Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:02 pm on 24th January 2008.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 3:02 pm, 24th January 2008

My Lords, this has been a very good debate full of speeches of power and great experience. In fact, I even dare to say—having been here a mere 11 years myself—that it was your Lordships' House at its best. I even thought for a moment that we might get some coverage for this debate as long as there were no distractions such as ministerial resignations. Unfortunately, there were such media distractions so we will be lucky to get a few column inches. However, this has been a valuable debate and we all owe a debt to my noble friend Lord Fowler for promoting it and putting the case for an inquiry—that has run throughout the debate—with brilliant clarity. As he mentioned, he had family links with what has gone on, as many of us have. My own son was in Basra in the Territorial Army, to which my noble friend Lady Park referred. For many of us the place may be rather far away but what has gone on is very close indeed.

The theme throughout the debate was that of an inquiry, with most voices in favour. One of two noble Lords referred to the doctrine of unripe time—about which my noble friend Lord Goodlad warned. But on the whole there was a strong feeling that the time has now come for a proper inquiry into all aspects of this matter. I would be the first to assert that we should collectively look forward and not back in Iraq and that, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, we are where we are, and that all efforts must now be directed at bringing Iraq into the comity of nations as, we hope, a united and potentially prosperous country. Nevertheless the case has been made very clearly that there are some vital lessons to be learnt from the past four bloody years. The cost to our own country has been high in lives lost and in resources. Of course, for America it has been very much heavier still, and still more so for the tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Iraq itself. There has been a rise in suicide terrorism, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, and the almost unspeakable violence against women of a kind which has now created in Basra an atmosphere where women fear to go out in case they are murdered, as my noble friend Lady Verma mentioned.

The lessons we all want to learn are not just about ugly and tragic events but about the ideas and preconceptions behind them—whether, for instance, it was right or wrong from the start to believe that there was a packaged form of democracy that could be exported and planted in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. That was a very simplistic Washington notion, rightly commented on by my noble friend Lord Lamont and the noble Lord, Lord Soley. There are lessons on whether in our own case we handled and formulated not just our military endeavours but our whole foreign policy in a wise and intelligent way in accordance with the proper principles of British government and collective Cabinet administration. Was Parliament allowed to play a proper role? Why did the intelligence go so disastrously wrong? We may have a little more information on that if the Government agree to obey the Information Commissioner's order to release the key dossier on weapons of mass destruction. We must never let that issue go. We have to ask why not enough attention was given to the history of Iraq, about which Britain, of all countries, knew more than anybody else. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, just mentioned, we have to ask why we fell out so badly with our neighbours in the European Union. Was there ever a hope of a common European approach or was that just a pipe dream?

All this makes it almost obvious to us that the responsible and sensible thing to do, and do now, is to have an inquiry by an independent committee of privy counsellors to review what has happened in Iraq both before and since the invasion of 2003. My noble friend Lord Fowler put this with crystal clarity. I agree that it should not be a partisan affair. There is no point if it dissolves into being just a party give and take. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is right about that and so are the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and others.

Of course it is true, as the Government have argued all along, that there have been various reports on this whole saga. There was the Hutton report on the death of Dr Kelly and the profound and brilliant report by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, into certain intelligence failures and apparently misleading statements or exaggerations by the then Prime Minister, and there was a Foreign Affairs Committee report from the other place, which unfortunately did not manage to get evidence from any of the key witnesses because they refused either to attend or, indeed, even to answer the letters requesting them to attend. So much for parliamentary accountability. But as was said by my noble friend and others, these were all snapshots. None of them looked at the whole grim picture and the catalogue of errors which we have seen unfold over the past four years.

We now owe it to our brave Armed Forces and to the British people to hold an inquiry. We need it because we have reached a crucial point when the bulk of our troops are being withdrawn from Basra, leaving a garrison under Operation Overwatch—a garrison which we must not betray by more muddled policy handling and failure to back up fully. The city of Basra is in a state very far removed from the one when my son served there in 2004. We need it because our ally, the United States, has held a series of major, full and deep inquiries and it is shaming that we have not, as my noble friend Lord King reminded us. We need it because we have had no overall assessment of how we entered this war or what planning we did to handle the aftermath and consequences, as many noble Lords said. I repeat that we need it because we owe it to the Armed Forces after all their sacrifices to show that we understand what went wrong, why equipment failed to reach them, what we now expect of them, and why budgetary difficulties made it so difficult to supply the right weapons and machinery. We need it because as a nation we need clear future guidance on our strategic purposes in Iraq and the whole region, and because it is essential to understand much more deeply the modalities of asymmetric warfare and the complex linkages between military and civil action, to which my noble friend Lord Luke referred, in pursuit of a restored peace. Above all, we need it because the course of the war is one of the top concerns of democratic peoples not only here but elsewhere.

Opinion experts are always telling us that domestic policies preoccupy the minds of the electorate, but they are wrong. The current American presidential election process proves them to be wrong. It is the foreign policy of a nation—and our nation—that tells us who we are, what our relationship is with the rest of the world, what our identity is, what the purposes of our society are and why we should continue building that society together. That is the case for the inquiry, which I believe to be overwhelming.

Finally, let me consider the immediate future. We have the strategic initiative—the so-called surge of General Petraeus. Has it worked? Some say that it has. The general's achievement in getting the Sunni cadres on-side in Anbar province could be a harbinger of better times, although others have warned that the Sunni leaders may be our friends this week but will by no means necessarily be our friends next week. We need to assess whether the key to development, which is private enterprise and investment, is now being turned. The IMF has said that Iraqi economic prospects are at last brightening, and the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, had some very interesting insights into the change in the business climate that is beginning to develop.

We need to assess the oil prospects. There is enormous potential there if the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad can get contracts out and new investment going, and if it decides to mix the need for a national oil company, which is in the interests of the Iraqi people, with the expertise of the international oil companies. I am told that a very powerful report on that is about to come from the University of Surrey Energy Economics Centre. We need to clarify how we engage Iran positively and not negatively in this recovery process. For all the dark implications of Iran in Iraqi horrors, it is in the firm long-term interests of the Iranians to have a neighbour that is peaceable and which never attacks it again in the horrific way that it did in the 1990s.

Beyond all that, we need to redefine that misleading phrase "war on terror". Was it ever really a war? That is what my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon wisely asked right at the start. Is the only realistic path forward the one defined by the Muslim world itself, in which grass roots Muslim people and new and brave leaders finally turn against those who have hijacked their future in the false name of a false Islam? There are all sorts of things that we can do to help, but our strategy and tactics will have to change. In the end, the agents of change and stability will be the people of the Middle East themselves and their leaders. There is no peace to be imposed from outside. They will decide whether they live in peace and prosperity or in unending hatred, rivalry and insecurity.

Let us have this inquiry now. Let us learn from our errors, so that we can help these suffering peoples to take the right path and to build societies that endure. I end with the words of Gertrude Bell, one of the founders of modern Iraq. Some 80 years ago, she said:

"Oh, if we can make them work together, and find their own salvation for themselves, what a fine thing that would be".

That says it all.