Thinking back to a cold crisp morning back in 2003, I remember standing on the platform at Hull’s Paragon station preparing to board the train to London Kings Cross, my stomach full of nerves, and my mind brimming with hope. I had managed to get the day off from work, and I, along with a group of colleagues from ASLEF, and other trade unions were making our way to the capital to take our place among the more than one million citizens who took to the streets of London in order to voice our opposition to the impending possibility that our brave troops would be sent to Iraq in order to participate in the planned invasion.
I remember vividly the journey, the heated political debate that flowed back and forth as the beautiful English countryside rolled from left to right past the carriage window, the sound of train wheel on track drowned out by the raised voices, arguing over the niceties of foreign policies, and the possibility that people power could actually win through, and prevent an international legal disaster, some even predicting the advent of a 21st century Vietnam.
I remember the feeling of pride, community, and real determination that our collective voices would be heard by the powers that be that day, and I have fantastic memories of the march, and the rally afterwards that I will remember for life. To a large extent I surrendered myself to idealism and naivety that day, daring myself to believe that we really could unclench the fist of governments.
Alas, it was not to be.
Jump forward nearly 7 years, with the near decimation of Iraq’s administrative services, destruction of several key religious sites, scores of brave British service personnel, thousands of Iraqi civilians, and hundreds of US troops killed, and a country teetering for so long on the brink of civil war, and we have the Rt. Hon. Jack Straw MP, member for Blackburn, currently Justice Secretary, and at the time of the invasion of Iraq, Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, the latest in a string of senior ministerial, military, and civil service personnel who have been called before the inquiry of Sir John Chilcott, and I have to say that the more information that is revealed inside the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, the more haphazard and frankly absurd the whole sorry process appears to be.
For some time now we have had what has amounted to ‘parade of shame’ whereby expert after expert, and diplomat after military attaché have sat before the committee, and slowly and steadily revealed the sheer lunacy and dogma soaked incompetence that underpinned the entire operation.
We have had the former ambassador to the US, the former ambassador to the US, a military commander seconded to the white house in order to co-ordinate preparations for the invasion, as well as numerous civil service employees all bearing witness to the fact that this invasion was a manifestation of a concerted attempt to dupe the international community into allowing the United States to fit the situation in Iraq to the pre-existing policy of regime change that they so desperately clung to, despite the best advice of the UK government, and indeed the main body of opinion within the UN.
We had the military commander speaking of how the Bush administration froze him out of virtually all discussions on the issue of Iraq, and how he basically had to glean scraps of information by calling in discreet favours from friends, and rely on water cooler gossip in order to keep abreast of what Washington were planning. We have the senior civil service personnel who have told of how their repeated assertions that the plan to invade Iraq lacked the level of planning required in order to ensure that the aftermath of the conflict was managed properly.
We have looked on as Alistair Campbell defended his role in the preparation of the infamous ‘dodgy dossier’ contradicting himself effortlessly, as he denied being involved in the policy of the Iraq conflict, yet he admitted that he was indeed responsible for the management of the policies. Mr Campbell also spoke of the notes that were passed back and forth between the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and President Bush.
We have listened as those on the inside of what unfolded have told the inquiry how Britain’s policy was to push the US down the United Nations route. Indeed, it was obligated by the international laws that President Bush believed should only be obeyed by other countries, to do exactly that.
Today we had Jack Straw telling us that he himself, the then Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, held the opinion that to invade Iraq in order to initiate regime change was wholly wrong, and illegal. He revealed that he wrote to the Prime Minister in order to tell him as such, as well as to inform him that there was no majority in favour of military action within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
We have had a phalanx of civil servants, military advisors and commanders, as well as diplomats who have all stated that they were frank and open in their advice to the Prime Minister that they believed that regime change in Iraq was indeed unjustified and illegal. Mr Straw also revealed that prior to 2003, the policy of the British Government was not one of regime change in Iraq.
Indeed, it seems that as time passes, and people’s lips become slightly looser, the story that appears is one of there really only being one major player within the UK Government who actually believed that invading Iraq was the right thing to do; the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
It is, I believe, plainly obvious that Mr Blair had, for whatever reasons, made his support for the crusading policies of the Bush administration explicit, and unconditional. Whether this was for reasons of furthering the British profile on the world stage, courting the favour of George Bush, furthering his own celebrity as an international statesman and his subsequent earning potential in his retirement, or indeed a combination of them all we currently do not know. Maybe we never will.
Whatever the actual logic that underpins the reasoning behind Tony Blair’s unconditional support for the hawks of republican Washington as it was, we cannot escape from the biggest irony that has been thrown up by the processes of the Chilcott inquiry; the pure and simple fact that, regardless of what the policy of the British Government was regarding Iraq, it was only ever the policy of Tony Blair that would be implemented.
It is well known that the United Nations inspectors were making real progress in gaining access to Iraq’s military and weapon facilities. It is also well known that Colin Powell’s infamous ‘lecture’ at the UN security council was nothing more than a stage managed street diversion in an attempt to justify the real sting.
Our own governmental advisors stated that the threat from Iraq was no greater than that posed by Iran or North Korea, and yet both Tony Blair, and George Bush turned strangely silent when pushed on the possible extension of their policy of intervention based on the flouting of UN mandates. Indeed, on that basis, surely they should also be setting their sights on Tel Aviv??
But looking back at all of these events, the vociferous opposition to the proposed actions of Bush and Blair, and all of the ramifications that have affected the people of Iraq, the people of our military forces, the standing and perception of the UK in the international and European communities, the ramifications for our domestic security and so on, and I only seem to be able to manage the comparison between Tony Blair and the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Here we have the folly that was the policy on regime change in Iraq. We have layer upon layer of advice from eminent and experienced people, from parliamentary and cabinet level colleagues, from military commanders and diplomats who all told the Prime Minister repeatedly that he was doing the wrong thing, that the policy was flawed, that the proposed action had no basis in international law.
Yet despite all of this, Tony Blair insisted on mounting his horse and parading through the hitherto democratic landscape, flinging off these layers of protective advice, and revealing to all his nakedness in his single minded ambition for self promotion on the world stage, and his unconditional support of a deeply flawed and problematic US foreign policy, perpetuated by a hawkish, cynical and dogmatic President.
Cheering loyally from the sidelines, we have the morally outraged yet sycophantic aides and cabinet members who knew that the invasion was wrong, yet still they failed to speak up, and instead went out before the mass media and defended the actions of a Prime Minister who took us to war on a stack of lies.
We have an endless stream of faceless, soulless, New Labour politicians being wheeled out in front of the camera in order to defend the actions of a former Prime Minister who thought it perfectly acceptable to marginalise the UN, to lie to his own electorate and parliament, to pressurise the intelligence services into presenting the intelligence garnered on the long defunct WMD programme in Iraq to fit in with the proposed action by the Bush administration, to invade a country, disarm its military and police, send them home, and then leave them to the ravages of civil chaos, and infiltration by fundamentalists that was inevitable given the fact that George Bush was so fixated on removing Saddam Hussein that he had completely failed to formulate any plan for the rebuilding, reorganisation and democratisation of the country after the military campaign was completed.
Obviously, we will not get the full picture of everything that transpired in terms of what was said by whom, and when, and we probably never will. At least not in our lifetimes. But I will continue to follow the developments closely in order to glean, at least for my own sense of outrage and curiosity, why it was that the weight of informed and considered opinion was deliberately and cynically ignored by the very man who was meant to safeguard the UK interest.
Meanwhile, from the very beginning, in the background we have the man who signed the cheques that paid for the new clothes that were purchased for the ‘emperor’ one Gordon Brown.
The current Prime Minister has been skilful in retaining his silence, maintaining a discreet distance from all of the furore that has continued to haunt his predecessor, who had once so famously hoped that his legacy would be peace in Northern Ireland, but instead, it is claimed by some, built for himself a memory in history that paints him as a self publicist, war monger and outright liar to the British people.
The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg MP stood up in parliament and asked the Prime Minister why it was that he was not to be interviewed by the Chilcott inquiry until after the election. This, I believe is a fair question, especially considering that Mr Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time that Blair led us to war in Iraq. Brown signed the cheques. He was closely involved in much of the planning. He simply had to be. His personality, and his modus operandi would not allow for any other way.
Now it seems that Gordon Brown will indeed be summoned by Sir John Chilcott before the General Election takes place.
I think that it is safe to say, at least to some extent that it was the persistence of Nick Clegg in pursuing this issue that has contributed to yielding a great result. It will be interesting of course, to see who it was who made the first move in terms of bringing forward Gordon Brown’s summons to the committee’s hearing. Was it the Prime Minister? Or was it Sir John? I know who my money would be on, were I to be a gambling man!
The truth is that Iraq was and is in many ways a watershed in the psyche of the British public. Largely as a result of the actions of Tony Blair et al, we now have a situation whereby the default response of the electorate is to disbelieve. This may have been a creeping condition, but the constant massaging of data, dossiers and downright lies have ensured that every major governmental decision for years, if not decades to come will be questioned, derided, and ridiculed without scrutiny. Mr Blair and Mr Bush may well say that hey wanted to improve Iraq, and save the world from a crazy despot, but at least in the case of the UK, the net result has been to erode further the gravity of the parliamentary word.
Still, at least we have our sitting Prime Minister being summoned before the inquiry into what went on in those cabinet meetings, and in those cosy weekends at George Bush’s ranch, or at least in the frosty offices of the treasury!
This is a good victory for democracy, some scant consolation against the backdrop of my hopes upon boarding that train to Kings Cross some 7 or so years ago.