Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:34 pm on 24th January 2008.

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Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 2:34 pm, 24th January 2008

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, who is a senior scholar in my field. I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for introducing this debate. I listened to his eloquent speech with great interest, and it provoked me into changing certain opinions I had before coming into this Chamber.

I want to focus briefly on the current situation in Iraq. The latest American figures suggest civilian that deaths are down 75 per cent on a year ago. Last month, the overall number of deaths, including among Iraqi and allied forces, may have been the lowest since the war began. I agree with noble Lords on all sides of this Chamber who have stressed that the situation is still precarious. There is much that is in doubt. In particular, there is the political issue of the ability of the al-Maliki Government to reach out to Sunni interests, transcend sectarian identification and develop a genuine Iraqi identity. There is also the current state of play among those Sunni tribes that have moved away from al-Qaeda—in a development that has been enormously important and positive for Iraq—and the proper integration of those tribes eventually into genuine Iraqi armed forces. These questions remain unsettled. There is apparent considerable improvement, despite the violence of recent days. There is no certainty, but there is the possibility that we could not have talked about a year ago that the battle of Baghdad, brutal though is has been, has been won. I have lived in a city in which grisly sectarian bombing and slaughter was the order of the day. Eventually something switches and a tipping point is reached. We have not quite reached that point in Baghdad, but we are at a point where we might think it can be reached, and where we can talk about stability in a country with tremendous oil resources, which will be hugely to its advantage in the next few years.

Despite this improvement, there is one area that has already been discussed by a number of noble Lords in which we have to acknowledge great difficulty, and that is the condition of women, particularly in the Basra area. Just before Christmas, the police chief talked of 50 recent murders of women by religious zealots. In the past two days, I have met a delegation from the Iraqi Women's League, who suggested that murderous attacks on women in the Basra area were running at one a day. I add my voice to those of other noble Lords in asking the Minister to outline the Government's attitude to the situation in Basra. This Government has a particular responsibility. We would be grateful for a response from the Government on the plight of women in Iraq.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, concentrated on the need for an inquiry. As the former historical adviser to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, I have to declare an interest. The Bloody Sunday inquiry's name was taken in vain. It is understandable that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, among others, has said that we do not want a repeat of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, with the expense and the advantage that accrued to lawyers. As an historian, in no way will I defend lawyers. But I do say that this inquiry has taken so long principally because it is so very difficult to reach the truth about what happened in Derry on one afternoon in 1972. Many people believed before the inquiry was announced that they knew, and yet we are still struggling. I assure you that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Saville, has a genuine problem in reaching the truth—it has taken so long, because that is extremely difficult.

That is one general health warning. Even if we do not follow that model, which is ridiculously expensive, it is very difficult to reconstruct historical realities and contexts. Let me give an example from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, which hugely impressed me. He did not mention 9/11. For Tony Blair and his Cabinet, as for George Bush, without 9/11 there would have been no Iraq. Even though the connections are complicated, there is no question but that without 9/11 there would have been no Iraq. That is a crucial context. Another crucial context is that in the 1990s many people's immediate experience was of the way in which communist regimes had fallen and the relatively easy transition to democracy in many former communist countries. We now know that that was, in a certain sense, an illusory model. We now know that regimes fuelled by ethno-national sectarian passion have more of a life—as in the case of the Baathist regime in Iraq—than regimes that were promoted by the ideologies of communism and socialism. It is difficult to recreate these contexts, but no British Cabinet—or American Cabinet, for that matter—could have avoided them at the time.

This is the difficulty with inquiries: it is hard to be fair or just. There have been assumptions by some today that Foreign Office advice was, or may have been, good but was not heard; others have had the assumption that it may not have been good. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, gave a dramatically interesting example of Foreign Office advice that seemed extremely powerful; he suggested that, if it had been followed, things might have been different. On the other hand, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, the decision to win a vote in the United Nations—a vote that could never have been won and for which a major price was paid in terms of British influence on the United States—was taken at least in part, presumably, on Foreign Office advice. These are exceptionally difficult matters.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Soley, with whose views on foreign policy I am in much sympathy, I have no opposition in principle to an inquiry. It has to be conceded that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has made a powerful case. I take the observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, seriously, but they are an argument about timing, although I understand that argument.

Let me give just one other example of the difficulties that we face. Many Members of this House will remember the 2004 report of my noble friend Lord Butler on weapons of mass destruction; indeed, the contributions of my noble friend were accurately recalled by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. The report has that famous and carefully sculpted last paragraph, which implies that Mr Blair's informal style of government exacerbated the difficulties in formulating policy on Iraq. There is no question about that. However, let me also remind noble Lords of the first paragraph. If we are to take the report seriously, as I think we should, we must also take seriously its opening; indeed, we must take seriously the whole body of the report and the complex material that it presents about the difficulties of intelligence gathering and assessment. The report opens with these words:

"Much of the intelligence that we receive in war is contradictory, even more of it is plain wrong, and most of it is fairly dubious. What one can require of an officer, under these circumstances, is a certain degree of discrimination, which can only be gained from knowledge of men and affairs and from good judgement. The law of probability must be his guide".