the evidence that the then Prime Minister was engaged in advocacy, not in presenting the facts. On the question of a prior commitment, the Chilcot report is full of expressions from the Prime Minister to the President of the United States of America that were not known to Members of this House or to the general public. That information gives a totally different view of the reasons for conflict that the Prime Minister was then presenting to this House. For example, back in December 2001, the then Prime Minister said in a letter to President Bush that
“at present international opinion would be reluctant, outside the US/UK”—
I do not know how he read opinion in that way—
“to support immediate military action though, for sure, people want to be rid of Saddam. So we need a strategy for regime change that builds over time.”
The Prime Minister said repeatedly and consistently in this House that regime change was not the objective of Government policy. He stated that the Government’s objective was to stop a clear and present danger to the United Kingdom. I have yet to see a more clear example of misleading people.
Lastly, and I think most pertinently, Chilcot identified the damage done to the authority of the United Nations. These were among the clearest and most resounding points in his report. In this troubled world, we have never needed an effective United Nations more than we do at this moment. That undermining of the UN was clear in the actions of the Prime Minister and in his presentation of why the second resolution was not to pass. Such a resolution would apparently have gone down by 11 votes to four. The Prime Minister repeatedly told the public that the only circumstances in which there would be a war without a second resolution were if one country expressed an unreasonable veto or stood out against international opinion and was not prepared to sanction action in Iraq. We now know beyond question from Chilcot that that was not the case.
We know that the then Prime Minister was misrepresenting the views of the Government of France and of President Chirac, for example. Even on the day of the debate, he continued to misrepresent the French position. The damage to the authority of the United Nations Security Council and to the consistency of international relations is inestimable. In a radio programme last year, as I recall, Sir Stephen Wall was asked specifically whether the Government had lied about the intentions of the French and withheld information on that matter. His answer was yes. The damage to international relations and the question of the unreasonable veto, as the then Prime Minister put it, are at the heart of this misrepresentation.
In recent weeks we have heard a great deal about checks and balances in political systems, particularly as people across the world are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best in the White House. We have been hoping that the institutions of office have a restraining effect and that the mad tweeter will become a sensible President.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to talk about prime ministerial accountability to this House, and he is making a powerful case, but is not the real lesson from Chilcot the need for a policy response from the Government to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again? For example, the creation of the National Security Council was a policy response from the Government to ensure that we have better information sharing and that decision making in Government is improved. Is that not the critical point in this debate?
It is certainly an important point, and it is one that is being pursued by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and other Committees of this House. When the Cabinet Secretary was repeatedly challenged on whether the changes to the flow of information to the Intelligence and Security Committee would make a decisive difference to a Prime Minister who was hellbent on pursuing a particular course of action, answer came there none. It is not enough to say that we are going to change the institutions of government or that we are going to learn the lessons of post-conflict analysis, although we have been promised a paper on that in the near future. There has to be an essence of parliamentary accountability.
I was the Chair of the Committee when the Cabinet Secretary was asked that very question, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that my Committee does not necessarily take the advice of the Cabinet Secretary on our recommendations. We will be making recommendations that we are confident will prevent such events from happening again. Should this motion be carried, we will respect the view of the House and extend our inquiry in order to respect that view. I do not know, however, whether we can satisfy the rather less reasonable terms in which the right hon. Gentleman has presented his reasonable motion. That will be for the House to judge.
The motion speaks for me and for the other Members who have signed it. I welcome that intervention from the Chairman of the Select Committee. I looked at his robust questioning of the Cabinet Secretary and I am now filled with more confidence that significant recommendations will come forward.
What Iraq demonstrates is that there are currently no effective checks and balances in our system, that the Prime Minister had the ability to create the circumstances in which this House followed him into an illegal conflict and that all the memos from the higher echelons of the civil service will not mean a thing—rather like the Cabinet Secretary’s evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. That should be of little surprise to us.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. According to my reading of Chilcot, the report states that there was
“no falsification or improper use of intelligence”, there was “no deception of Cabinet” and there was
“no secret commitment to war whether at Crawford Texas in April 2002 or elsewhere”.
As we have been told, Chilcot made it clear to the Liaison Committee that Tony Blair had not deceived Parliament. Sadly, I think the only deception is in today’s motion. Its opportunistic nature does not serve this issue or this Parliament well.
In relation to the right hon. Lady’s intervention, I have already corrected one of her hon. Friends and suggested that they carry on to the next sentence after the ones they have cited from Chilcot. Also, the Liaison Committee’s questioning of Sir John Chilcot found explicitly that a reasonable person could not have drawn the conclusions that the then Prime Minister did, and that he presented those conclusions to the House as an advocate rather than as a conveyor of information. I ask the right hon. Lady to go back and look at those points, because they concern every Member of this House regardless of their political party.
Chilcot shows that we have a system of non-accountability. We waited six years before establishing a proper inquiry and, as we found out in The Observer a week past Sunday, it was structured in such a way as to avoid blame. It was deprived of judicial expertise and could not even pronounce on the legality of the conflict. It was wrestled with over the release of the diplomatic correspondence with President Bush, which more than any other factor provides the Prime Minister’s motivations. It was seven years before it reported. After all this time, some people in the press and elsewhere say, “These things are in the past. Let the dead bury the dead.” Many dead people have been buried, the carnage continues, and the real issue, to quote Mr Jenkin, is how to stop it happening again.
Memories will fade. A whole generation has grown up and reached adulthood since the war in Iraq. Soon, less than a quarter of Members—perhaps none—will have lived through the experience of the vote on Iraq and that fateful decision in March 2003. The motion presents an opportunity to introduce another check and balance into a system that is clearly deficient. It would start a process to create a precedent so that any future Prime Minister will know that he or she will have to account for their actions not only to history, but to this House of Commons. A long time ago, I made a speech in this House in which I suggested to Mr Blair that he might answer to a higher power than this House. I understand that he found it offensive, but I absolutely believe it to be the case none the less. In the meantime, in the here and now—here on earth—is it not important for us to find a parliamentary process by which a Prime Minister who grievously misled this House and the people into an illegal war can finally be held to parliamentary account?
Let me start by expressing my condolences and sympathy to those who lost loved ones in Iraq and to those who still bear the scars of the conflict. Whatever our views on the conflict, we can surely all agree on one thing: the bravery and courage of British servicemen and women in Iraq was exemplary. We owe it to all those who died or were wounded in Iraq—be they servicemen or civilians, British, Iraqi or any other nationality—to learn lessons from the conflict.
There can be little doubt that Sir John Chilcot’s report is detailed and forensic, and for that we should all be thankful to Sir John and the other members of the inquiry panel. At the inquiry’s outset, the Government of the day committed to provide the fullest range of information and to giving it unhindered access to Government documents. Sir John confirmed in his appearance before the Liaison Committee that the inquiry had total access to all UK Government material right from the start, including the most sensitive categories. The inquiry saw more than 150,000 Government documents and an unprecedented amount of previously classified Government information has been released. Some 7,000 documents were referenced in the inquiry’s report, and more than 1,500 documents were published alongside it. The papers include records of key Cabinet discussions, notes from Mr Blair to the US President, records of conversations between the then Prime Minister and other Heads of Government, records of meetings between senior UK and US officials, and Joint Intelligence Committee assessments.
The inquiry concluded that mistakes and failings were made that could have been avoided at the time and for which hindsight is no defence. The inquiry’s report is a salutary tale of what happens when not enough opportunity is given to challenge and debate a policy or approach. When asked by the Liaison Committee to sum up one key lesson of the report, Sir John Chilcot said:
“If you press me very hard, I will say it was a failure to exert and exercise sufficient collective responsibility for a very big decision, and then to scrutinise and supervise its conduct and implementation.”
“On the issue of misleading Parliament, there is nothing in the Chilcot report that I can see that points to deliberate deceit, but there were clearly occasions when more information, or better information, could have been presented.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 612, c. 907.]
He also said:
“As for how people should account for themselves, it is for them to read the report and explain why they did what they did.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 612, c. 902.]
At his appearance before the Liaison Committee on
“from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive Parliament or the public—to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false. That I think he should be absolved from.”
He also made the following point about the legal basis for military action, saying:
“The way in which the legal advice about—the basis for it was highly unsatisfactory, but that is not the same as saying it was illegal, and therefore that something should follow or some effect should be procured. One can’t say that.”
He also reminded the Committee that before the invasion of Iraq
“the whole intelligence community, and not only in the United Kingdom, were strongly of the belief—and had, they thought, sufficient intelligence to support it— that Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction available for use.”
The decision to go to war in Iraq has had a profound and lasting impact on politics in this country, on the families of those who lost loved ones in Iraq and on those who were injured. Clearly, it was a tragic and seismic episode in our nation’s history. Lessons should be learned and that process is ongoing. The Government are considering the lessons identified by the Iraq inquiry, many of which had already been recognised with changes made before Sir John published his report. The Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser is currently leading a process with our national security Departments to consider further improvements. We fully recognise that ensuring that lessons are properly learned and embedded will be a long-term process.
The Minister mentioned Sir John Chilcot’s evidence to the Liaison Committee. The passage in which Sir John concludes that a reasonable man could not have come to the conclusion that Mr Blair did about weapons of mass destruction was followed by the Chair saying:
“So he misled the House, or set aside evidence in order to lead the House down a line of thought and belief with his
Has the Minister read that passage in the evidence?
The important thing to recognise is that the Chilcot report—in paragraph 537 of the executive summary—explicitly does not question Mr Blair’s belief at the time that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Paragraph 533 states:
“There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the”—
“dossier or that No.10 improperly influenced the text.”
In paragraph 491, the report is explicit that
“Cabinet was not misled on
One of the lessons we can learn is that there was no plan for reconstruction. If we are to learn that lesson, we should bear that in mind when considering reconstruction in Syria or Iraq.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are lessons for modern-day conflicts. I hope that this debate will give Members the opportunity to put their views across on which lessons should be learned. We had three days of debate on the Chilcot report itself, and I hope that we can move forward by coming up with proactive, positive recommendations.
The Minister mentioned the establishment of the National Security Council as one thing that followed from the situation in Iraq. I draw to his attention the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on events in Libya in which we were critical of Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to use the NSC properly and of the lack of detailed input into the situation in Libya that was considered by the Government at that time.
The hon. Gentleman has put his comments on the record. I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will formally respond to the Committee’s recommendations, so I will leave it at that.
The National Security Council is a dedicated, standing Cabinet Committee that meets regularly at both ministerial and senior official level and has the right range of information to take forward informed decisions and to hold collective responsibility at the highest level. It provides collective strategic leadership on national security and crisis situations, with a built-in challenge function, making clear recommendations to Cabinet on military interventions, and formally recording both decisions and operational actions. The Attorney General attended the NSC regularly until April 2016, when he became a full member, and formal written legal advice is now provided and discussed at relevant NSC meetings and presented to Cabinet before any decisions on military intervention are taken.
The Government have integrated their overarching strategic approach with pragmatic, costed delivery mechanisms, including for military equipment, in a national security strategy, and strategic defence and security review, which is refreshed and adjusted in the light of developments every parliamentary term. The SDSR and refreshment of the national security strategy in 2015 brought this work together in a single integrated document. Cross-Whitehall working continues to improve, with creative policy making designed and delivered collectively across national security Departments and agencies to ensure that we understand, as far as is possible in dynamic and evolving threatening situations, what we want to achieve, and the implications for and impacts on ourselves and others. In support of this work, we set up joint units and taskforces where issues cut across several departmental responsibilities.
The Government are committed to understanding and acting on the important lessons drawn by Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues, but we recognise the need to continue to improve, whether working across the national security community or the wider civil service, hence the importance being given by the collective senior leadership to civil service reform and learning.
I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks about the improvements being made, and the Cameron Government did make improvements by introducing the NSC, but—I say this with hindsight—we still invaded Libya after too cursory a discussion in Cabinet and somehow we did not look properly at what the consequences would be. We talked only about the imminent threat of a massacre in Benghazi, which took everybody in to the intervention.
The Minister says the Government are considering further improvements, so will he invite my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to consider setting out some principles: about the amount of notice the NSC has of such decisions, the length and fullness of discussions—that applies to Cabinet, too—and the right of individual members of the Cabinet to have access before a meeting to security advice and defence advice if they wish to prepare themselves for the discussion?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his recommendations. I am sure the National Security Adviser will be listening closely to this debate, and the fact they have been put on the record means it will be important for him to have regard to them. I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend will understand that at the time he mentions we were facing a bloodbath in Benghazi, that intervention was vital and that we would not now row back on that intervention.
I do not wish to add to any difficulties in this respect, but one problem is insufficient military input to the NSC; it all comes in through the voice of one man, the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Defence Committee has suggested that one way to strengthen the NSC would be to constitute the Chiefs of Staff Committee as a sub-committee of the NSC. In that way, a Prime Minister with a bee in his bonnet would not be able so easily to sweep away military concerns.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his separate recommendation and note that the Minister for the Armed Forces is in his place and listening carefully. That is not a new recommendation, but we will consider closely all recommendations from this debate.
Although it is right to learn the lessons identified by the Chilcot report, we should ensure that we avoid learning the wrong lessons. As the then Prime Minister said on the day the report was published,
“it would be wrong to conclude that we should not stand with our American allies when our common…interests are threatened” and that
“it would be wrong to conclude that we cannot rely on the judgments of our brilliant and hard-working intelligence agencies”.
He said that it is “wrong” to question the capability of our military, who
“remain the envy of the world”.
Perhaps most crucially, he said that it is wrong to
“conclude that intervention is always wrong.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 612, c. 888.]
This has been a long and exhaustive inquiry. Sir John and his colleagues have had access to thousands of official documents and reached their conclusions—
No, not now.
Lessons are being learned and will continue to be learned from what happened in Iraq, and so the Government can see no merit in undertaking any further inquiries into the Iraq war.
I am grateful for the contributions made so far, especially the Minister’s. When we reflect on the matters we are debating this afternoon, it is very important that we first to pay tribute, as the Minister did, to the hundreds of British servicemen and women and civilian personnel who lost their lives during the conflict in Iraq and that we send our thoughts to all the thousands of others who are still living with the injuries they suffered when serving in our armed forces.
We must never forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died during the conflict, and subsequently as a result of the sectarian violence and terrorist outrages that have followed. They must all be uppermost in our minds when we talk about learning from the mistakes that were made in Iraq and ensuring that future Governments do not repeat those mistakes.
No matter whether we are one of those Members who voted against the war, as I did, or one of the many, on both sides of this House, who in good faith and good conscience voted in favour of the invasion, it is incumbent on us all to learn the lessons about what went wrong and, indeed, to apologise for what has been exposed by Sir John Chilcot as the collective failing of our institutions.
It is a little over four months since this House spent two full days debating the contents of the Chilcot report, and a week after that debate we spent several hours asking questions about it to the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. Much has changed since that debate, but in terms of the arguments we have heard about the evidence presented in the Chilcot report, I would say, with great respect, that we have, thus far, heard nothing new today.
Alex Salmond has a long-standing contention—we have heard him set it out again just now—that, first, Parliament was deliberately misled by Tony Blair and his Government in the run-up to war; secondly, that intelligence allegedly known by Ministers to be false was deliberately presented to this House and to the public; thirdly, that this was all designed to deliver on a private pact that Tony Blair had made with George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq; and that the evidence for those contentions lies mainly in the six words written in a memo from the then Prime Minister to the then President.
Although I have listened very carefully again to the argument made by the right hon. Member for Gordon, we all know that those were exactly the contentions that Sir John Chilcot spent several years looking into, alongside all the evidence from memos and records of conversations, and from his many interviews with hundreds of witnesses. So let me say once again that Sir John deserves our thanks and our praise for conducting that vast but vital task with great care, diligence and objectivity.
The Chilcot report was the fifth, and hopefully the final, inquiry into the Iraq war. The first was published on
“we have no doubt that the threat posed to United Kingdom forces was genuinely perceived as a real and present danger and that the steps taken to protect them were justified by the information available at the time.”
We were critical of the prominence and emphasis given to the 45-minute claim in the September 2002 dossier, saying that greater uncertainty should have surrounded the presentation of that and other claims. However, we concluded that those claims were
“well founded on the basis of the intelligence then available” and that
“allegations of politically inspired meddling cannot credibly be established”.
We were highly critical of the February 2003 dossier—the so-called dodgy dossier—and the fact that Tony Blair had inadvertently presented it as “further intelligence” on the Floor of the House without realising its true provenance. However, that was 13 years ago. Four inquiries later, with the benefit of millions of pages of documentary evidence and hundreds of key witnesses to which my colleagues and I did not have access at the time, the conclusions have remained fundamentally the same.
There are many serious lessons to learn from the Chilcot report, and I will address them in a moment. However, on learning those lessons, we will do ourselves and future Governments no favours if we spend even more time in this House and in the Committee Rooms examining contentions that the Chilcot report and four other inquiries—at exhaustive length—have already found to be incorrect, nor will any of us benefit if we continue to try to turn a collective institutional and international failure in Iraq into an attempt to pillory and scapegoat one individual. Let me be clear: I totally disagreed, as many other people did, with Tony Blair on the Iraq war. I voted against our Government because I thought that our then Prime Minister was simply wrong, but never for one second did I believe that he was acting in bad faith, and I do not do so now.
I rise to support my hon. Friend. Like him, I voted against the war at the time. Nothing has happened since then to make me think that I was wrong to do so, but I did not for one minute think that Tony Blair lied to this House, or attempted to mislead me. I just came to a different judgment. The problem is that in the minds of those who believe that we were misled, there is no report that will ever convince them otherwise, but it is time to learn the lessons for future generations and to move on.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he captures the mood that was prevalent at the time. Many of us wanted to vote against that war and we did so with a clear conscience because we felt that it was the wrong approach to resolving the problems in Iraq. I will go on to say a bit more about what should be done now.
I was a Member when that vote was taken. I suspect that, with hindsight, many people would look again at the way they voted. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, whether the commitments to the House were made in good faith or bad faith, the central point of being able to hold the Executive to account for the basis on which they go to war, for their actions afterwards and for the way in which they prepare our troops for battle is important? It provides an important role for this House, which is to scope out ways in which it can avoid mistakes in the future.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The important words he used were “in the future”. We must be held to account by the people who elected us—by the public of this country—and we must hold our Government to account for the decisions that they bring to this House for approval. It is very clear, as Sir John Chilcot said, that this was a collective and institutional failure.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the results of the freedom of information requests a few weeks ago that demonstrated precisely that the Chilcot inquiry had been designed to “avoid blame”. Sir Gus O’Donnell has been quoted as saying that he recommended using the inquiry’s terms of reference to prevent it reaching
“any conclusion on questions of law or fact” or to attributing any blame. If we look at the Glen Rangwala report, which simply puts the evidence in front of us—
Order. May I make a plea to those who are looking to catch my eye later on to keep their interventions to the minimum, as there are a very large number of people wishing to contribute to this debate?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but no, I do not recognise those results, because I do not know the context in which those words were said. All too often speeches and phrases are taken out of context. I do not believe for one minute that Sir John Chilcot and his whole report and all the years and the time that he spent were there simply to mislead the public.
Let me try to make some progress. As I have said, I never for one second believed that the then Prime Minister was acting in bad faith, and I do not do so now. For those reasons, I will be urging my Labour colleagues to vote against today’s motion. I will urge them to do so to enable the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to focus properly on the real job of its inquiry, which is to analyse the conclusions that Sir John has actually reached, based on the evidence that he gathered, and to look at the lessons that he says should be learned from his report.
At the time, the Foreign Affairs Committee did look into that matter. I have not examined it since then—in the past 13 years—but I believe that Sir John Chilcot does make reference to it in his report.
If there is one serious risk that we now face, it is to assume that all the lessons from Iraq have been learned and that the mistakes made there could never happen again. That is particularly important now, while we have in place a relatively new Prime Minister, who may in due course face her own decisions over peace and war, and who may herself need to come and make a case before this House.
Listening to the former Prime Minister’s response to Chilcot back in July, I understood that, although he acknowledged that lessons needed to be learned, his clear implication was that that had already been done. He said that by establishing the National Security Council there could be more questions from Ministers about intelligence assessments and more questions from the military about shortcomings in planning, yet, as my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, the Chair of the Defence Committee, has pointed out, there is insufficient input from military sources to make that credible.
The former Prime Minister said that creating the conflict and stability fund meant that we were better placed to prepare for the aftermath of conflicts and to prevent the kind of power vacuum that sectarian and terrorist groups exploited after the Iraq war. Although we welcome the theory behind innovations such as the National Security Council and the conflict and stability fund, the reality of what has happened in Libya and elsewhere over the past five years—this is what my hon. Friend Mike Gapes pointed out—does not give confidence that they are working in practice. It suggests even more clearly that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has an important job to do over the coming months in ensuring that the real lessons of Chilcot—for Whitehall, for Ministers and for Parliament—are truly being learned.
Let us consider for a moment what Chilcot discovered in relation to civilian casualties as a result of coalition action. The Chief of the Defence Staff predicted that casualties would be in the “low hundreds”. When the reality became clear, the then Foreign Secretary said:
“We need to find ways of countering the damaging perception that civilians are being killed needlessly, and in large numbers, by coalition forces.”
When the truth became overwhelming, a private secretary to Tony Blair told him that casualty data must be suppressed because
“any overall assessment of civilian casualties will show that”— the coalition is—
“responsible for significantly more than insurgents.”
“The Government’s consideration of the issue of Iraqi civilian casualties was driven by its concern to rebut accusations that coalition forces were responsible for the deaths of large numbers of civilians, and to sustain domestic support for operations”.
When we hear Ministers say exactly the same from that Dispatch Box in relation to civilian casualties in Yemen, is it possible to argue that anything has changed or that any lessons have been learned? I do not believe that that is the case. The mistakes of Iraq are being made all over again. We need to ensure that the National Security Council and all the other measures adopted are working, because I do not believe that they are at the moment.
In conclusion, I believe that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee needs to examine the Chilcot report, not for what it tells us about the past but for what we can learn from it for the present and the future. Whether in relation to Yemen, Libya, Syria or the ongoing battle to restore stability and end sectarian conflict in Iraq, we must look forward and learn the lessons that have practical consequences for us all today. With instability growing throughout the middle east, eastern Europe and beyond, we may face even bigger challenges tomorrow, and that is why I cannot support the motion. I understand why its proposers have tabled it, but they are fighting an old war and raising once again contentions that have already been dismissed by five—five—separate inquiries. How many more do we need? In doing so, they risk distracting the attention of this House and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee from what should be their true objective, which is to learn the real lessons from Chilcot and ensure that we never need such an inquiry again.
From time to time, Members of this House of Commons have the burden of debating whether to send our finest young men and women into harm’s way, and sometimes to their deaths. I do not believe that any Member of this House, on either side, ever takes that decision lightly and we need always to take that decision based on the best possible information.
At the start of the second Iraq war, my young constituent, Lieutenant Marc Lawrence, serving on a Sea King helicopter, was killed. That in itself is possibly a matter for a further inquiry, but I know that that loss was devastating to Marc’s parents and I believe that they have a right to know that their only son lost his life in a just cause and that his sacrifice was worth while.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I voted to send that young man to his death. On the eve of the vote, a significant number of Members then on the Opposition Benches, including myself, had grave disquiet about the cause on which we were due to embark. I and about a dozen colleagues met the then Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith, and the shadow Foreign Minister, the then Member for Devizes, Michael Ancram. The Leader of the Opposition told us on Privy Council terms that he had been informed on Privy Council terms by Mr Blair that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction and that there was a 40-minute threat to UK interests and that therefore our support for the motion before the House the following day was vital.
I am afraid that I cannot concur with Fabian Hamilton. I sat on those Benches and listened to the tone of the debate as well as to the words that were said. I have to say that I believe that the House was deliberately misled. There were no weapons of mass destruction, as we now know, and there was no 40-minute threat. I think that it is plain—I am convinced that it is plain, sadly—that Mr Blair had made a pledge to President Bush that the UK would be delivered and that he was determined to deliver the UK in support of that war.
We cannot let this matter rest. We owe it to our armed forces to see this through. I support the call to ask the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to take further action. My hon. Friend Mr Jenkin, the Chairman of the Committee, has indicated to me privately, as he has indicated on the Floor of the House today, that his inquiries are ongoing and that further recommendations will be made. I am grateful for that.
I resent the fact that this is described as an opportunist Scottish National party motion. Technically, yes, this is an Opposition day debate, but the motion has cross-party support and I am grateful that the Government have effectively recognised that this is a House of Commons matter and should never be a party political matter.
I am not interested in a witch hunt against a former and discredited Prime Minister. I concur entirely with my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke when he says that we must seek to take every measure to try to ensure that these circumstances do not arise again. We cannot bring back the dead, but we can help to prevent further and unwarranted sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces. I am not interested in the outcome of this vote. Whatever the outcome, I hope that my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee will help to ensure that the right measures are taken so that we never, ever face such circumstances again.
I am delighted to follow Sir Roger Gale, because we went through the same experience of this House at that time. Although we like to feel that we take our decisions on an intellectual basis, I know that my feelings on this are motivated by strong emotion and what happened to my father in the war. He volunteered as a 15-year-old—he lied about his age—to go to the continent and stop the Huns bayoneting Belgian babies. He returned broken and badly wounded in 1919, extremely grateful to the Germans for having saved his life when he was dying in a foxhole. He could have bled to death.
My motivation—this should be our highest motivation —is the interests of our armed forces. They need an absolute assurance that any decision to put their lives at risk is taken in the most serious way after the most searching inquiries are carried out. We owe them that. I believe that another inquiry is necessary, and that is one on the decision to go into Helmand province in 2006 at a time when only six members of the armed services had been killed in the war. We went in in the hope that not a shot would be fired and 450 of our servicemen died as a result. That is what we must do now—that is what we should be taking on, not a tribal party row in this place. It is not appropriate; it is not right. We must look to the reputation of Parliament.
As has been said, we were misled. Whether it was deliberate or not—the expression “sincere deceivers” has been used in the United States about what happened in that war—we know that after that debate 139 of my comrades on the Labour Benches voted against the war, which was a very courageous thing to do as we were under great pressure, but 50 others had grave doubts about the war. They were, in my view, bribed, bullied or bamboozled into voting the wrong way and many—
I am not suggesting that anyone took any money. There are such things as political bribes, with inducements and offers, of which we are well aware in this place. There was a very heavy operation here to convince Members to vote for war. We must look at the situation then.
One Back Bencher wrote to Tony Blair—I speak of Tony Blair with no animus against him. I campaigned for him to be Leader of the House. I have congratulated him again and again on the work that he has done for the Labour party, but it is not the case that there was one failure. It was a failure of the three most important Select Committees in this House, who were all cheerleaders for the war. There were all those who went around saying, “If you knew what we know—we’ve got this secret information—you would certainly vote for war to go ahead.” I believe it was in that circumstance that the decision was taken.
One letter to Tony Blair warned in March:
“Our involvement in Bush’s war will increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks.”
It said that attacking a Muslim state without achieving a fair settlement in other conflicts in the world would be seen by Muslims from our local mosques to the far corners of the world as an act of injustice. I believe we paid a very heavy price in the world for seeming to divide the world between a powerful, western, Christian world which was taking advantage of the other side, who were Muslims.
I am certain that in his mind Tony Blair was sincere. He was proved to be right on Kosovo when many people criticised him, and on Sierra Leone he was right. He was convinced on that that the others were wrong and he was going to prove it. One of the pieces of information that he quoted was an interview with Hussein Kamel, who was the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein. It was quoted in the document as evidence of weapons of mass destruction. According to the interview, Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons, which he did say in the evidence. But in the same interview, which was conducted in 1995 and was already old news, Hussein Kamel said, “Of course, we got rid of them after the Gulf war.” What was in that dodgy dossier was half the story—evidence, yes, that Saddam had had such weapons, but also evidence that he no longer had them, and that was never published.
What Chilcot said in his report was not the absolution that people believe it to be. He said that the decision to invade was taken
“before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted” and that military action was
“not a last resort”.
According to the strictures of modern philosophy, that means it is not a just war. Chilcot said that Saddam posed no “imminent threat”. In effect, he declared the war needless.
Colin Powell has confessed that he was fooled and lied to, and that he regrets bitterly that he did not follow his natural instinct and avoid the war. Strangely enough, most of the people who were advising him at the time have said that they were wrong and the war was a terrible mistake.
I believe that this House must accept what Chilcot is saying and not take an aversion to it that pleases our political point of view. The issue is one that the loved ones of the 179 have been following. They have gone through years of torment asking themselves, “Did our loved ones die in vain?” Chilcot has reported, and his report was that the decision was taken not just by a Prime Minister but by all those who were gullible enough to believe that case. There were a million people who walked the streets of this country and demonstrated. It was not a clear decision.
We fall into the trap time and again of believing that our role in Britain is to punch above our weight militarily. Why should we do that? Every time we do, we die beyond our responsibilities.
I obviously was not here in 2003, and as a student at the time, was part of that anti-war generation that my hon. Friend describes. I am troubled by his language in describing colleagues, some of whom are still here today, as “gullible” in voting for the Iraq war. I never agreed with it then and with hindsight I certainly do not agree with it, but I never doubted either the integrity or the intelligence of the people who took a different view then and continue to take a different view today.
I will stick to the word “gullible”. Three Committees of people who are great experts—the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee—all took the same view. They were all told stories about the weapons of mass destruction. The evidence was, and the evidence is there now, that those did not exist, and there was a very selective choice of evidence—as in the quotations of the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein—that the Committee members believed and chose to believe.
If we do not recognise that as a problem for this House, we will make the same mistakes again. We are going to face such decisions in future. The House will have to decide whether we are going to order—that is our power—young men and women to put their lives on the line, on the basis of what? Faulty evidence, ineffective evidence. That was the conclusion of Chilcot.
The hon. Gentleman makes a compelling case, to which I am very sympathetic, but I wonder, given the case that he is making, does he agree that it is a matter of some disappointment that a majority of his colleagues in the parliamentary Labour party have decided to set themselves against the motion before the House today, and that this will look like they are closing ranks to protect their former leader?
There is a great deal that I regret about things that are happening within the Labour party at this moment. In the brief cameo appearance that I had on the Front Bench, I called for this debate. I called for a debate to take place on these lines. Of course I want to see the debate. We cannot pretend that after all these years of investigation, the Chilcot inquiry is a trial without a verdict at the end. We must take that responsibility ourselves and we must reform this House to make sure that we can never again take such a calamitous decision, which led to the loss of 179 British lives and uncounted numbers of Iraqi lives. That was a terrible, terrible mistake and we must not repeat it.
Mr Speaker, thank you. It is a great honour to catch your eye this afternoon and to follow so many distinguished speakers.
There is an important link between west Oxfordshire and the debate we are having this afternoon. As Colonial Secretary, Mr Winston Churchill was in great part involved in the setting up of modern Iraq. I think it is also right to say that Mr Churchill was responsible for the setting up of the Chilcot inquiry—or perhaps it just seems that way.
We are speaking this afternoon of past Prime Ministers. I wish to speak of a great Prime Minister. David Cameron represented Witney for 15 years. He was a great Prime Minister and a brilliant MP for west Oxfordshire. He found the Conservative party bleeding after three successive election defeats. He picked it up, restored its faith in itself, and returned it to government. I know at first hand the effect that his leadership had upon the party, the country and its fortunes, because I was there, on the streets, and I felt the turning of the tide. There is perhaps no greater tribute that I could pay David Cameron than to say that he made the Conservative party believe in itself again. He made it fresh, dynamic, and able to communicate with modern Britain. He created a new generation of Conservative politicians, and I am one of them. The record in this House speaks for itself— 1,000 jobs a day created while he was Prime Minister and an economy rescued from the brink of ruin. The party and, if I may say so, the country, will forever be in his debt.
In west Oxfordshire, it did not matter who someone was, where they lived or how they voted; if there was a local issue, he was always happy to help them. It is, of course, always the case that we attend with alacrity to constituents’ concerns, but when I see a letter from “D. Cameron, Outraged, of Dean” complaining about his dustbin collection or myriad other issues, it may be one letter that I do not leave until the end of the day.
It is a daunting task to sit in this House. Some weeks ago, I was in private practice at the Bar. I am now surrounded by great experts in law, the military, social justice, the economy and the constitution. The range of talent and experience in this House is awe-inspiring. But I do have ties to this House and an example that I can draw upon. In 1945, Albert Stubbs won the seat of Cambridgeshire for the Labour party. [Laughter.] He was a famous trade unionist, and he won his seat by a majority of 44 by getting out on his motorcycle, riding around the villages of Cambridgeshire and signing up the workers to the union. He was known for his hard work for the people of that area and his interest in rural issues.
That record is one that I aspire to when I look at the people of west Oxfordshire. Hon. Members need not worry: I am not about to execute the fastest defection in political history. I mention Mr Stubbs because he was my great-grandfather. I must watch my words carefully at this point, because his daughter—my grandmother—will be watching on the television, and if I put a foot out of line I am going to get a very strongly worded letter. I do therefore acknowledge at this stage that Mr Stubbs would be horrified by my politics, but I hope he would at least approve of my work ethic.
I have spoken to the House of my admiration for Winston Churchill, and I thought it would be a good idea if I went back to the records to see whether there was perhaps an exchange between my hero and my forebear. I went to Hansard and I searched for an exchange, and I expected the contrast of the famous parliamentary wit and the working-class warrior. I was thinking of a combination of Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox, and I found in the “Thanks to Services” debate from 1945 just such an exchange. The great man—speaking from the Opposition Bench, of course—paused in his speech, took an intervention from Mr Stubbs, told him he was “ignorant” and went back to his speech. I do not know who was right or wrong in that exchange; I merely hope that I will manage to avoid such a rebuke in the course of my career.
West Oxfordshire is a landlocked constituency, but it is perhaps best toured by taking a look at its rivers. If we were charting the course of the Windrush downstream, we would start at the beautiful town of Burford—stone-walled, slate-roofed and a glowing gateway to the Cotswolds. The proclamation of Edward IV; the home of Speaker Lenthall, the most famous protector of this House; and the execution of the Levellers—it shines with history.
We could travel downstream to Witney, the famous market town. My predecessor, in his maiden speech, noted that there was only one blanket factory left in Witney and that most of the beer was brewed elsewhere. Sadly, there are now no blanket factories, although the Blanket Hall is well worth a visit. But the Wychwood brewery has an astonishingly high market share of real ale, and there are wonderful ales. It supplies many of the wonderful pubs in west Oxfordshire, where one can go to enjoy a pint or watch the world go by—I will just have to be careful I do not leave my children behind. [Laughter.]
Alongside the Evenlode, we see the beautiful town of Charlbury and, at Cornbury Park, a world-beating charity, SpecialEffect, using video games and technology to enhance the quality of life of people with disabilities. Alongside the Evenlode, the Dorn and the Thames, we see a wealth of wonderful wildlife—for example, at Chimney Meadows—that inhabits the stunning countryside of west Oxfordshire.
But it is the thriving market towns of Witney, Burford, Chipping Norton, Charlbury, Carterton and Eynsham, and the villages that connect them, that give west Oxfordshire its distinctive character. These are filled with clever, industrious, creative, hard-working people creating world-beating industries in IT, Formula 1, travel and clothes, and each year hosting thousands of visitors from across the world. If the rivers are the lifeblood of west Oxfordshire, the market towns are the beating heart.
I pause at this stage to fly, as it were, to proud, modern Carterton and nearby Brize Norton—home of the Royal Air Force’s transport fleet and centre of transport operations. It is, of course, from there that so many flew to Iraq, and, sadly, many have flown back having given everything. Their sacrifice is remembered in the moving repatriation garden at Carterton.
My grandfather and my great-uncle were Bomber Command veterans, and the care of elderly veterans is a particular concern to the people of west Oxfordshire, and particularly those in Carterton, whose very lifeblood is tied up with the wellbeing of that thriving airbase and the people who have served in it. Such veterans are people who have asked for little but given everything; they are the people to whom we owe our freedom, and the care we give them now tells us much about not only our compassion but our sense of duty, and we must not let them down.
I also pause to pay tribute to the men and women of today’s Royal Air Force. They are the heirs of those who fought in canvas and wood machines above the trenches of Flanders 100 years ago. They are the heirs of those who formed the few in 1940. They, together with the Army and Royal Navy, are the people whose strength and bravery make possible the civilised debate that we have in this House.
We must not forget that those who defend our freedom now are no less requiring of our care than their forebears. Sometimes the scars are visible, and I commend the charities that do so much to help those whose injuries are physical, but we should not forget that, so often, the wounds are not visible—that a person may leave the conflict, but the conflict will never leave the person.
I have met many people in my work at the Bar whose lives are blighted by psychiatric illness, and I urge all Members to remember all those who need a little more understanding, both in the armed forces and in the wider public. That underlines the importance to everyone of the health services that underpin this care: the surgeries in our towns and, in my constituency, the hospitals in Witney and Chipping Norton.
I have spoken of rivers that seem to surge with history, and it is perhaps the Glyme that has the most fame—flowing down through famous Woodstock, royalist-garrisoned in the civil war and now with the world heritage site of Blenheim Palace.
Lastly, at the close of our tour, I come to the quiet little village of Bladon, where I live. The sun climbs slowly to illuminate the village in the shallow valley, as it has for 1,000 years. The local red kite floats lazily over the church tower. The river flows through Blenheim Park, round past the yellow sandstone cottages. It is an attractive but typical small west Oxfordshire settlement, with one pub, an active pop-up shop and the thriving church community of St Martin’s, which is where I was married and where my son, Henry, was baptised. But it is also the reason why this small Oxfordshire village is world-famous. I rise for the first time in this House on the birthday of Sir Winston Churchill. He now lies in Bladon churchyard. I walk past his grave every Sunday morning—my house is a stone’s throw away—so his words resonate particularly with me.
Winston Spencer Churchill loved this House and, throughout his long career, defended its strengths and traditions. So, as we come to the end of our tour, following the Thames from the southern bank of my constituency to outside the door of this palace, I would like to pause to consider his words about what it is that we do here. He said:
“The object of Parliament is to substitute argument for fisticuffs”—[Official Report,
Vol. 488, c. 1179.] and that the House of Commons
“is the citadel of British liberty;
it is the foundation of our laws…I do not know how else this country can be governed other than by the House of Commons playing its part in all its broad freedom in British public life.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 393, c. 405-06.]
If I may say so, we must all remember that. No matter how great the issues or how strong the passions, the very fact that we can have these debates is proof positive of why our system of representative democracy works.
I am acutely aware of the trust set in me by the people of west Oxfordshire. I will ensure that the voice of the Windrush is heard loudly on the banks of the Thames, and I will strive every day to deserve their trust. Every day that I set foot in this Chamber, I will remember that to sit on these Benches is to breathe fresh life into Churchill’s words—an honour without measure. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
It gives me great pleasure to follow Robert Courts. I congratulate him most warmly on an excellent maiden speech. He talked with great descriptive beauty about his constituency. He used humour and he was serious. He talked about his own family’s political journey in having a Labour grandfather. My family has had a political journey in the opposite direction: of my two grandfathers, one was Liberal and one was Conservative. I noticed, however, that he did not talk about the political journey of his predecessor but one—an interesting journey that took place rather more recently than his grandfather’s. I thought that what he said about his predecessor was absolutely right, at a time when a lot of people are saying not very nice things about the previous Prime Minister. I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman said what he did and put it on the record. I thank him for that.
Before addressing the motion itself, I would like to consider what we might be debating today instead. We could be debating the crisis in the national health service and social care. We could be debating the devastating impact on living standards of the Government’s autumn statement. We could be debating what the Scottish National party Government in Scotland might be doing with the powers they have, but resolutely refuse to use, to mitigate that. Or we could have used this precious debating time to put pressure on the Government to drop food and medicine to the people of Aleppo, who, as the French Government said today, are facing the worst massacre of civilians since the second world war.
But no, we are debating the motion before us—and why? SNP Members are furious, livid and incandescent with rage that Sir John Chilcot did not find that Tony Blair lied. After seven years and five independent inquiries, the lie that our former Prime Minister lied has finally been laid to rest, and SNP Members cannot stand it. The motion, of course, does not talk about lying. However, Caroline Lucas, who supports the motion, let the cat out of the bag when she told The Observer on Sunday
“The Chilcot report confirmed Tony Blair lied to the public, parliament and his own cabinet in order to drag us into the Iraq war.”
She has clearly not read the Chilcot report; it did no such thing.
Without going over the detail as we did in a very full debate on this back in the summer, let me remind the House briefly of what the Chilcot report did say. Volume 4, paragraph 876, says clearly that there was no falsification or improper use of intelligence. Volume 5, paragraph 953 says that there was no deception of Cabinet. Volume 1, paragraph 572 onwards, says that there was no secret commitment to war either at Crawford in April 2002 or anywhere else. Although outside the body of the report, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, Sir John Chilcot himself, in his appearance before the Liaison Committee, said:
“I absolve him”—
“from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive parliament or the public—to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false.”
Some people just cannot give up. Some people do not seem able to accept the possibility that reasonable people can come to different views on a difficult subject but do so in good faith. Some people cannot accept—
No, the right hon. Gentleman had half an hour and a lot of Members want to speak.
Some people cannot accept that however much one disagrees with a decision taken, it can still have been taken in good faith. So here we are debating a motion that seeks to distort and rewrite Chilcot and, in effect, put Tony Blair back in the dock. I am delighted that my own party is having none of this nonsense and that we will be voting against this mendacious opportunism in an hour and a half’s time.
I think there may be another reason why some people persist in trying to claim falsely that there was deliberate deceit in all this. They are more than a little nervous that as we look at what has happened in Syria, and is still happening in Syria today, where there was no intervention and we left a brutal dictator to continue to slaughter his own people, history will prove our former Prime Minister right.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am going to suggest an informal limit of six minutes and see how we get on. It may be necessary to put a formal limit on, but we will start with six minutes.
It is a pleasure to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Robert Courts on an outstanding maiden speech. I have a history of sometimes disagreeing with hon. Members from Witney, but on this occasion it was fantastic to be able to nod in agreement and pleasure at every remark he made. He has got off to a tremendous start in this House, and I am sure he can tell from the reactions of Members on both sides of the House the good wishes that flow to him today. Make the most of it!
I welcome the fact that Scottish National party Members and other parties’ Members have chosen to bring forward this subject for debate today. I speak as somebody who voted and spoke in favour of toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 and who has come to believe that that was entirely the wrong decision to take. It is therefore with a degree of humility that I address the two reasons that I voted and spoke in the way I did: first, because I believed what I was told about weapons of mass destruction; and, secondly, because I had a naive view that if Saddam Hussein were removed we might see something like the emergence of democracy in Iraq—and of course we saw nothing of the kind.
I am extremely grateful. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if Saddam Hussein had not been removed, it is very likely that his son Uday, or someone else of a similar nature, would have inherited, and that the problems we have seen writ large in Syria since 2011 would have been even worse in Iraq?
I accept the first part of what the hon. Gentleman says. It is highly probable that if Saddam Hussein had not been removed, things would have gone on in Iraq in the brutal, dictatorial way in which they had gone on previously. The problem is, as we have learned from what happened in Iraq and in Libya, that one can remove these brutal dictators, but instead of seeing democracy emerge one sees re-emerging a deadly conflict, going back more than 1,000 years, between different branches of the Islamic faith. The hon. Gentleman knows my view on this because, as I hope he remembers, in the arguments we had when the same proposition was put forward to deal with President Assad as we had dealt with Saddam Hussein, I made the same argument then as I make now—that in a choice between a brutal, repressive dictator and the alternative of a totalitarian Islamist state, I am afraid that the brutal dictator is the lesser of two evils. If we have not learned that from what happened in Iraq, then we truly have not learned any lessons from Iraq at all.
At the Liaison Committee meeting on
“Exaggeration—placing more weight on the intelligence than it could possibly bear—is a conclusion that we reached on the Butler committee and reached again with even more evidence in the Iraq inquiry.”
He went on to say something rather curious. I put it to him that one argument that I had found convincing was when Mr Blair had said that there was a real danger of the weapons of mass destruction that were believed to exist in the hands of dictators getting into the hands of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Sir John went on to say:
“On the other hand, I do not know that, in putting forward the fusion argument, Mr Blair related it very directly and specifically to Saddam passing weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.”
“there are two begetters of chaos: tyrannical regimes with weapons of mass destruction and extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam…Those two threats have, of course, different motives and different origins, but they share one basic common view: they detest the freedom, democracy and tolerance that are the hallmarks of our way of life. At the moment, I accept fully that the association between the two is loose—but it is hardening. The possibility of the two coming together”— that, I think, is what Sir John meant by fusion—
“of terrorist groups in possession of weapons of mass destruction or even of a so-called dirty radiological bomb—is now, in my judgment, a real and present danger”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 401, c. 768.]
We discussed in the debate on the Chilcot report the fact that there were plenty of references in the documents of the Joint Intelligence Committee and other intelligence organisations to the intelligence services’ real belief that Saddam still retained some weapons of mass destruction. I share Sir John’s conclusion that Tony Blair was guilty of exaggeration of the certainty with which knowledge was held about Saddam’s supposed possession of WMD, but that he was not guilty of lying to the House about that belief.
I have real concern with regard to the second argument, and it is on that argument that I believe the then Prime Minister Tony Blair will be held to have rather seriously misled the House. I revert to my exchange with Sir John Chilcot on
“I would like you to tell us to what extent Mr Blair was warned of the danger that, far from democracy emerging, Sunni-Shi’a religious strife would follow the removal of the secular dictator, who gave these warnings, and how and why they were ignored. In particular, I would just quote back to you a briefing note from your report which Mr Blair himself sent in January 2003 to President Bush.”
I ask the House to pay particular attention to this note, which Mr Blair sent to President Bush before the war began. The quote is as follows:
“The biggest risk we face is internecine fighting between all the rival groups, religions, tribes, etc. in Iraq when the military strike destabilises the regime. They are perfectly capable, on previous form, of killing each other in large numbers.”
I put this to Sir John:
“Mr Blair knew that and he said it to President Bush, so why did he ignore that terrible possibility that he himself apparently recognised?”
This is Sir John’s reply:
“I cannot give you the answer as to why. You would have to ask him. But what is clear from all the evidence we have collected is that this risk and other associated risks of instability and collapse were clearly identified and available to Ministers and to Mr Blair before the invasion. I can cite all sorts of points, but you will not want me to go into that detail now. It is in the report.
There were other signals, too, from other quarters. Our ambassador in Cairo, for example, was able to report that the Egyptian President had said that Iraq was at risk—it was populated by people who were extremely fond of killing each other, and destabilisation would bring that about.”
Was my right hon. Friend present when I intervened on the then Prime Minister in a debate on Iraq and asked him what he thought about the risk of causing great instability across the middle east by invading Iraq? My recollection is that he laughed at me from the Front Bench and asked me what sort of stability I thought Saddam Hussein represented.
I believe that that is the most serious charge against Tony Blair. It was not that he did not believe that there were weapons of mass destruction, but that he knew—better than did those of us who did not have the advice of experts to give us a wiser steer—that if we removed the dictator the result would be internecine, deadly, lethal chaos, exactly as we saw it. I am not reassured when I hear from Members on the Front Bench that the National Security Council will prevent the same thing from happening again. When the same prospect came up over Libya, and when the Chief of the Defence Staff put it to Prime Minister Cameron that there would be the same consequences in Libya as there had been in Iraq, he was brushed aside. Until the Chiefs of Staff are properly integrated into the National Security Council, we can have no assurance that those deadly errors will not be replicated.
Order. I am afraid that my informal speech limit was an abysmal failure, so I will have to impose a six-minute limit to start with. It will have to go down, unfortunately.
I start by paying tribute to everybody who served their country during the war in Iraq, and to those who tragically lost their lives. It was a pleasure to listen to the maiden speech by Robert Courts and to the speech by my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw. I am afraid I cannot say the same about the speech by my hon. Friend Paul Flynn—oh, he has gone—or the speech by the right hon. Member for Moray, neither of whom could find a word to say about Saddam Hussein; there was not a word about his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, not a word about his brutal repression of his opponents and not a single word about his brutality. What a disgrace!
The right hon. Member for Moray was completely wrong when he blamed the conflagration in the middle east on the war in Iraq. The truth is that Libya was already in a brutal civil war before western air forces prevented Gaddafi from killing innocent people in Benghazi. Toppling Saddam did not fuel the rise of Isis or cause the conflict in Syria. As Martin Chulov, The Guardian’s middle east correspondent and expert author of a definitive study of ISIS, says:
“The Syrian civil war was not driven by Isis. It fed directly out of the Arab awakenings and was a bid to oust a ruthless regime from power.”
That is what started the conflagration in Syria, and for the right hon. Gentleman to blame it on Britain is completely wrong.
First, I am not the hon. Member for Moray. Secondly, I did not mention Libya in my speech; I think that the hon. Gentleman is confusing me with other people. Will he address the point about Sir John Chilcot’s clear statement that Tony Blair acted as an advocate in terms of the evidence for weapons of mass destruction, as opposed to giving the House the facts?
I apologise for getting the name of the right hon. Gentleman’s seat wrong. I have obviously not paid him the huge respect that his sense of self-satisfaction, to which we are all so frequently treated, deserves. I want to say—he has asked his question about three times—that it is perfectly in order for a Prime Minister to set out his case and to try to persuade people in this House and elsewhere that the course of action he is advocating is the right one.
I want to put this debate into context. Last week, we had the autumn statement, which is a disaster for working people in Scotland, and yesterday we learned that Scottish councils face a £553 million black hole. SNP Members do not want to debate any of that. They do not want to debate the educational attainment gap between the richest and the poorest that is growing in Scotland. They do not want to debate the fact that Scotland has the lowest percentage of university entrants from the poorest families. They do not want to debate any of that. They do not want to be held to account on their record. They do not want to discuss any of that. Despite all of that—all the problems faced by the people of Scotland, whom they are sent to this House to represent—they do not have a word to say about it. If we look at their recent Opposition day debates, we can see that they chose to debate this today, House of Lords reform in October and Trident last year, instead of the issues that people in Scotland worry about day in, day out—education, the health service, housing. They come here to score party political points, choosing motion after motion to divide the Labour party. That is what this is about—[Interruption.] That is what this is about, and they should be treated with the contempt—[Interruption.] Look at him laughing, as if Iraq was a subject for humour, as if it was a joke.
The hon. Gentleman is doing the House no service. This is a very serious issue. Those of us on the Government Benches who have lent our names to the motion did so in the interests of our armed forces. That is what we are here to discuss.
I accept that, and I paid tribute to the armed forces right at the outset. I now want to discuss the Chilcot report.
The Chilcot report will clearly never settle arguments about whether the war in Iraq was right or wrong, but it should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit. It finds, first, that there was no falsification or misuse of intelligence by Tony Blair or No. 10 at the time; secondly, that there was no attempt to deceive Cabinet Ministers; and thirdly, that there was no secret pact with the US to go to war. That means there is no justification for saying, as the co-leader of the Green party did at the weekend:
“Tony Blair lied to the public, parliament and his own cabinet in order to drag us into the Iraq war.”
That is not true. Whether SNP Members like it or not, the truth is that Chilcot rejected allegations that Tony Blair said one thing in public and another in private. People can be for or against the war, but it is not true to say that Tony Blair lied about it. We have heard repeatedly this afternoon Sir John Chilcot’s response to the question when he absolved Tony Blair of any attempt to mislead or lie.
Let us be honest about this: Alex Salmond—I think I have got that right—has many skills, achievements and attributes, but I do not think that even the most sycophantic member of the SNP fan club would claim that self-effacing modesty or the capacity for self-examination are among them. Let us look at his record and judgment on international issues. In 2014, as Putin’s tanks massed on the border of Crimea and after NATO had warned that Russia
“threatens peace and security in Europe” and had criticised
“President Putin’s threats against this sovereign nation”, he said he admired “certain aspects” of Putin’s leadership and that it was a “good thing” he had restored Russian national pride—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is the hon. Gentleman in order to pursue these particular matters when we are in fact having a very serious debate on Iraq? [Interruption.]
Order. This debate is about the Chilcot inquiry and parliamentary scrutiny. I have given Ian Austin quite a lot of leeway, but I would be very grateful to him if he got back to the subject we are debating.
This debate is also about judgment, and the right hon. Gentleman’s judgment has been found completely wanting at every stage. It is also about intervention—whether Britain intervened rightly or wrongly—and about the consequences of that intervention. For example, when Britain was intervening to save lives in Kosovo, he said it was an action of “dubious legality” and condemned it as “unpardonable folly”. He demanded a ceasefire and urged the urgent start of talks with Milosevic. When challenged, he said that
“we shall see if I am right”.
History has proved him completely wrong—
Order. This is not a debate about Alex Salmond; it is about the Chilcot inquiry. I would be grateful to the hon. Gentleman if he moved back to that subject.
This is the final point I want to make: of course we should learn lessons from the invasion of Iraq, but we must also learn lessons from successful interventions, such as those in Kosovo, but the right hon. Gentleman ought to show some humility and apologise for his mistakes and lack of judgment over the decades.
I have to tell my hon. Friend Robert Courts that the House is at its best when listening to a maiden speech, but I am afraid it went rather downhill after that. He made an absolutely brilliant speech. He commanded the House, and he brought in a great sense of humour. He was set a very high bar, in following a former Prime Minister, but who knows what will happen in the future. I am very jealous that he lives in the wonderful village of Bladon.
I rise, with pride, to support the motion. It is rather unfortunate that there is bad blood between the Labour party and the SNP—no doubt, if the Liberal Democrats were in the Chamber, there would be bad blood between them and the Conservatives—but I wish to concentrate solely on the lessons to be learned following the Chilcot report.
There are only 179 of us left who were in the House that fateful night in March 2003. To my utter shame, I did not follow my 15 colleagues in voting against the war, so the one lesson I have learned is not always to accept at face value everything that is said at the Dispatch Box. That is a big lesson I have learned. I pay tribute to all Members, including those from other parties, who were much wiser than I was. I genuinely thought that the weapons of mass destruction were targeted on our country and that they could reach here in 40 minutes. I know that my hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale had a briefing with 11 colleagues, but I was not privy to that. I regret the way that I voted. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech, with which I entirely agree, and my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis on his speech. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke intervened, and I congratulate him on everything he said.
As we have heard, the Chilcot report took seven years and cost £13 million. It found that military action had been taken before peaceful options had been exhausted; that the reliability of evidence on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was overstated; that the legal justification was far from satisfactory; that rather than bolstering the UN, the UK helped to undermine it; that UK armed forces were poorly prepared; that warnings about the consequences of removing Saddam were not taken seriously; and that the UK overestimated its ability to influence the US. I would have thought that was pretty damning.
“Chilcot actually says, ‘Most decisions on Iraq pre-conflict were taken either bilaterally between Mr Blair and the relevant Secretary of State or in meetings between Mr Blair, Mr Straw, and Mr Hoon, with No. 10 officials and, as appropriate, Mr John Scarlett and Sir Richard Dearlove and Admiral Boyce’.”
In further questioning, he put it to him:
“Yes, but when the Prime Minister sent another letter to the President of the United States, using those now very famous words ‘I will be with you whatever’, he was advised by officials that this position should be shared with other Cabinet colleagues before he sent the letter and he refused to do so.”
The Cabinet Secretary replied:
“I certainly agree with you that private memos from the Prime Minister to the President of the United States setting out…the…position…should have been subject to collective approval”.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe also said that.
I was not in the House at the time of the vote, but I was a civil servant, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend would comment on the fact that the proper involvement of officials, rather than sofa government, could have prevented some of the excesses in 2003.
My hon. Friend makes a wise point. It is yet another lesson to be learned.
“It seems from the Chilcot report that, at some point between December 2001 and possibly March 2002 but certainly by July 2002, Mr Blair effectively signed Britain up to the American military effort… Under American law, to go to war on the basis of regime change is entirely legal. They do not recognise the international laws that render it otherwise, so for them regime change is a perfectly legitimate casus belli.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 613, c. 360.]
My right hon. and learned Friend intervened and said that
“with hindsight…given that Hans Blix was perfectly willing to carry on with inspections, if the Americans could have been persuaded to delay for another month, all this could have been avoided… The Americans dismissed Blix, however, and regarded him as a waste of time;
they were trying to get him out of the way.”
My right hon. Friend replied:
“That is exactly right. That should have been the stance that Mr Blair took, but he did not. He chose instead to come to Parliament to misrepresent the case… Finally, Mr Blair was asked by Tam Dalyell”— a great parliamentarian—
“about the risks of terrorism arising from the war, but the Prime Minister did not give him an answer—despite having been told by the JIC and by MI5 that it would increase both the international and domestic risk of terrorism and would destabilise the states in the area.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 613, c. 362.]
I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex has said that whatever the result of today’s debate his Committee will look at this issue again. In six years, the former Prime Minister involved us in wars in Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. I am very concerned about that record. With hindsight, I should not have been partisan. Instead, I should have listened more carefully to the wise words of Robin Cook and Clare Short. We owe this to all those British servicemen and women who lost their lives as a result of the Iraq war. The world has been completely destabilised by the disastrous decision that Parliament took, and the general public will not understand if, after spending all that time and money on the Chilcot report, we did not put in place a mechanism by which lessons can be learned. I also think that the former Prime Minister should be brought before a Select Committee.
As I did in the two previous debates on this issue, I start by declaring an interest: my brother served on the frontline in Iraq and served two terms of active duty in Afghanistan. I do not therefore participate lightly in this debate.
Many in this Chamber and outside never thought we would reach this point in placing a motion before the House with cross-party support calling on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to conduct a further specific examination of this contrast between public and private policy and to report to the House on any actions it considers necessary. It was a disastrous series of events that still dogs the path to peace in the middle east and which has played a part in undermining unity in the western democracies against an expansion in non-democratic forces both near and far. It was the former Member for Sedgefield who stated the obvious. We need only look at a section of a note from him to the then President of the United States headed “Extending War Aims”:
“There is a real willingness in the Middle East to get Saddam out but a total opposition to mixing this up with the current operation. All said: we know what you want, you can do it, but not whilst you are bombing Afghanistan....I have no doubt that we need to deal with Saddam. But if we hit Iraq now, we would lose the Arab world, Russia, probably half the EU and my fear is the impact of all that on Pakistan. However, I am sure we can devise a strategy for Saddam deliverable at a later date.”
It would seem that the soothsayer whispering a self-fulfilling prophecy in the ear of the then President of the United States had a clear picture of the outcome of the decision to invade Iraq: Saddam removed—done; losing support in the Arab world—done; allowing the Government of the Russian Federation to cast themselves as a defender of state sovereignty—done; a divided Europe—done; undermining the stability of the state of Pakistan—done; inflaming a sectarian divide—done; undermining the credibility of liberal democracy—done. Therefore, to restore the integrity of our sense of democracy it is critical that the House recognises that the inquiry has substantiated the fact that the former Member for Sedgefield and others misled Parliament on the development of the then Government’s policy towards the invasion of Iraq.
This position cannot and will not—at least not in this debate—go unchallenged. Even the former Member for Sedgefield’s advisers suggested in their evidence to the inquiry that a decision to support regime change in Iraq had been made by the time of, or at, the Crawford Ranch summit in April 2002. For example, Sir David Manning, foreign policy adviser to the former Prime Minister, gave evidence to the inquiry, stating:
“On the one hand the prime minister was very clearly urging the president”— of the United States—
“to go back or adopt the UN route and coalition strategy but was absolutely prepared to say that at the same time he was willing to contemplate regime change if this didn’t work.”
Fundamentally, as far as I and my SNP colleagues are concerned, this undermined the credibility of the UN and its ability to play its true role in delivering peace.
“When the Prime Minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April, he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change, provided that certain conditions were met”.
Then in a memo dated
“On Iraq, Blair will be with us should military options be necessary.”
If we can achieve anything in this debate, surely, as I have stated previously, it must be to enhance the debate about the nature of our constitutional democracy and the duties of the Government in their attitude to war and peace. I will reiterate again, as I did on the publication of the report, that the words,
“I will be with you, whatever”, will be forever associated with the former Member for Sedgefield and will be his political epitaph. They will forever live, too, in the scars of those who were casualties of the war, whether members of our armed services or Iraqi civilians, and of our democracy itself. That is the true legacy of
“I will be with you, whatever.”
The central accusation in the motion is not a rerun of whether anyone was for or against the Iraq war. As we heard eloquently from my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Eltham (Clive Efford), many Members who voted against the Iraq war will vote against the motion, because they know that that is not what it is about. Instead, the central accusation is that the former Prime Minister lied in making the case for it. The motion does not use that word, but that is the implication.
Sir John Chilcot made some serious criticisms of the decision making in the run-up to the war and in the aftermath, but he did not say that the decision was taken in bad faith. In fact, his report says of the intelligence presented:
“The JIC accepted ownership of the dossier and agreed its content. There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No.10 improperly influenced the text”.
In paragraph 806 of the report, he says:
“There was nothing in the JIC Assessments issued before July 2002 that would have raised any questions in policy-makers’ minds about the core construct of Iraq’s capabilities and intent.”
In March 2002, the JIC said that it was
“clear that Iraq continues to pursue a policy of acquiring WMD and their delivery means”.
These views on Iraq’s capability and intent were not purely British; they were shared by intelligence services throughout the world, including in those countries that were vehemently opposed to military action.
Of the meeting with President Bush at Crawford, the Chilcot report said that Mr Blair said that it was important to go back to the UN and that he sought to persuade Mr Bush to act within a multilateral framework, not a unilateral one. At paragraph 802, the report said:
“Mr Blair and Mr Straw sought to persuade the US Administration to secure multilateral support before taking action on Iraq;
and to do so through the UN.”
So the accusation of lying is not true and is not backed up by the Chilcot report.
That is absolutely true, and it is a great shame that the Iraqi MPs who were watching from the Gallery earlier on cannot be heard in today’s debate, because I am sure that they would make that point.
What is true is that the Iraq war and its aftermath raised major questions about military intervention, post-conflict responsibility and our capacity and willingness to act in the future. To go to war is a heavy responsibility and perhaps the most difficult judgment that any leader can make.
There is a temptation to think that history in Iraq began with our intervention. In his opening statement, Alex Salmond said that everything could be traced back to the 2003 intervention, but history in Iraq and the use of violence in the country and in the wider middle east did not begin in 2003. As my hon. Friend Ian Austin said, chemical weapons were used in the Anfal campaign against the Kurds, which began long before then, as did the brutal repression of the Shi’a uprising following the first Gulf war.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I believe that there is a new imperialism afoot, which seeks to trace everything to western decisions to intervene or not intervene. Until we understand that violent Islamist jihadism has an ideology of its own, we will never be able properly to confront it, let alone overcome it. We have to understand that, despite our history, it is not always about us.
I have already given way twice.
The controversy over the Iraq war and its aftermath has coloured every decision this Parliament has made on military intervention since—most notably, the vote in August 2013 not to take military action in Syria, following President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Who can say for sure what the consequences of that vote were, but we have a duty—do we not?—to reflect on them as we watch Aleppo being blown to bits night after night on our television screens. We can tell ourselves that because we did not intervene in 2013, we do not bear responsibility for it, but that is of little comfort to the children of Aleppo, as the bombs rain down on their heads in a horror seemingly without end. There will not be a Chilcot report on Syria because we did not take the decision to intervene, but are the consequences for the victims any less real?
There are certainly lessons to learn from the experience of Iraq and Syria, but they lie not in the sort of detective hunt based on false accusations of lying set out in the motion, but in asking ourselves serious questions about when we should intervene and when we should not and how we live up to the responsibilities that come from intervention. Perhaps most seriously of all, is it really a morally better position never to intervene if the consequences are encouragement for dictators and no defence for their civilian victims?
In the aftermath of the Chilcot report—we have heard a lot about it in today’s debate—there will be a process to learn lessons. Committees will be formed; processes will be changed; the National Security Council might be changed in one way or another— and it might do some good, because we need the best processes that we can, but this is not the heart of the matter. Nothing—no process; no Committee; no Council—will remove the responsibility of a Prime Minister and of MPs to make a judgment on military intervention. In the end, it is a judgment. That is what leadership is all about.
Since we debated the publication of the Chilcot report in July, I cannot be alone in hearing constituents express their doubts about the likelihood of any action on its findings—recalling previous occasions where evidence of failures was debated in this place, only to see the issues disappear without trace as the months and years moved on. Since the time when the matters on which Chilcot reported took place, we have watched the Arab spring rise and fall, Daesh has taken large swathes of the middle east back to the dark ages and a resurgent Russia provokes NATO—just as the hammer-blows of an ill-thought-out Brexit and the rise of Trump threaten to destabilise the relationships on which the alliance depends.
Already, those of us who believe the public still need answers see others characterise the Iraq war and the events that led up to it as ancient history. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 2010 Labour leadership race, David Miliband said:
“While Iraq was a source of division in the past, it doesn’t need to be a source of division in the future. I said during the election campaign that I thought it was time to move on.”
But, of course, as the Chilcot report makes clear, it is decidedly not time to move on.
The exchanges in July’s debate showed that the route to military action was settled directly between Bush and Blair. One of them was driven by a determination to finish the job left unfinished by his father, while the other was convinced that if he said yes to each step along the road to war, he could drag America back from the brink at the 11th hour.
“I will be with you, whatever”, wrote Blair, as he subcontracted to Bush the decision on whether the war would go ahead. He committed UK troops to go, if that was what Bush decided. The report is damning on this point. Sir John said in launching his report:
“We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.”
It might have taken many years and millions of words for the UK to catch up on what its Prime Minister did, behind the scenes, in our name. In the US, the verdict was arrived at long ago and the conclusion was clear: the Iraq war was not an innocent mistake; there was no need to argue over flawed intelligence; and the Bush Administration wanted a war and everything else was pretext. Blair’s decision to hitch the UK armed forces to that wagon of deception is not something that we can allow layers of events to silt over.
The public have long demanded—and deserved—an explanation and action. The families of the servicemen and women killed in Iraq deserve to know the truth, and deserve to know that this will not happen again. Their loved ones were marched to war behind a dodgy dossier that was designed to mislead. Those with family members in the UK armed forces expect to see military intervention used to root out injustice and instability. Instead, that is what the Iraq war left in its wake.
On top of the dishonesty about the reason for going to war, the consequences appear to have received no thought from those leading the charge. If there was any post-invasion plan, it was the Bush Administration plan—to leave behind an Iraq deliberately weakened, politically and militarily. The result of that flawed policy was the first appearance of Daesh, growing from the ashes of the discarded Iraqi army—an Iraqi spark that became a flame in the war in Syria and threatens to engulf communities across the middle east, Europe and beyond.
Some right hon. and hon. Members would like us to move on. I was struck in July by Mrs Moon who drew attention to the need to learn the lessons of Iraq in advance of the intervention in Libya, only to be told:
“We are not putting boots on the ground, so it isn’t an issue for us.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 613, c. 489.]
However, if we move on from Iraq now and leave the drawing of lessons from these events for another day, how many more Iraqs, Syrias and Libyas will there be?
“terrified that people would be killed.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 613, c. 489.]
But, of course, people were killed, and are still being killed, in each of those countries and many more. They are dying as they flee once-thriving communities. Much of the destruction is still rooted in that flawed pact between Bush and Blair, and until we understand how we got here, it is not clear how we will find our way back. Why does that matter now? There are many reasons. Two of them are the largest aircraft carriers ever purchased by the UK Government. They are designed to project UK power across the globe, but to what end? If the policies driving the use of those vessels are not open to democratic scrutiny or review, will they and their associated air power add to our security or undermine it?
Since the launch of the Chilcot report, we have seen an increasing number of appearances by the former Prime Minister. He has read the runes and believes that scrutiny is over for him. However, I know that Members in this Chamber believe that the armed forces’ sacrifice means that any decision to send them to war must be made with integrity and based on fact. In this case it was not, and we must scrutinise that further.
I rise to address a misapprehension that seems to have developed that the report of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry has cleared the then Prime Minister of misleading the House. As Caroline Lucas said earlier in an intervention, papers released recently as a result of a freedom of information request—after quite some resistance from the current Government—have shown that the Iraq inquiry was designed from the outset to avoid blame and to reduce the risk that individuals and the Government could face legal proceedings.
Fabian Hamilton is shaking his head. I can give him copies of the civil service memos that were released as a result of that freedom of information request. My point is, however, that not having been charged with investigating blame or accountability, or indeed the legality of the war, Sir John Chilcot—for whom I have the greatest respect—is in no better a position to absolve the then Prime Minister of blame for misleading the House than anyone else who has carefully considered the evidence and the analysis of it that Sir John has set out.
My right hon. Friend Alex Salmond indicated that he had placed in the Library a detailed report that carries out that analysis and suggests that the House was misled. I am not saying that; it was said by an independent expert who has looked at the evidence set out by Sir John Chilcot. Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, said that the inquiry would help us to learn lessons that would strengthen UK democracy, foreign policy and the military forces, but how is democracy strengthened if the House does not scrutinise the evidence and consider issues of blame and accountability when so many people have died?
I am conscious that I do not have much time, but I want to talk briefly about what those memos—the memos that were released after the current Government had fought so hard to prevent them from being release—show us. They show the thinking and advice at the highest level of government prior to Gordon Brown’s announcement of an inquiry. They show that many officials who took part in the events that the inquiry investigated—including the former spy chief Sir John Scarlett—were involved in setting it up. They reveal that senior civil servants, under Gordon Brown, went against Whitehall protocol when they appointed a civil servant with significant involvement in Iraq policy during the period covered by the inquiry to the key role of inquiry secretary.
The documents, a series of memos from Whitehall officials, cover a four-week period in May and June 2009, and they show that the officials favoured from the outset a secret inquiry to be conducted by Privy Counsellors. In a memo to Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet official, Ben Lyon, advised that the format, scope and membership of the inquiry could be designed to
“focus on lessons and avoid blame”.
It was noted that a parliamentary inquiry of the sort suggested by the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd, would
“attract a daily running commentary”, like the Hutton inquiry. Gus O’Donnell also advised against appointing judges or lawyers who would adopt a “legalistic” focus. Indeed, as we know, there was no legalistic focus. The inquiry did not look at issues of blame and accountability. That is the reason for this cross-party motion: it is intended to enable the House to look at those issues now.
The motion is supported by members of seven parties. It has been made clear this afternoon that Labour Members do not support it, and I think that that speaks for itself, as does the behaviour of some speakers. My point is that the purpose of the motion, which has the support of seven political parties, is to ensure that the House does the job that the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said the inquiry would do—namely, to ensure that democracy was properly served.
If the House does not examine the outcome of Sir John Chilcot’s findings properly and if it does not look at those issues of accountability, democracy and justice will not have been served. That is the point of the motion.
I want to make a couple of points about why the motion is about more than just Chilcot, and about how divisive it actually is. My predecessor was Member of Parliament for Sedgefield for a quarter of a century. For 13 of those years he was the leader of the Labour party, and for 10 he was Prime Minister. I have known Tony Blair for more than 30 years, probably longer than anyone else who is in the House today, and I am proud to say that he is a friend of mine. When I am called a Blairite, which is sometimes seen as a term of abuse, I wear that term proudly as an accolade.
I met Tony Blair in 1983, when he first became the Labour candidate for Sedgefield, in the community bar in Trimdon village. He believed then, as he does today, that the Labour party had a great ability to do good, but his opponents are angry about what he achieved. What he did achieve were great things, from the minimum wage to devolution in Scotland and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, which I would like to say the SNP used a bit more than it does at present. We also became, under Tony Blair, the party that was patriotic. It became “cool” to be British under his leadership and premiership. There is a reason why Conservative Members, in particular, do not want to see another Tony Blair. Given that he kept the Tory party out of power for the longest period since 1762, I understand their disquiet about those years.
Our opponents want to put as much distance between Tony Blair and the Labour party of today as they possibly can. My message to my colleagues today is, “Do not fall into that trap”, and I am pleased to note that Labour Members will oppose the motion. There is another reason why it is wrong. It is not about the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq; it is essentially about calling Tony Blair a liar, and continuing to do so. That is mendacious, and it is an attempt to second-guess Sir John Chilcot, who said:
“I absolve him from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive parliament or the public—to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false.”
The SNP motion is part of a strategy to divide the Labour Benches. It is party political, divisive and cynical.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent argument exposing the mendacity of the SNP’s motion. Does he agree that the legacy of our former Prime Minister involves a commitment, ongoing to this day, to peace in the middle east, making him a figure that Labour Members should be proud of?
We should be proud of Tony Blair. We know about the efforts he is putting into the middle east and interfaith dialogue around the world. He spends most of his time with his charities trying to achieve those aims.
Some people want to define themselves against Tony Blair and the 1997 to 2010 Labour Governments. To them I say, “Be careful, because it is not useful or a good idea to define yourself against success.” Like all Governments, Labour did things that generated criticism, disagreement, frustration and anger, none more than on Iraq. I sincerely accept that people outside and Members of this House have strongly held views on the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, but let us disengage from this witch hunt pursuing a line of criticism abandoned by the Chilcot inquiry. Tony Blair did not lie.
My message to the SNP is this: “Use your Opposition days to talk about the issues that affect Scotland. You use such debates to deflect from your own weaknesses. You have no vision; your policy platform is absent. Labour gave you a Scottish Parliament. Use it. Look to yourselves before you start criticising others.”
The Iraq war is one of the great disasters to befall the world in this century. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured—men, women and children, the culpable and the innocent alike, the invading forces and the often unwilling defenders. Saddam’s vile tyranny was replaced by endless war. Here in the United Kingdom families grieve for their loved ones, lost forever, and survivors who served their country so faithfully suffer terribly. Terrorism spreads across northern Africa and Europe and is indeed a menace worldwide. Today the threat level here in the UK is again at “severe”; an attack is highly likely.
Compared to all that, misleading the House of Commons and the damage done to our reputation might seem to rank somewhat lower, but it is significant none the less, and damage has been done. Trust in Parliament, in Government and in individual MPs has declined disastrously, which is coupled with at best scepticism, and at worst widespread cynicism, about our democratic processes.
I was a Member of this House at the time of the march to war and I have a particularly vivid memory of Mr Blair presenting the House with the so called “dodgy dossier”. Even on first reading, it seemed to me it was a cut and paste exercise. I also took part in the enormous protest against going to war and was astonished by the variety of people joining in—not just the usual suspects but a true cross-section of society. There are many causes of the steep decline of trust in politicians and in our work, but some of the blame can be traced back to the way we were taken to war in Iraq, to subsequent disastrous events there, and to the public perception that no one has really been held to account.
As The Observer revealed last Sunday in a report concerning this debate:
“A spokesman for Blair declined to comment. But, privately, his supporters say similar motions have been tabled before without gaining significant traction among MPs.”
I will not, as time is short.
Unsurprisingly, there is much cynical public resignation. Last summer, we had a two-day debate and there was a debate in the other place. On
“a cunning plan to ensure that action is taken”.
In reply, the right hon. Lady said that the National Security Adviser was leading an exercise to learn the lessons from the Chilcot report, before adding:
“There is much in it, and we need to ensure that we do learn the lessons from it.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 616, c. 277.]
Although that is most assuredly the case, for me there is a further question: who is this “we”?
I know nothing of the National Security Adviser. I have no doubt that he is a capable, industrious and conscientious public servant, but he is appointed by the Prime Minister and he reports to the Prime Minister. The House of Commons decides its own ways of working and of holding the Government to account, hence this proposed referral to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
“to conduct a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and of the presentation of intelligence, and then to report to the House on what further action it considers necessary and appropriate to help prevent any repetition of this disastrous series of events.”
Given that the Prime Minister’s answer of
“As things have turned out, we know that it was not.”
That is, the threat was not imminent, but he seems to be saying that a correct judgment on the matter is only possible with hindsight—“as things…turned out”. Significantly, he concluded by saying:
“As things appeared at the time, the evidence to support it was more qualified than he”—
“in effect, gave expression to.”
That prompted a further question from the Chair, referring to the
“test of whether a reasonable man would conclude that this evidence supported going to war.”
Sir John replied:
“If I may say so, that seems an easier question for me to answer, because the answer to that is no.”
The second point I would have liked to make is on the question posed by Dr Lewis of absolving Mr Blair, but unfortunately I have no time.
Mr Blair said, famously:
“I think most people who have dealt with me, think I’m a pretty straight sort of guy and I am.”
Referral of this matter to PACAC will give him yet another opportunity to convince the world of his “pretty straight” credentials.
I am delighted finally to be speaking in this most important of debates.
From the outside looking in, many people assume that this place is corrupt. Let us be honest: politicians do not have a good reputation. I know the vast majority of MPs are hard-working, diligent and honest, but every example of corruption, perversion, laziness, greed or dishonesty does not just taint the perpetrator; it casts a shadow over all of us and this place. The only way to convince the citizens of the UK that they have a Parliament to be proud of is through ruthless honesty, even when it hurts. The alternative is an electorate who are dissatisfied and feel disfranchised, and so disengage from politics and politicians. We have a duty to support the mechanisms of a democracy. We must respect, cherish and protect them. We do not own them; we are simply guardians who pass them on to future generations. That is why we must investigate thoroughly any possibility that the principles we claim to hold so dear have been abused.
The Chilcot inquiry highlighted serious shortcomings and misgivings. The report stated that the UK invaded Iraq before all peaceful options had been investigated. We now know that there was no imminent threat from Iraq or Saddam Hussein, and that the reasons for our invasion were predicated on flawed intelligence. Crucially, this flawed intelligence was not challenged as it should have been. Quite astoundingly, there is no formal record of the decision and the grounds on which it was made that led to the invasion that started on
The rush to war was so fast that our troops did not have time to stockpile the necessary equipment—uniforms, boots and body armour. A lack of helicopters and armoured vehicles made it more dangerous for our forces. By July 2009, 179 members of our armed forces had died. We will never know how many Iraqis died, but conservative estimates suggest at least 150,000, with millions more displaced from their homes. How did this come about? How did this place get it so wrong? How were so many MPs misled?
“the policy of the U.S. to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq”.
In 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair threw his hat in with the US. Chilcot demonstrated clearly that Tony Blair bypassed his Cabinet, instead relying on his so-called “sofa government”. Key decisions on the future of the country were made in informal meetings, sometimes involving only a couple of the then Prime Minister’s friends, and without the input of senior members of the Cabinet. That is not how to solve a problem. The invasion of Iraq was an object lesson in how to escalate a problem. If the mission was to perpetuate instability in the middle east, it is mission accomplished.
“report to the House on what further action it considers necessary and appropriate to help prevent any repetition of this disastrous series of events.”
As I deliver this speech, our forces are involved in the battle of Mosul, so we can see that the ramifications of decisions made back in 2003 are still with us today.
In conclusion, we are voting today to instruct the Committee to
“conduct a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and of the presentation of intelligence”.
I would say to any Members who were here in 2003 that, with all due respect, their responsibility to the future should outweigh their duty to the past. Supporting the motion today can only enhance the reputation of this place. It should be welcomed by all fair-minded elected Members.
I must apologise to the House for being absent during part of this debate. I was called to participate in a delegated legislation Committee upstairs.
It is a great privilege to speak in the same debate as my hon. Friend Robert Courts, who gave an outstanding maiden speech and paid appropriate tribute to his predecessor. I also pay tribute to Phil Wilson for the generous words he said about his predecessor.
Talking of distinguished party leaders, the debate was opened in fine style by Alex Salmond, a former First Minister of Scotland. He laid out his case, as he does always, with passion and verve and commitment. Unfortunately, skilled as an advocate though he is, as he was laying out the prosecution case against the former Member for Sedgefield, he did not have the evidence to sustain his case. The truth is that the Chilcot report makes it clear that at no stage was there a deliberate attempt by Tony Blair to mislead the House. More than that, the Chilcot report makes it clear that there was a proper legal basis—a Security Council resolution—for the decision to go to war.
The right hon. Gentleman has been out of the Chamber, so he may have missed my contribution. I made the point that papers recently released, as a result of a freedom of information request, clearly show that the inquiry was not charged with looking at issues of blame, accountability or legality. Does he accept that?
It is clear from what was published in the report that a decision was taken by Sir John Chilcot—I will not have any criticism made of him or any of those responsible for the report—that there was no deliberate misleading of this House. It is quite wrong to suggest otherwise. More than that, the right hon. Member for Gordon sought to suggest that the note passed from the former Prime Minister to President Bush saying that he would “be with you, whatever” was the equivalent of a political blank cheque. It was no such thing. When Mr Blair wrote that note he made it clear that there needed to be progress in three key areas: the middle east peace process; securing UN authority for action; and shifting public opinion in the UK, Europe and the Arab world. He also pointed out that there would be a need to commit to Iraq for the long term.
In judging Mr Blair—I think history will judge him less harshly than some in this House—we need to recognise that his decision to join George W Bush at that time was finely balanced. In reflecting on when this House decides to send young men and women into harm’s way, we also need to reflect not just on the consequences of acting but the consequences of not acting—the consequences of non-intervention.
The right hon. Gentleman will remember Chilcot’s findings on page 112 of the report. The note was not discussed or agreed with any colleagues and led to the possibility of
“participation in military action in a way that would make it very difficult for the UK subsequently to withdraw its support for the US.”
Does he not accept that Chilcot found the note to be of huge significance in binding the UK to George W Bush?
It was not a blank cheque. It was not a binding statement. It was of significance, but, as I have explained, Tony Blair at the time laid out to George Bush that certain steps were required before he would agree.
The point the right hon. Gentleman does not attend to is the consequences of inaction: Saddam Hussein remaining in power in a country he had turned into a torture chamber above ground and a mass grave below. Power would inevitably have passed on to his sadistic children, Uday and Qusay, who would have carried on their genocidal conflict against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. They would inevitably have taken advantage of the erosion of international sanctions to restock their chemical and biological weapons arsenal.
Whenever we think about the consequences of action, we very rarely think about the consequences of inaction. In front of us now, however, is a hugely powerful reminder of the consequences of inaction: what is happening in Aleppo at the moment. I was not in this House when the decision was taken to vote on whether to take action in Iraq, but I was in this House in the previous Parliament when we voted on whether to take action in Syria. I am deeply disappointed that this House did not vote to take action then, because as a direct result of voting against intervention we have seen Bashar Assad, backed by Vladimir Putin and the anti-Semitic leadership of Iran, unleashing hell on the innocent people of Aleppo.
I have a lot of respect for the SNP position on many issues, but when asked about what is happening in Aleppo and in Syria it has no answer; it can put forward nothing that deals with the huge, horrific humanitarian disaster that is unfolding. My own view is that there is much that we can do both to relieve suffering and to put pressure on Russia, Iran and Syria, but once again the long shadow cast by Iraq, which certainly should call us all to search our consciences, means politicians are sometimes fearful of making the case for intervention now and certainly those like the SNP who are opposed to intervention are emboldened to make their case for neutrality when we are confronting evil.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was in the House on Monday, but if he was or has read the newspapers he will have seen that I and many of my colleagues signed a letter asking the British Government to take action in relation to Aleppo by way of dropping aid on the city. We are not without answers, and I wonder if he would care to withdraw that suggestion.
I was happy to sign that letter as well. It was initiated of course by Alison McGovern and my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, both of whom, as I have, have argued consistently for muscular intervention in Syria to help the suffering people of Aleppo, and it is simply not good enough—although I have great respect for Joanna Cherry—to say we wish to drop that aid but not to be willing to go further to ensure that appropriate pressure, diplomatic and otherwise, is placed on those people who are responsible for mass murder.
It is all very well to look back on Iraq and say that mistakes were made; of course they were, but if we are going to have an Opposition day debate on foreign policy in this House at this time it is a dereliction of duty to look backwards and try to blame Tony Blair, when the responsibility on all of us is to do something to help the people of Aleppo who are suffering now.
Few would now dispute that the Iraq invasion was the biggest foreign policy failure of recent times. The Chilcot report provides detailed confirmation that military intervention was by no means a last resort, and that all other avenues were not exhausted.
I will make a bit of progress and then I will.
Chilcot also showed that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the UK, and, crucially, that hindsight was not necessary to see those things. That seven-year Iraq inquiry, which cost £10 million of public money, also officially recorded detailed evidence of the vast discrepancy between the former Prime Minister’s public statements and his private correspondence. If we do nothing about that and take no steps towards accountability for it, it is unclear to me how we begin to restore faith in our political system.
“the facts of the case”.
Sir John told MPs he could “only imagine” how long it would take to repair that trust.
That need to restore trust in politics is a key reason why I support the motion. This should not be pursued as a personal or party political attack, and this should be reflected in our language and approach. This process must be based on the facts and the evidence.
Does the hon. Lady recall that world public opinion, especially in the Security Council, was greatly influenced by a presentation by Colin Powell in which he showed photographs of what he thought was biological weapons equipment? He has since retracted and said he was hopelessly deceived, that the pictures were nothing of the sort and that there was no threat from those weapons. He has shown some penitence; would it not be better if those responsible in this House showed some penitence as well?
I am grateful for that intervention and, unsurprisingly, I agree.
The evidence in the Chilcot report does show that Tony Blair was responsible for fixing evidence around a policy while telling us that he was doing the opposite. It shows he was treating his office, the Cabinet, this House and our constitutional checks and balances with disrespect amounting to contempt. For that he should be held responsible.
But more than that, accountability must mean ensuring that any future decisions are taken with systems in place that guarantee proper Cabinet and parliamentary scrutiny and discussion.
In his report Chilcot does not judge the former Prime Minister’s guilt or innocence, and, as we have recently learned, secret Cabinet documents show the Chilcot report hearings were set up precisely to stop individuals being held accountable and specifically to avoid blame, and that is another key reason why we need a Committee to look at the issue of accountability.
Hon. Members have already cited numerous examples of what could be called misleading statements, deception, untruths or whatever word we choose, but I want to add just one more. Tony Blair stated in March 2003 that diplomacy had been exhausted in efforts to seek to avoid an invasion of Iraq. Yet the Chilcot report shows, without question, that this was not the case, and central to his case was the role of France. To get support from his own MPs, Blair argued that diplomatic efforts to secure a resolution had been exhausted, because the French President was unreasonably threatening to veto any resolution. That was not true, and Chilcot shows that Tony Blair knew it. In a phone call with George Bush on
No I will not.
Chilcot then reveals that Tony Blair did two misleading things. First, he told his Cabinet the very next day that work was continuing in the UN to obtain a second resolution and that the outcome remained open. Secondly, he went on to repeat a deliberate misrepresentation of the French position at Prime Minister’s questions on
In short, the French position was to request more time for weapons inspectors, with war an explicit possibility, but Tony Blair kept deliberately taking out of context phrases from an interview by Chirac given on
Hon. Members have covered a great deal of other evidence in the debate, including the gross misrepresentation of Iraq as a growing threat to the region and to this country. Blair said that Saddam’s weapons programme was “active, detailed and growing”, and that the intelligence behind that assertion was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”, yet the Joint Intelligence Committee had said just six months earlier:
“Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction…and ballistic missile programmes is sporadic and patchy.”
I appreciate that it is hard for Labour Members to hear some of these facts, but to barrack us for citing what is in the Chilcot report is deeply disrespectful and shows that we are not learning from that hideous escapade.
One of the most ridiculous arguments put forward here today by a number of hon. Members is that the Scottish National party has no right to have a debate on Chilcot and that we should choose subjects that are of concern to Scotland. I say to them: tell that to the Scottish families whose sons died in that war. Tell it to the Scottish families whose sons were injured and who will have to live with their scars, both physical and mental, for the rest of their lives. Tell it to those people—
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I want to compliment one speech that I heard today, and it is that of Sir Roger Gale. In his usual understated way, he made some of the most telling observations about why we should still care about what happened and about the need to learn the lessons. I cannot see how it can be argued that we can learn the lessons if we are unwilling critically to review the results of the Chilcot process.
I was critical when my constituency predecessor in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath set up the inquiry—as I am critical now—that it was not a judge-led inquiry. I have also been critical in the House about Sir John Chilcot’s decision to invoke the Maxwellisation process, because he was not required to do so. That process allowed those who were criticised in the report to be the only ones to be given notice of what was being said about them and the only ones allowed to introduce new evidence into the process. For those reasons alone, this House needs to review and make its own judgment about the evidence. For me and many hon. Members from whom I have heard today, it is most telling that people recognise that the most important thing about the Chilcot report is not his personal views or interpretation, but the evidence that was presented, which this House is required to review.
I for one have confidence in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, particularly in its Chairman, Mr Jenkin, whom we are asking to take this forward. If there is any reason at all for why we need further consideration by the Committee, it was given by Dr Lewis when reporting some of his conversations with Sir John Chilcot in the Liaison Committee. He asked a question about Mr Blair and if I quote him correctly, Sir John’s response was:
“You would have to ask him.”
How does this House ask him without asking him?
I pay tribute to all those who served, lost their lives or were injured in Iraq, to their families and to everyone who currently serves in our forces. I am delighted to support the motion that my colleagues have so ably put forward.
The scene was set in forensic detail by my right hon. Friend Alex Salmond, who started by asking what we should do in parliamentary terms in the light of the inquiry’s findings. It is reasonable to consider parliamentary accountability as a tool that this House should actually use. He went on to highlight that no checks and balances currently exist in the system. Like all of us, he looks forward to the report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and its recommendations.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, said that lessons should be learned and that the Government are considering them. I believe that he meant that, so does he agree that further specific examination of the contrast between public and private policy and presentation of intelligence vis-à-vis the then Prime Minister is desirable to help to prevent any repetition of past events?
Fabian Hamilton spoke about pursuing one individual. That individual was the then Prime Minister, who gave differing statements in private and in public—statements upon which, as we heard today, Members of this House relied. If statements were different in private and in public, why should we not debate that? To use the current context, how would we and members of the public feel if we thought that our Prime Minister—heaven forbid we were to be in such a situation again—was having private discussions with President-elect Donald Trump that differed—[Interruption.]
No, I will not. How would we feel if those discussions differed from the information that the Prime Minister presented to the House?
I welcomed the maiden speech of Robert Courts, who spoke with great eloquence and some good humour, and gave us a whirlwind tour of his constituency. He rightly paid tribute to the work of the organisations that exist there. I welcome him to the House.
Mr Bradshaw and Ian Austin seemed to suggest that they should have some say in the motions that the SNP brings to this House on our Opposition days. We will decide that, thank you very much. What we choose will be based on our constituents’ interests, which are at the heart of all that we do on these Benches. The Labour party can debate what it wants on its Opposition days. Let me be clear: we are not required to be sensitive to the Labour party’s ongoing issues when choosing what to debate. That is its problem. We will remain sensitive to our constituents’ issues and continue to stand up for them.
I thank Sir David Amess for his support for the motion. He made an excellent speech, as did my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes, whose brother served. My hon. Friend quite rightly did not speak lightly and used his customary passion, conviction and principles, which the House so often enjoys. My hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald spoke of the necessary further scrutiny. My hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry discussed how Sir John Chilcot was not charged with investigating blame and therefore is in no better position than anybody else to absolve the then Prime Minister.
The hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), whom we also thank for supporting this motion, gave informative speeches with huge insight into this matter. My hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) also spoke very well indeed, and I thank them for their contributions.
This is an important debate, not simply because it is about a former Prime Minister, but because it is about the fate of 179 servicemen and women who went to war and did not come home. It is about their families, and the mental and emotional scars they bear. It is not about us—it is about them. And it is about the hundreds of thousands of dead and injured civilians in Iraq and beyond. It is also about Parliament—this institution—and about protecting the integrity of our democracy. When our democratic institutions are under immense stress and public faith in the political process is at a low ebb, it is vital for our democracy that we can reassert that the discussions we have here in this House may be contentious and controversial, but they are carried out in a way that recognises and does not distort the facts at our disposal. If we choose to look the other way, what hope is there for restoring the public’s faith in this Parliament?
Today, we have a chance to take a significant step towards restoring parliamentary authority. This issue is above party politics, which is why I am glad to have the support of colleagues from across the Chamber and from Members from seven separate political parties. To his great credit, Sir John Chilcot’s report forensically and repeatedly dismantles the public pronouncements of Blair as a catalogue of failure and neglect of the principles and duties of government. Chilcot stated that the actions of the Blair Administration were crucial in undermining the authority of the UN Security Council and that despite repeated declarations to the contrary, Blair personally committed the UK to joining the US in invading Iraq before all peaceful and diplomatic options had been exhausted. We have heard loud and clear about the following words today:
“I will be with you, whatever”.
Parliament must recognise that and must act.
I will not give way, and I ask that Members also afford me the respect that I afforded them when they were speaking in this debate.
We must demonstrate that, a decade on from this disaster, we have listened and learned so that we are not doomed to repeat these deadly mistakes—that is what this is all about. It is about making sure that we do the right thing for the future. We know that the conflict and instability that has engulfed the region in the past few years was undoubtedly fuelled by the ideologically driven recklessness of Blair and Bush, but it is also clear from the lack of post-conflict planning in subsequent conflicts, both in Libya and the humanitarian disaster infolding in Syria, that we have not yet fully embraced the changes that need to take place if we are to play a progressive role in an increasingly dangerous world.
Parliament must be at the centre of this process if it is to reassert its integrity at the heart of our democratic process in holding the Government to account. That is why the motion supports the current work of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is examining the lessons to be learned from Chilcot on the machinery of government. This matter is not in the past; it is being spoken of in a Committee, and we are asking that that be extended further.
Today, MPs have a choice to make, and each of us, but perhaps Labour MPs in particular, has to make an important decision. We need to decide whether we act to address the issues raised by Sir John Chilcot and seek to reassert the place of Parliament at the heart of the democratic process, or whether to stand by while public confidence in this place is eroded even further. In the Lobby, we can stand up for parliamentary democracy and the importance of integrity, or we can look the other way. We can choose to learn from the lessons of the past or we can seek to brush this damning report under the carpet. I know the path that I will choose to take, and I hope MPs from across the House will support me in that endeavour.
Let me say at the outset, as the Armed Forces Minister and as a former serviceman, that I would like to pay tribute to those who did not come home, to those who came home with injuries that are going to be with them for the rest of their lives, physically as well as mentally, and to their loved ones, who have to live with those memories. It is for us, as parliamentarians, to live with the decisions that we make in this House. At times, these decisions are enormously onerous, but they are not as onerous as those of Prime Ministers and Ministers in Departments such as mine, which send our troops around the world, as we are doing today.
May I say at the outset that there is no perfect answer to the debate that we have had today? I sat in this House in 2003, not in the Chamber as a Member of Parliament, but in the Press Gallery as adviser and head of news and media for the Leader of the Opposition. I went to many briefings, and sat with the Leader of the Opposition for hours on end while we deliberated on what Her Majesty’s Opposition were going to do. Many of my hon. Friends, some of whom are still in the House, made really difficult decisions on that night on how they were going to vote. Some voted with the Government and some voted with their party, but many voted with their conscience. In hindsight, some of the decisions that were made, which have been debated in this House this afternoon, were wrong. If I had been a Member at the time—it was another two years before I was elected—I am sure, based on what I knew, that I would have voted to go to war. We all have to live with our decisions.
We can debate this matter, but many Members made up their minds on it a long time ago. I do not think that there is a huge number of people in the House today who have changed their minds, but this Parliament is doing its job. I will not in any shape or form—either as a Back Bencher, which is what I was and which is what I probably will be in the future, or as a Minister—criticise any party for the motion that they bring forward on their Opposition Day; nor will I criticise a Back Bencher for the subject that they may wish to debate.
I was commenting to the Leader of the House a moment ago about the fact that people from seven different parties signed up to the motion. I said that there could have been more names had the motion not advertently put so much pressure on the Labour party and its previous Prime Minister. At the end of the day, that is what happens when we get motions such as this. Had it been worded differently, we might have had more people going through the Aye Lobby. Who knows?
Some parts of Chilcot have not been discussed. I had the honour of being with the 16 Air Assault Brigade a couple of days before they went into combat on our behalf. We saw in the newspapers some of the real shortfalls in planning that occurred. I was with soldiers who had one magazine of ammunition the day before we sent them to war. We know that we were short of body armour, and that, catastrophically, lives were lost as a result. We all joke that there was not enough toilet paper in the theatre of war. The press made fun of that fact at the time. As a former soldier, I can assure the House that that is one of the most important things. That shortage could have been prevented if we had planned correctly. Chilcot goes into our planning in quite a lot of detail. Some would say, “Well, we had only a short amount of time.” Our armed forces need to be equipped on the basis that they will be doing this sort of thing, so we must ensure that the equipment is in place and that our boys and girls are equipped correctly.
It would be inappropriate for me, in the short amount of time that I have, not to pay tribute to our new colleague, my hon. Friend Robert Courts, for a simply fantastic maiden speech. I will not be a hypocrite. I have criticised this House on more than one occasion, because we have too many accountants and lawyers—[Interruption]—and a lot of them are around me at the moment. However, this House has been enhanced by his speech and by the way that my hon. Friend delivered it. May I ask him what I should do with all those photographs, posters and literature of him that are in the back of my car? Can they be suitably disposed of in a recycling facility? When I came to Witney to help him—I had never been to parts of Witney before, and my hon. Friend is right: it is absolutely beautiful—I was called back by friendly Whips on more than one occasion, so I did not manage to deliver the several thousand posters that his agent managed to give me.
The truth is that my hon. Friend said something fundamentally important: it is a privilege to be here on behalf of our constituents and to bring issues to the fore that concern them. In this case, SNP Members have decided that the Chilcot inquiry is such an issue. I am not going to be hypocritical and say that they do not have the right to do so, but my postbag is about housing, health and my local community. But that is their decision, and I fully respect that. I am not going to say that I have not had any correspondence on Chilcot; by tomorrow morning, I will have a lot more.
At the end of the day, I do not think that anybody wants to criticise Chilcot, his team or the report. It took a long time, and we can go over and over this. Whether the House decides to recommend to my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin and his Committee that they look into this issue further, as I understand Select Committees, they make their own minds up about what they will do. It will discuss this matter whether the motion is passed or not. During the short time for which I sat on a Select Committee—I am looking around for the former Chairman of the Health Committee—we used to have in-depth discussions on what inquiries to do and how far they needed to go.
I started to read the summary of the Chilcot report, but then read the report at great length, and if the right hon. Gentleman comes to my office he will see the markers in it. It took me several weeks. I respect what Chilcot said, and that is where we are today. If the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee or other Committees want to look at that further, fine, but my personal view and the view of the Government is that we do not need any more inquiries, so we will not go through the Lobby with the SNP this evening.
The House divided:
Ayes 70, Noes 439.
Division number 99