Today marked an important day in British politics, in that today was the long-awaited date of publication for the Chilcot Report. That would be the Report which aimed to examine the path towards war in Iraq in 2003, and the country’s subsequent descent into civil war and terrorist violence after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Should you be so interested, I have written about the context and scope of the Report today, and included my thoughts on the topic here.
The Inquiry’s focus of investigation was to examine the UK’s decision to intervene in Iraq, and how the British army’s offensive was conducted. The report’s main focus was to determine what commitments then Prime Minister Tony Blair gave to then President George W Bush, and whether Mr Blair misled the UK public over the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction – which, it transpired, turned out to be non-existent.
There was much to think about today, Wednesday 6th July 2016.
The families who lost relatives who served in the British armed forces and died in Iraq.
The untold thousands of Iraqi civilians who died as their country was invaded and occupied.
The veterans of the conflict, who have been badly injured and/or suffer from PTSD.
The Iraqi citizens who still face terrorist violence in their country.
The surreal thought that two leaders could discuss how best to justify their respective countries’ intervention in Iraq and proceed on that basis.
There was – and still is – so many issues to consider, so many things to think about regarding the Iraq War. I suppose many are now simply trying to understand how the intervention could ever have proceeded, as politicians admit the evidence presented to them in the Commons now looks weak. This confusion is exacerbated when we consider the rather damning comments from Sir John Chilcot today in relation to Mr Blair.
As I noted in my earlier post today, I was still in primary school as the Westminster Parliament voted by a majority to back the Prime Minister’s plans. I was a young girl who watched Iraq be invaded, and listened to the news as we heard of civilian and military casualties. I found myself thinking about my perception of the war as a young girl today, and realised that even then I was not entirely sure why the war was underway in the first place. I most likely had these doubts based in part on the stream of protests, both on the streets and in Parliament. It is on that note I wish to proceed to the main topic of this post.
On this day, I think of Charles Kennedy, who at the time of the UK invasion of Iraq was the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I think of Charles Kennedy who steadfastly opposed the Iraq War and led his party’s opposition to the invasion, with all Liberal Democrats voting against or abstaining in the vote for the invasion of Iraq – the largest British party to do so. I think of Charles Kennedy who, as early as recently after the terrorist attacks of September 11, urged a “cautionary hand” on America in its quest to defeat Al-Qaeda.
In 2003, as Mr Blair moved to commit British forces in Iraq in a show of unity with the US, Mr Kennedy sought to take his stance in the Commons. Mr Blair argued strongly Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed against Britain at 45 minutes’ notice. Mr Kennedy argued just as strongly against an invasion, and, with many Labour MPs just as opposed, there was the oft chance that Mr Blair could suffer a moral, if not numerical, defeat in the crucial debate – leading to a dissolution, or a government headed by opponents of war.
On 26th February, 122 Labour MPs joined 77 from Opposition parties to support the motion that “This House finds the case for military action against Iraq as yet unproven”. Rebellion on this scale was unprecedented, but the margin still remained just enough for Mr Blair to go ahead. It did, however, put Mr Kennedy at the head of a body of opinion in the country which grew as the overthrow of Saddam – and failure to find the weapons – was followed by ongoing carnage. Mr Kennedy would continue to repeatedly argue the intelligence used to justify intervention in Iraq was weak, and that there were no WMDs.
Today I found myself thinking about the speech Mr Kennedy delivered prior to the Parliamentary vote on the motion to go to war on the 18th March 2003. There, he outlined why he did not believe there were grounds for war, and argued his belief there simply was no public support for such a decision:
“There is huge public anxiety in Britain. That is the mark of a fundamentally decent society. All of us, whatever our views, whatever our parties, know that the kind of people contacting us are very different from many of those with whom we deal regularly. They are the kind of people who say, ‘I have never contacted a Member of Parliament before,’ or ‘I’ve never been politically active before’. They are the kind of people who have never gone on a march or attended a vigil before. Another significant point is that, whether or not they agree with the Prime Minister, only a tiny fraction ever call into question his sincerity in this matter.
I have never done so and I do not do so today. But much as they detest Saddam’s brutality, they are not persuaded that the case for war has been adequately made at this point. They are worried about the new doctrine of regime change, they are wary of the Bush Administration’s motives, and they do not like to see Britain separated from its natural international allies.”
Mr Kennedy warned of his belief that
“the impact of war in these circumstances is bound to weaken the international coalition against terrorism itself, and not least in the Muslim world. The big fear that many of us have is that the action will simply breed further generations of suicide bombers.”
He also argued of the need to consider the long-term impact of the invasion:
“It would also be right to ask about the longer term role that we hope British forces will play, if the war ensues, in the humanitarian and reconstruction roles on which they have such a distinguished track record.”
It should not escape our notice that on the points of the invasion acting as a catalyst for future terrorist activity, and on the need for a long-term vision for Iraq, these were raised today by Sir John as areas which the had been hopelessly overlooked in the decision to intervene.
Mr Kennedy was heavily criticised for this stance at the time, and Parliament was also hostile. Reading the Hansard record, it is obvious he was subject to a hostile reception in the Commons, was repeatedly asked to give way during this speech – the Speaker had to make clear that he would not – and faced heckling from senior ministers for his position. Yet when reading the Hansard record, it is equally as obvious that Mr Kennedy was not deterred from remaining true to his position, and proceeded to deliver his speech.
Hostility to his opposition was not confined to Parliament. Mr Kennedy was maligned and smeared in the Press. It was noted today he also faced opposition in the form of the media, and the most vivid display of hostility can be attributed by the Sun. (I will not describe the headline of the newspaper here, nor post a photograph as I will not host the shamefully low attack. You can access the headline photograph here.) Mr Kennedy, however, still refused to back down.
It must have been a lonely road to take: the only leader of a main British political party standing against the combined might of the majority of the governing Labour Party and the Conservative Opposition. He was effectively the leader of the anti-war movement within Westminster, but was a minority in a sea of hostility. It must have been a dark and lonely road. But Mr Kennedy walked it regardless. It was a poignant display of political courage, conviction, and principles, and I suppose it has resonated with me since.
Today was a bittersweet moment for those, who like myself, remembered Mr Kennedy. The Chilcot Report may undoubtedly have proven the validity of his predictions, but it comes too late.
Charles Kennedy sadly died in June 2015. He did not live to see the publication of the Chilcot report today. He did not live to see his vindication.
And as Mr Blair sought to defend his decision to take the UK to war as a committed ally of the US in a press conference lasting two hours, I found myself re-watching Mr Kennedy’s 2003 Commons speech. The difference is startling. Mr Blair sought to defend himself. Mr Kennedy sought to protect the UK and Iraqi civilians. If the media ever considered the behaviour of the latter to be ‘spineless’, then ‘spineless’ is what I shall endeavour to be going forward.