Blair, the Brexit saviour?

Whither Tony Blair?

I wrote a blog post last year about the former UK Prime Minister’s hint at returning to the UK political scene. Mr Blair was at pains then to say that his return to politics would be strictly behind the scenes, and not on the frontline. The former prime Minister ruled out frontline politics because of his belief that there were parts of the media  which would ‘move to destroy mode’.

In an interview with the New Statesman (tellingly entitled ‘Unfinished Business’), he said:

“I’m dismayed by the state of Western politics, but also incredibly motivated by it. I think, in Britain today, you’ve got millions of effectively politically homeless people.

“…I can’t come into frontline politics. There’s just too much hostility, and also there are elements of the media who would literally move to destroy mode if I tried to do that.”

Mr Blair said that such is his dismay by the current state of Western politics that he intends to play a significant role behind the scenes in shaping the political landscape. He said he will work to revive the ‘progressive centre or centre left’.

Mr Blair, who has consistently made clear his desire for the UK to keep its options open in relation to Brexit, said the process can be brought to a halt.

Mr Blair said the UK’s exit from the European Union might be stopped if voters decide the pain of leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc outweighs the benefits of leaving. Mr Blair, who is pro-European, compared Brexit to “agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house” and said access to the EU single market would define Brexit.

He told The New Statesman:

“[Brexit] can be stopped if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up,

“I’m not saying it will [be stopped], by the way, but it could.

“I’m just saying, until you see what it means, how do you know?”

He duly added that despite previously speculation, he would not consider returning to UK politics, given the hostility towards him.

But as we tiptoe ever closer to the promised date of the official invoking of Art 50, Mr Blair does not appear to have made any move to re-enter the political arena – even from behind the scenes, given his comments on the issue – and become the UK’s Brexit saviour.

In October last year, the former Prime Minister submitted that the UK should keep “its options open” over Brexit. He described the referendum outcome as a “catastrophe”, and it would be vital to consider the “real-life implications” of the vote.

Mr Blair said he accepted the verdict of the referendum, but recommended looking again at Brexit when “we have a clear sense of where we’re going”. He also added that a second referendum should not be ruled out.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Mr Blair argued that it was important that the views of the “16 million” people who had backed remaining in the EU should not be ignored.

He added:

“If it becomes clear that this is either a deal that doesn’t make it worth our while leaving, or alternatively a deal that’s going to be so serious in its implications people may decide they don’t want to go, there’s got to be some way, either through Parliament, or an election, or possibly through another referendum, in which people express their view.”

But he said the vote for Brexit could not be changed “unless it becomes clear that the British people have had a change of mind”.

Downing Street, however, swiftly issued a statement to say it was “absolutely committed” to seeing Brexit through.

Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly said that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she will trigger the formal divorce negotiations by the end of March. Whilst she waxes lyrical about her vision for a “red, white and blue Brexit” (Lord save us), the Prime Minister is acutely aware she is awaiting the judgment of the UK Supreme Court regarding the UK Government’s appeal of the High Court ruling which forces her to seek the approval of the UK Parliament.

Mr Blair said of the Prime Minister:

“She’s a very solid, sensible person but she’s delivering Brexit. And she has to deliver it.

“Otherwise she will lose the support of that very strong right-wing media. And they’ll open up a rift in the Tory party again.”

Last year, Mr Blair had given an interview in the New European newspaper in which he said those who believed in the EU “have to recognise we’re the insurgents now”. He also argued that “we have to build the capability to mobilise and to organise. We have to prise apart the alliance which gave us Brexit.”

Whither Mr Blair now? Why the silence, after the rousing rhetoric and stirring statements?

He had warned of the talks with the EU whilst speaking on the radio:

“I’m convinced that it’s going to be very, very tough. We have to understand we are not going to be conducting these negotiations with a group of European businessmen who might well decide that they want maximum access to the UK…

“The people we are going to be conducting these negotiations with are the political leaders of the European Union and their parliaments.

“I’m arguing we should keep our options open…”

Should we expect Mr Blair to re-emerge suddenly in the coming months, as the final countdown to the triggering of Art 50 nears, and the final preparations for the undoubtedly gruelling negotiations get underway? Perhaps not, given that he would face opposition from the current Labour leader, and that last year he was the subject of a contempt motion in the Commons.

That Mr Blair could reverse his previous position, and make a return to frontline politics looks slim after comments from the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Last year, Mr Corbyn commented that Mr Blair will not return to the House of Commons whilst he remains leader of the party. He added that Mr Blair had ruled himself out of the upcoming by-election in Copeland which was triggered by Jamie Reed’s resignation. Moreover, last summer Mr Corbyn backed a motion which declared his predecessor guilty of contempt following the publication of the Chilcot Report.

Speaking of the Chilcot Report… Last year, the House of Commons debated a motion to find Tony Blair in contempt of Parliament over the build-up to Iraqi war. A cross-party group of MPs, from seven of the Westminster parties, presented a motion saying that following the publication of the Chilcot report into the conflict, it was clear the former Prime Minister had given the Commons “seriously misleading” statements in 2001, 2002 and 2003, and should be held in contempt of the house. In the wake of the report, the seven MPs had presented the Speaker with what they called a “dossier of truth” – a reference to the infamous “dodgy dossier” – seeking to detail how they believe Chilcot supposedly shows Blair misled the Commons.

The cross-party group, comprising Alex Salmond of the SNP, the Conservative Sir Roger Gale, Kate Hoey of Labour, Greg Mulholland from the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru’s Hywel Williams, Margaret Ritchie from the SDLP and Caroline Lucas of the Greens.The cross-party group had hoped to have the motion debated in July, but this was refused by the Speakerwho deemed the debate to be heard after the parliamentary recess, on one of the SNP’s allocated opposition days.

The motion called on MPs to recognise that the inquiry “provided substantial evidence of misleading information presented by the then prime minister and others on the development of the then government’s policy towards the invasion of Iraq as shown most clearly in the contrast between private correspondence to the United States government and public statements to parliament and people”. It also asked the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee to add to its current inquiry into the lessons to be learned from Chilcot “a further specific examination of this contrast in public and private policy and to report on what further action is necessary to help prevent repetition of this disastrous series of events”.

The motion was failed to pass, by 439 votes to 70 – a margin of 369 votes. Whilst it had always seemed unlikely the motion would carry, it was still symbolic, as the power for the Commons to punish non-MPs has not been used for many years. Moreover, that the motion was presented on a cross-party basis and had secured the backing of senior MPs from both the Conservatives and Labour reflected the widespread frustration that the publication of the Chilcot report in July, after a seven-year inquiry, did not result in any government action or accountability for Blair.

So, whither Mr Blair? Potentially keeping his head down, and his cards to his chest. The motion to hold him in contempt of the UK Parliament might have failed, but it was still tabled and a three-hour debate ensured. That is a symbolic gesture that Mr Blair would not be warmly welcomed back by some MPs from his own party, let alone MPs from six other political parties at Westminster. Moreover, it is a sign that many feel his days in the spotlight are long over.

It just seems wonderfully ironic that Art 50 will be invoked in 2017, which concidentally will mark 20 years since Mr Blair won his first landslide General Election, and brought the Labour Pary back from the political wilderness. It seems unlikely that he will be the one to emulate his own success 20 years later.

Of Sofa Government and Facts.

The Chilcot Report was published this summer, after many years of waiting and expectation. I wrote about the report in a blog post on the date of publication. I explained how Sir John Chilcot’s report 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. The Inquiry’s remit, I noted, was to examine the UK’s decision to intervene in Iraq, how the British army’s offensive was conducted, and to determine where there lessons to be learnt from same. To undertake this, the Inquiry sought a wide timeframe: from the commencement of war in 2003, to when combat troops were remove from Iraq at the end of July 2009. I noted too how it was expected that Tony Blair would be largely acquitted of blame for the Iraq War. This conclusion was expected to be derived from the report’s main focus, i.e. what commitments Mr Blair gave to then-President 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.

I later wrote a post specifically about the reaction of former Prime Minister Tony Blair to the publication of the Report. I summarised Sir John’s findings, and the revelation of the collection of letters exchanged between then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and then President George W Bush. I thought the letters were revealing, showing that perhaps Mr Blair was uncertain about the proposed invasion, that perhaps he was still attempting to convince himself that this was the correct path to take. However, what I found to be most interesting was the press conference Mr Blair held immediately after Sir John’s public statement on the publication of the Report.

It was a surreal press conference, full of emotion, determination and a touch of theatre. For two hours, Mr Blair endured question after question, grilled on the finer points of detail raised by Sir John. Mr Blair submitted the decision to removal Saddam Hussein had been the “hardest, most momentous, most agonising” decision of his time as Prime Minister. Mr Blair took note of Sir John’s criticisms and said he took full responsibility for the failure of post-transitional planning. He however stated firmly that he would take the same decision to proceed with military intervention again, despite Sir John arguing the UK intervention went badly wrong and ‘with consequences to this day’. Basically, Mr Blair acknowledged the findings of the Chilcot Report, but despite expressing remorse over the deaths which resulted from his decision to go to war, he did not express regret for making that decision.

This was something that was touched upon today. For Chilcot is not over, and questions still remain over the Report’s findings – particularly around the conduct of Mr Blair.

Today, Sir John Chilcot appeared before the House of Commons Liaison Committee. It marked his first appearance and first time testifying since the publication of his report. Suffice to say, his evidence made for interesting reading. Moreover, if you thought his comments during the summer about Tony Blair, his decision-making, and style of leadership were critical, then today’s comments were cetainly damming.

The evidence session saw questions and answers which covered Mr Blair’s leadership, his relationship with his Cabinet, his decision-making, and the impact of the Iraq invasion on his premiership, and indeed British politics in general.

In a two-and-half hour session, Chilcot was asked if trust in politics had been corroded because MPs were fed an argument that could not reasonably be supported by the available evidence.

He replied: “I think when a government or the leader of a government presents a case with all the powers of advocacy that he or she can command, and in doing so goes beyond what the facts of the case and the basic analysis of that can support, then it does damage politics, yes.”

Chilcot then added that he “can only imagine” it would take a long time to repair the voters’ trust in their politicians. I feel that Sir John has a valid point here. Simply onsider how Mr Blair is viewed today, not just by supporters of the Labour Party but the UK electorate in general. Note how the mention of his name rovokes a negative reaction within the Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Blairite’ is an insult. Recall that Liz Kendall was attacked for her position on Blairite policy when she contested the Labour leadership in 2015. His legacy as Prime Minister has become focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the civilian and military deaths effectuated by these conflicts. His brand, was so promising and hopeful has become toxic.

Sir John elaborated on the issue of evidence (or lack thereof) and held that Mr Blair’s case for war in Iraq went “beyond the facts” in a way that caused long-term damage to public trust in politics.

Referring to Mr Blair’s now-infamous speech to the House of Commons on the eve of war, Sir John said that “the evidence to support it was more qualified than he gave expression to”. (Ouch). Sir John added that whilst he believed the then-Prime Minister did not set out to willfully deceive Parliament, Mr Blair opted for persuasive rhetoric over setting out the facts, and relying upon accurate and valid evidence to make his case.

“A speech was made in advocate’s terms and putting the best possible inflection on the description that he used…

“I absolve him from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive Parliament or the public, to state falsehoods knowing them to be false.

“However, he also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion rather than laying the real issues and the information to back the analysis of them fairly and squarely in front of either Parliament or the public. It was an exercise in advocacy.”

Sir John also made reference to his report’s finding that Mr Blair had “overestimated” his ability to influence US decision-making on Iraq. Yes, Mr Blair did manage to persuade Bush to turn to the UN and seek international support for military action in September 2002. But by the end of that year it was clear that the military timetable had taken control of the diplomatic process, and the US was calling on the shots on both. The UK and US had had differing objectves from the beginning, and Mr Blair, for all his efforts, did not manage to merge the objectives together for a truly united approach from both countries. For whilst the Bush administration had from the outset been determined to achieve regime change, Mr Blair had sought to reconcile the US’s goal with the UK’s objective to disarm Saddam.

The UK’s objective proved to be a problem in its own right. Mr Blair had argued that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and there was the potential risk of his using these weapons in the future. But as we all now know, there were no WMDs to be found at the moment of the invasion. Sir John accepted that on the eve of his crucial speech to Parliament in March 2003, Mr Blair genuinely believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The government’s Joint Intelligence Committee had wrongly told him this, Chilcot said, and Mr Blair was thus relying on false information, not indulging in willful fabrication. However, Sir John added that at that point there was “no evidence” Saddam intended to deploy such weapons against UK interests. There was no imminent threat. In fact, it later emerged Saddam had secretly destroyed his chemical and biological weapons after the Gulf war, and before international inspectors were allowed back into the country.

What I found most illuminating from Sir John’s evidence is that evidence which highlighted how Mr Blair’s leadership style contributed towards the Commons speech, and ‘beyond the facts’ approach. And how so? He simply was not challenged by his Cabinet.

Sir John’s words do not exactly place the former Labour Prime Minister in a postive light: his “sheer psychological dominance” of his Cabinet meant that few ministers sought to challenge him, or the legal advice on which he based his argument on the eve of the military intervention. Indeed, Sir John noted just how much he was struck by how few members of the Blair Cabinet challenged the Prime Minister. The main dissenting voice was that of the late Robin Cook, who resigned from his Cabinet position in protest at the decision.

It was also noted that Mr Blair’s preference for so-called ‘sofa government’ meant that the Cabinet was sidelined. The problem with ‘sofa government’, for all that it empowers the Prime Minister and can result in more decisive leadership and Cabinet efficiency, is that ministers are often not consulted on crucial decisions. The Committee actually asked if Mr Blair had perceieved himself as being the modern equivalent to the French King Louis XIV – who had famously declared ‘I am the State’. Sir John replied that such an approach “reached a high point in Mr Blair’s prime ministership”. (Ouch again.)

It is evident that Mr Blair preferred to make the decisions, and relay his case to Cabinet. Sir John pointed out to the Committee that there had been several occasions between 2002 and 2007 when “things were decided without reference to Cabinet”. Such ‘things’ included the legal basis on which the UK went to war in 2003 as part of a US-led coalition and the decision, once Saddam Hussein had been toppled, for the UK to take over the administration of four of Iraq’s southern provinces. Obviously, these were important decisions, involving high stakes decisions and policy. To know that there was a democratic deficit so to speak in the determination of such decisions. Cabinet should collectively debate and reach consensus, afer hearing arguments from all sides of the debate. Cabinet should not be a box-ticking exercis for a Prime Minister who has already made up their mind, and who prefers not to consult their ministers.

Moreover, it seems as those Mr Blair’s ministers were somewhat resigned to the situtation. At the very least, they were aware of Mr Blair’s prefered means of decision-making, and did not make efforts to speak out and demand to be included. For example, when referring to the evidence given to his inquiry, Sir John said he recalled asking the then-Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw why the Cabinet had not “provided more of a challenge” to Blair or even demanded more information.

“The answer that came back was that Tony Blair had, as leader of the Opposition and in government, rescued his party from a dire predicament. I had the sense from Straw’s answer that he had achieved a personal and political dominance, a sheer psychological dominance.

“He [Blair] had been right. Was he not right this time? That’s what I took from Mr Straw’s evidence.”

Indeed, perhaps the ministers preferred this means of working. It meant they could always fall back on the excuse of, “it was the Prime Minister’s decision” if the consequences of such a decision were unsatisfactory. What should also be considered is the suggested complacency which might be dervived from Mr Straw’s comment. There is a suggestion that Mr Blair was always right, or nearly always, and so there was no harm in going along with his decisions. This could be in part a consequence of the standing of Mr Blair within the party at the time: he was the Labour leader who brought the party back into government, who had ensured stunning election victories. In May 1997, Labour defeated the Conservative government with a landslide general election victory, the largest in its history. The party won another landslide victory in 2001, and even after the invasion of Iraq, won another general election in 2005 (albeit with a reduced majority). There was an aura of victory and success around Mr Blair, in hand wih his personal approval ratings and personality. Perhaps his Cabinet believed it was an easier and indeed a better option to follow Mr Blair’s decisions, given his public mandate and approval.

I previously refered to how the Chilcot report revealed that in a private note sent on 28th July 2002 Blair promised the then-US president, George W Bush: “I will be with you, whatever.” Whilst giving evidence to the Committee,  Sir John said the Cabinet was actually never informed about the note. Only Jonathan Powell, Mr  Blair’s Chief of Staff and David Manning, the UK’s ambassador to the US,  were aware of its existence. Sir John noted how “both tried to persuade him not to use those form of words. But he did.” Moverover, Mr Straw eventually found out about the letter after it had been issued, and when it was too late to say “you shouldn’t write it”.

It is therefore unsurprising that Sir John said to the Committee that in future those at the top of Whitehall should challenge ministers, even if their advice was not ultimately taken, and should also make a note of what they said at the time:

“It’s vital for serious decisions to be recorded in the public archive, not for immediate release necessarily, but they should be written down.

“If someone is in serious disagreement the reason for that decision, and the fact of it, should be recorded. [This] allows different voices to be heard.”

When asked by the Committee as to who was most responsible for the Iraq disaster, Sir John responded: Blair, Straw, and the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon. Mr Blair and Mr Straw were more experienced and therefore most at fault, he suggested. (I am only surprused that Mr Blair did not hold a press conference after Sir John testimony before the Committee).

Sir John informed the Committee of his satisfaction with the positive public reaction to his report. He said it was “particularly welcome” that it had been accepted by the bereaved families of the 179 British service personnel killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. He said said he was often asked what his most important finding was, after such a lenghty inquiry. After saying it was a “whole range of things” he elaborated, sayng it was the “failure to exert and exercise sufficient collective responsibility for a very big decision.”

Andrew Tyrie, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, said the parliamentary hearing had been a useful exercise, adding that M Blair “did not feel the need to be constrained by facts when putting his case to Parliament.”

If one can take anything from the evidence session, it is that there truly is a need for collective responsbility, especially within the Cabinet, and especially on matters of national security, proposed intervention, and military exercise. The decision to invade another country, to engage in war, is not an easy one. Nor should it be. Lives of civilians, and military personnel must be considered. Planning for the future, for a transitional justice process and the strict necessity of observing human rights obligations are paramount. It cannot be determined by one individual, regardless of how many special advisors they have to hand. It is much more preferrable to gain the perspective of Cabinet collegues, and to hear arguments from all sides. If this had been undertaken instead of that one fateful decision reached by Mr Blair, th Iraq invasion might have been avoided. As it is, we shall never know. But we do know that there are lessons to be learnt, and mistakes to avoid for the future.

 

Chilcot Revisited.

Summer has come and gone, and Autumn is now here. The new academic term is upon us, and I will soon traipse back towards university for a new challenge: my Masters in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice.

I suppose I am drawn to the notion of studying political violence, identity conflicts and the transition from a state of war towards one of peace and shared spaces. I am a citizen of Northern Ireland after all, and transitional justice and political pathways towards peace is what I grew up knowing. I cannot wait to commence my studies, and see where my studies take me.

As I thought about my upcoming back-to-school adventures, I realised that I had not written about my thoughts and summary of the Chilcot Report, that long-awaited report which was finally published on the 6th July of this summer. I thought about this report as I thought about my studies, because it signifies to me at least of the need for a plan for post-conflict: how to rebuild the state, how to integrate all identities, how to ensure stability and peace. Alas, that this has not been found to date in Iraq in the aftermath of that fateful decision undertaken by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to invade the country.

I wrote about the report in a blog post on the date of publication. I explained how Sir John Chilcot’s report 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. The Inquiry’s remit, I noted, was to examine the UK’s decision to intervene in Iraq, how the British army’s offensive was conducted, and to determine where there lessons to be learnt from same. To undertake this, the Inquiry sought a wide timeframe: from the commencement of war in 2003, to when combat troops were remove from Iraq at the end of July 2009. I noted too how it was expected that Tony Blair would be largely acquitted of blame for the Iraq War. This conclusion was expected to be derived from the report’s main focus, i.e. what commitments Mr Blair gave to then-President 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.

I thought to write a fresh blog post several months on, to highlight the key findings of the inquiry.

Prior to the immediate publication of the report, Sir John spoke about his inquiry and its findings. The main conclusions that he reached in this statement included:

  • Whilst military action against Saddam Hussein ‘might have been necessary at some point’, in the vital month of March 2003, he posed no imminent threat.
  • The strategy of containment, having been ongoing at the time, could have been continued for ‘some time’ further, and the majority of the Security Council supported continuing UN inspections and monitoring. ‘Military action at that time was not a last resort,’ Sir John held.
  • The manner in which the UK government decided there was a legal basis for military intervention was deemed to have been ‘far from satisfactory’. However, I should point out that report doesn’t express a view of legality of military action, something that can only be resolved by a constituted court.
  • Sir John found that ‘flawed intelligence and assessments’ formed the basis of government policy on Iraq. Chilcot said of the intelligence provided that ‘they were not challenged, and they should have been’. Moreover, the statement delivered by Mr Blair on the 24th September statement before the House of Commons containing judgements on the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was ‘presented with a certainty that was not justified’.
  • The point which bears ongoing relevance today: planning for a post-Saddam Iraq was found to have been ‘wholly inadequate’. Despite repeated, clear warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. It was found that Mr Blair ‘did not establish clear Ministerial oversight of US planning and preparation.’ Moreover, he ‘did not ensure that there was a flexible, realistic and fully resourced plan that integrated UK military and civilian contributions, and addressed the known risks.’
  • The Inquiry apparently took rather a dim view of Tony Blair’s claim that the difficulties encountered in Iraq could not have been known in advance: it did ‘not agree that hindsight is required’. The Inquiry held that ‘the risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaida activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion’ and therefore provided the foundational evidence upon which to undertake planning for a transitional Iraq post-invasion.

As the statement was delivered, comments from various journalists who had had a preview of the report made the rounds on social media. What quickly became a topic of discussion was the collection of letters Mr Blair had written to President Bush, now released as part of the report. The letters could be read as an attempt to impress the US Preisdent with his statemanship and determination, or read as evidence of Mr Blair’s belief in his own importance, and his role in shaping destiny and the future. I however see the letters differently: they read as though written by one trying to convince himself of the merits of his own arguments.

Two notes in particular stood out. One was dated eight months before the war commenced, and within Mr Blair offered his unqualified backing for invasion far in advance of when the beleaguered UN weapons inspectors had completed their work. Blair devoted a mere six lines to post-invasion planning. He said the removal of Saddam “should lead in time to a democratic Iraq governed by the people”, but concluded “just swapping one dictator for another seems inconsistent with our values”. Bu the true line du jour?  “I will be with you, whatever.”

The other note was dated June 2003, and is tinged with panic and a touch of desperation – recognition, it seems, of the scale of the invasion and the sheer size of the project post-conflict. Mr Blair wrote: “But the task is absolutely awesome and I’m not at all sure we’re geared up for it. This is worse than rebuilding a country from scratch.We start from a really backward position. In time, it can be sorted. But time counts against us… My sense is: we’re going to get there but not quickly enough. And if it falls apart, everything falls apart in the region.” How oddly prophetic that note was.

Interestingly, Chilcot rejected the view that the UK would lose diplomatic influence if it had refused to join the war and support the US. Sir John found that ‘Blair was right to weigh the possible consequences for the wider alliance with the US very carefully’, but went on to say that ‘if the UK had refused to join the US in the war it would not have led to a fundamental or lasting change in the UK’s relationship with the US.’

I was in work on the 6th July, and whilst in the office I followed the flurry of news around the publication of the report, especially as Tony Blair himself took to the stage for a two hour-long press conference after Sir John’s statement. This conference served as the former Prime Minister’s platform to offer a defence of his actions. He knew he needed to: his role in the decision to invade was rather roundly damned by the report’s findings.

It was a strange, surreal, and memorable press conference.

For two hours, Mr Blair endured question after question, grilled on the finer points of detail raised by Sir John. Mr Blair submitted the decision to removal Saddam Hussein had been the “hardest, most momentous, most agonising” decision of his time as Prime Minister. Mr Blair took note of Sir John’s criticisms and said he took full responsibility for the failure of post-transitional planning. He however stated firmly that he would take the same decision to proceed with military intervention again, despite Sir John arguing the UK intervention went badly wrong and ‘with consequences to this day’.

It was a press conference that could have taken placed in a theatre. Mr Blair’s voice cracked, and he appeared to fight away tears as he said, “for all of this I express more sorrow, regret, and apology than you may ever know or believe”. Yet Mr Blair on the same stage argued he could not apologise for the decision to invade – “I cannot do that” – and argued he did not make the wrong decision, and he did not mislead the country.

Arguably, that is the problem: what can we believe, truly? With evidence of flawed intelligence that was readily followed, of evidence suggesting the decision to go to war was made before the UN inspectors had finished their work, with evidence of no thorough planning for the aftermath – how can we believe, other than in the very human mistake of believing in overestimated power and leadership credentials?

Ultimately, the overall objective of the long-awaited, controversial report was to identify what lessons should be learnt from this debacle of an experience. Such lessons as identified by the report include:

  • Mr Blair overestimated his own ability to influence US decisions and policy on Iraq. (The Americans would do as they saw fit, with their own intelligence to guide them).
  • The UK-US relationship is in fact strong enough to endure frank and honest disagreement. (Personal grumbles of politicians cannot, and should not, dictate the charted course for their respective nations).
  • Understand the importance of collective ministerial discussion which encourages frank and informed debate and challenge. (A leader should listen to challenges, and understand why his plan is being so challenged).
  • There is a real need to assess risks, weigh options and set and achievable and realistic strategy before any intervention, and to pursue this on a continuous basis.
  • The recognition of the vital role of ministerial leadership and co-ordination of government activity.
  • The pressing need to ensure that civilian and military arms of government are properly equipped.

Of course, the most important lesson to take away from the Chilcot report is that  ‘all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour.’ Whether this will be understood and remembered in the future is another story. We can but hope the lessons of Iraq resonate with future politicians and governments. Such a painful mess cannot be allowed to be repeated.

Mr Blair said during his press conference that he was “a decision maker, not a report writer” when asked about the criticism of his conduct within the report. Hopefully future Prime Ministers can prove adept at both decision-making and report reading.

Chilcot, Iraq, and Charles Kennedy.

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.

But he was right all along.

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.

Waiting for Chilcot – the Final Act.

ESTRAGON
Let’s go.

VLADIMIR
We can’t.

ESTRAGON
Why not?

VLADIMIR
We’re waiting for Godot.

Waiting for Godot, Act 1

Today is a momentous day in British politics, and indeed British history. Today marks the long-awaited date of publication for the Chilcot report, the conclusion of the Inquiry of the same name into the Iraq War. If it seems an age since the Inquiry was first established, that is understandable. After all, it has been seven years since the Inquiry was first commissioned by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009. The public hearings may have concluded in 2011, but it has taken more than five years for the final report to appear. It was no secret that there was a battle within Whitehall regarding the declassification of secret papers, whilst there was also a lengthy legal process in consulting those criticised in the report.

But I feel we should consider that if seven years has felt a long time to us, mere members of the public sphere, imagine how long the wait must feel for the families and friends of the 179 British servicemen and women who died between 2003 and 2009. Indeed, imagine how long the investigation to determine the grounds for UK intervention must feel to those Iraqi families who have lost loved ones as a result of the war. No one knows how many civilians died during the war, as figures about Iraqi deaths vary from 90,000 to more than 600,000.

This controversial report of the Chilcot Inquiry is not the first inquiry into the Iraq war, believe it or not. There have already been four separate inquiries (as someone from Northern Ireland, I find that Iraq must be catching up with The Troubles in terms of inquiries) into different aspects of the conflict. Firstly in 2003 there was the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the joint Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee and their joint investigation into the intelligence used to justify the decision to go to war. Secondly, there was the Hutton Inquiry in January 2004 which examined the circumstances surrounding the death of scientist Dr David Kelly. Thirdly, there was the Butler Inquiry which in July 2004 sought to examine once again the intelligence used to justify the war.

It is expected that Tony Blair shall be largely acquitted of blame for the Iraq War in the Chilcot report. This conclusion will derive from the report’s main focus, i.e. what commitments Mr Blair gave to President 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.

Also expected within the report is the criticism of misjudgements that contributed to the chaos which erupted in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. I doubt these criticisms in the report will satisfy those campaigners who have for years demanded that Mr Blair be tried as an alleged war criminal. For example, the website of the Stop the War Coalition, an organisation of mainly left-wing anti-war activists, includes an article by the Conservative commentator Peter Oborne which argues “if Chilcot fails to nail Blair’s lies, it’s final proof our democracy is broken”. (Ouch.)

The war might have ended Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, but its aftermath unleashed sectarian violence that has killed many since. It should be noted such devastation and violence sadly continues to this day: last Sunday saw a horrific suicide car bomb attack in a Baghdad shopping district, which has killed at least 215 people. To understand the scope of the Inquiry and the context of same, I would recommend reading this timeline of the Iraq War, and this timeline of the workings of the Chilcot Inquiry.

So, I have mentioned the words ‘Chilcot report’, but what does the report actually seek to determine? Well, Sir John Chilcot’s report aims 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. The Inquiry’s remit was to examine the UK’s decision to intervene in Iraq, how the British army’s offensive was conducted, and to determine where there lessons to be learnt from same. To undertake this, the Inquiry sought a wide timeframe: from the commencement of war in 2003, to when combat troops were remove from Iraq at the end of July 2009.

The report stands at a record 2.6 million words over some 13 volumes and includes an executive summary. It should be noted the Inquiry panel scrutinised and drew on more than 150,000 government documents, and called more than 150 witnesses to public and private oral hearings. The report will see the publication of hundreds of previously classified documents, including sections of notes exchanged from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-President George W Bush.

Sir John Chilcot intriguingly confirmed in a TV interview that some individuals will be subject to criticism in the report, saying:

“The essence of this Inquiry is that the committee is impartial we’re independent of government, none of us are politicians, and we haven’t set out to criticise individuals or institutions…

“However, I made very clear at the start of the inquiry that if we came across decisions or behaviour which deserved criticism then we wouldn’t shy away from making it. And indeed, there have been more than a few instance where we are bound to do that.

But we shall do it on a base of a rigorous analysis of the evidence that supports that finding. We are not a court- not a judge or jury at work – but we’ve tried to apply the highest possible standards of rigorous analysis to the evidence where we make a criticism.”

Sir John Chilcot told BBC News he expected that it would no longer be considered possible to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and such a gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgment being applied.”

I wrote previously of the five-year wait between the final public hearing and today’s publication. This has led to protests in Parliament that it was taking too long. Sir John however claimed the delay was unavoidable, citing the sheer scale of the Inquiry and amount of evidence, both oral and written, which must be examined:

“There is no doubt that it’s taken a lot longer than the government which set us up expected, or indeed what we expected at the start, but to get to the bottom of what happened over a nine-year period with all the legal, military, diplomatic, and intelligence aspects of its has proved very great…

That’s a huge task and takes a great deal of time if you’re going to get to the bottom of all of that.”

This report will not just affect how the past is viewed. It will also have consequences for contemporary politics – already in a jumbled mess following the resignation of the Prime Minister in the aftermath of the Leave victory, a subsequent Conservative Party leadership contest, and the coup-which-wasn’t-a-coup-which-still-threatens-Jeremy-Corbyn within the Labour Party.

It is expected that David Cameron will make a statement upon the publication of the report, whereupon he will respond for the Conservative government in the Commons debate today. Mr Cameron is due to stand down as Prime Minister in September, thus in relation to the implementations of the report’s recommendations, this will be a task for his successor.

The Conservatives aside, the report will be significant for Labour, the party of government under Mr Blair. It could cause further strife amid the party after the past two weeks of division. This is because the Labour party has had to live with the decision to intervene in Iraq in recent years. This decision still resides in arguments over the party’s foreign policy and how it perceives military intervention.

The decision to go to war still runs through party members: leader Jeremy Corbyn was an ardent opponent of the war, whilst those currently threatening a leadership contest against him, such as Angela Eagle voted in favour. Mr Corbyn is expected to fulfil a promise he made during his leadership campaign to formally apologise on behalf of the Labour party for the conflict. There has also been speculation as to whether Mr Corbyn will openly criticise Mr Blair and accuse him of war crimes. The latter would surely trigger another row within the Labour party.

As for myself – I can remember the Twin Tower attacks, watching the horrific coverage on the television as a seven year old after primary school had concluded for the day. I can recall how parents talked about a terrible event in hushed, shocked tones in the playground. My parents had bought ice cream as a treat for the family as we headed home from school, and I can remember watching a loop of smoke and collapsing buildings as I dug my spoon in the tub. I might not have understood all that had occurred, but I knew something awful had happened in New York that day. The moments of silence in primary school and in church reiterated this.

I can remember the first strikes in Iraq. I was getting ready for school in the morning, and was pulling on my uniform as Sky News’ rolling coverage showed a dark sky being it up as one missile after another was dropped. I remember staring at the television screen, thinking how strange it felt to see villages being destroyed as I was heading off to a day of school. I knew this was a result of a joint objective by then President Bush of the USA and then Prime Minister Tony Blair – as a young child, I had found President Bush ‘funny’ and thought Prime Minister Blair had a lovely voice to listen to. I knew also that many people were deeply unhappy at the decision to invade a country. I can recall watching angry protesters march through London on the news, for example. I heard their chants, their cries of “war criminal” which I did not fully understand, but thought that if so many people were this angry, perhaps there was a reason for it. Yet I suppose I thought that these leaders, Mr Blair and President Bush, were powerful men. Powerful men who had reached the decision to do so carefully and after much thought and deliberation with lots of evidence at hand. I thought they knew what they were doing; that it was a tough decision but one for the best. I realise now that this was probably what they thought then, too.

But there are times when the best of intentions are simply not good enough to rely upon in light of a decision to take countries to war. Not when such a loss of life has been left behind in the decision’s wake. I hope today marks a beginning of accountability and reconciliation, bringing what little peace it can to families who have lost loved ones. I hope too that today reminds us all of the futility of war, of the devastation and grief it brings. How sadly poignant that the Chilcot report shall be published so shortly after the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.