Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:25 pm on 24th January 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 2:25 pm, 24th January 2008

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for securing this debate and initiating it with considerable passion and eloquence. Many noble Lords have spoken about the situation in Iraq, and so I shall not go over it. Instead, I shall ask a slightly different question. Like some noble Lords, I strongly believed that the war on Iraq was thoroughly misconceived and would go down in history as a disastrous misjudgment and an act of unforgivable folly. I said so at the time both in and outside the House. The war was opposed by about 90 per cent of the world's population, 92 per cent of the membership of the United Nations and almost all the religious leaders whom one cares to think of. The question that this raises is how this could have happened, especially in a mature society such as ours where we have considerable experience and reasonably good ways of reaching significant political decisions.

What lessons can be learnt about the quality of our democracy and decision-making in a society such as ours in order to avoid wars of this kind? There are five or six important lessons that we need to learn. First, much was made during the lead up to the war on the available intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the imminent threat that it posed. As we know, the intelligence was inconclusive, misinterpreted and even doctored. In such sensitive matters, we have no choice but to rely on the report of the Government, based on the kind of intelligence available to them. We have no way to check the intelligence or the kind of judgment that the Government reach. How can we ensure that in future intelligence is not doctored, misinterpreted or used to serve decisions taken independently of it? That is the first important lesson that we need to learn. I should have thought that one way in which we might deal with such a situation is to ask half a dozen impartial privy counsellors with considerable experience in this area—especially foreign affairs and defence—to look at the evidence and reassure Parliament and the country that the intelligence implies what it is taken to imply.

The second important lesson has to do with the way in which the authority to declare war is exercised. To his credit, Tony Blair consulted Parliament, which was an unusual but important step. Gordon Brown has learnt the lesson and has said that in future wars of this kind would be undertaken with parliamentary approval. I am glad to hear this because I think that we are beginning to learn an important lesson, but it is not enough. When a political party has a large majority, it can easily rely on arm-twisting and other kinds of pressure to gets its way. We need to guard against this. I should have thought, therefore, that parliamentary approval should include not only the House of Commons but the House of Lords, too. After all, your Lordships' House is considerably experienced and the only place in the world that I know of where you have retired Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and others. I should have thought that a debate about the war should have considerable input from your Lordships' House.

The third lesson that we have to learn has to do with how decisions on going to war are taken. Who makes an input? It surprises me that people are surprised at the situation; anyone with any knowledge of Iraq could easily have warned the Government about it, as some historians warned that the consequences that we have subsequently seen were going to follow. Insurgency was inevitable; the Shia-Sunni balance was delicate and likely to fracture. I am surprised that regional experts—not just academics such as myself, but also diplomats with experience in the area—were not fully consulted or encouraged to make an input. To the best of my knowledge, there was only one meeting where the then Prime Minister consulted academics and regional experts. They warned him away from the course of action that he was contemplating and were never consulted again. This is not the way to take decisions of this kind.

The fourth lesson concerns the way in which we defend wars of this kind in the name of promoting democracy. One wrong conclusion to draw would be that we should not try to foist democracy on other countries. That is too simplistic and I do not think it would work, because where dictators are engaged in, for example, ethnic cleansing, we cannot remain indifferent. So what should we do? I have noticed, both in your Lordships' debate and in the literature that has followed the war in Iraq, that there is an increasingly important distinction drawn between promoting democracy and promoting constitutionally limited government. Promoting full-blooded democracy from outside is impossible, because democracy requires an appropriate political culture that you cannot impose from outside. A constitutionally limited government would safeguard the rights of individuals and minorities, and an outside agency can be depended upon to promote a regime of rights and liberties, rather than a fully fledged electoral democracy. It is also important to bear in mind that we promote constitutional government not by threatening and imposing it, but by a suitable mixture of incentives and pressure—as used systematically by the EU in relation to accession countries. That is the way to promote constitutional government—not by resorting to war.

Another lesson we must learn concerns the role of the media. In the United States, where I spent some time during the Iraq conflict, I was struck by the fact that almost all the media, including Fox television, represented only one point of view. The result was that the public had no access to alternative ways of thinking. Mercifully, in Britain, this was not the situation. By and large the British print and television media were responsible. I pay particular tribute to the BBC. In spite of being leaned upon and bullied by the Government, it did not abdicate its responsibility to present an alternative point of view and to investigate Government claims about intelligence and other matters. The lesson is that the independence of the BBC must be fully respected and that it should be encouraged to become even more investigative and daring in situations of war and crisis.

Lastly, as a loyal member of the Labour Party, I cannot help asking a counterfactual question. If Labour had been in opposition, would the war have taken place? With Labour in power, there is tremendous pressure on grass-roots opinion to silence dissent and not be too vocal. In the Cabinet, too, there is a tendency for dissent not to be expressed. But countless millions of us did dissent, including the million who marched and many others who would have if they could. The question therefore is, if Labour had been in opposition—I am not saying it should have been—would it not have mobilised popular opinion to a far greater degree than took place? I believe that a Conservative Government—or whatever Government were in power—would not then have dared to take this country into war. Therefore we in the Labour Party need to ask ourselves how we can make sure that the party to which we are loyal and that we love, when in government, does not betray its own principles and embark upon adventures that in opposition it would be the first to condemn.