The Iraq war, as the public debate in the UK over Blair's recent testimony showed, does not have the people's backing…
Disapproval of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been a continuing feature of the British political scene. The appearance of Tony Blair, Prime Minister at the time the decision was taken, before the Chilcot inquiry into the war, has certainly not damped it down. To the contrary, it has reawakened the concerns, and the anger, about it, and reawakened also the criticism of Mr. Blair.
He was questioned by the Chilcot committee for six hours, and demonstrated yet again his ability as a consummate political performer. The key thing that emerged from his evidence was that he had no regrets. “Frankly, I would do it all again” was his message — and, in what to some seemed to be a bloodcurdling assertion, he suggested that world leaders might have to take similar action to disarm Iran.
Among other things that have emerged from the inquiry are that many members of the Cabinet were sidelined when the possibility of the attack on Iraq was being discussed, and that there was virtually no planning of what to do after the attack.
Plenty of debate
Commentators, and members of the public, have inevitably had the Chilcot inquiry high on the agenda in recent days. It was certainly the main topic last week in a University of the Third Age discussion group of which I am the co-ordinator. Members of the group vary in our political stance, but in our discussion two things quickly became clear. The first was that we did not think that in his evidence Mr. Blair was lying. What came across, to the contrary, was a passionate belief that what he had done and said was right. The second thing, however, was that we all felt that his judgment, and that of former President Bush, were deeply flawed.
I mention this not because the members of our discussion group are great experts, but because on this matter we seem to be a good representative sample of the public. The points and views we expressed have been echoed in every conversation that I have taken part in.
There was deep concern in 2003 about the decision to invade Iraq, and events since then have, if anything, increased the concern. The Iraq war was not a war to which the British public have felt committed.
There has been much controversy over the legality of the invasion — and that has been one of the main themes emerging from the Chilcot inquiry. Equally, there has been much controversy over its morality, and also over its effectiveness in bringing about peace and greater stability in the region.
Few people have argued that Saddam Hussein was a good man, but many who agree that he was not are not convinced that his removal, in the way that it was achieved, was justifiable.
In April 2003, soon after the Iraq invasion, I wrote in my “Cambridge Letter” that it raised for me several questions. One was whether it was right for the United States to ignore the United Nations. The second was whether it was sensible for the UK to support that decision. My answer to both questions was no. It still is, and in taking that view I am certainly not a lone voice. Mr. Blair's evidence to Chilcot made clear how determined he was to stand alongside the then US President, whatever the position of the UN. Another question that I posed in the 2003 article was whether the action was likely to bring greater stability to West Asia. Again, my answer was that it was not, and looking at the situation in the region now, I see no reason to change it.
I also questioned whether British international interests and reputation would be damaged by the decision to invade. My feeling was, and remains, that they would.
The Chilcot inquiry, and the public interest in it, has demonstrated very clearly not only that the international implications of the Iraq war remain crucial and controversial, but also that it is still a major factor in the domestic political scene. To put it bluntly, people are reluctant to trust the judgment of our political leaders.
As the reverberations of the scandal over the expenses of Members of Parliament that broke last year continue, trust in politicians generally, not just political leaders, is lower than it has been for decades. With a general election certain to take place by the middle of the year, it will be interesting (and possibly depressing) to see what effect all this has on the average voter.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.