Interview

Must not allow the drumbeat of war against Iran to become an inevitability: David Miliband

David Miliband: ‘If we had known then that there were no WMD, there would have been no war.’ Photo: N. Sridharan  

David Miliband , man of ideas who contributed significantly to policy-making and strategising in the Blair-Brown era of New Labour, U.K. Foreign Secretary between 2007 and 2010, and an influential figure who has chosen to stay out of the Shadow Cabinet after narrowly losing the contest for the Labour Party leadership to his younger brother, Ed Miliband, was in Chennai recently to deliver a well-attended lecture on “The emerging new world order: economics and politics” at the invitation of Vijay and Preetha Reddy. The 46-year-old statesman visited the offices of The Hindu where he was interviewed, on a range of political and economic issues, by an editorial team comprising N. Ram, Arvind Sivaramakrishnan, Nirupama Subramanian, and Raghuvir Srinivasan. The interview is being published in two parts. Part I:

For a leading politician who made a very significant contribution, in terms of ideas and policy, to the rise of New Labour, how does it feel to be where you are?

I think for everyone in the Labour Party, it feels very frustrating at the moment. Because opposition is a permanent lesson in frustration; you can talk but you can't do anything. Britain now has quite a radical government. Some people thought that a coalition government would be centrist. In fact, this is a pretty hard-Right government in economic terms. The austerity plan that is being imposed across Europe is being replicated in the U.K. And so many of the most cherished aspects of British life are being systematically challenged by the government. So I see in my own constituency the reduction of poverty being reversed, the reduction of unemployment being reversed — and that's pretty painful. So the whole Labour Party is frustrated by [being in the] opposition. Equally you can't be in government forever! We had thirteen years.

There's a debate in the Labour Party about how we should understand our record in government, what we should be proud of and what we should apologise for. But I think it's very important to be proud of your achievements and humble about your mistakes — but always understanding that politics about future. So we have a responsibility to understand the fundamental ways in which the world is changing and Britain's place in the world is changing. And make sure we are able to challenge the Conservatives because in the end it's them who we have to challenge. It's a coalition government but it's the Conservatives who're the real enemy. We have to challenge them in an ideological and intellectual and political way.

What are the solid achievements of the [Tony] Blair prime ministership and the [Gordon] Brown prime ministership, in totality?

I think Britain was richer, fairer, and more confident at the end of thirteen years than at the beginning. And the fact that there were record levels of employment, notwithstanding the crash. That we were the first government since the [Second World] War to leave crime lower than when we came into office. That we were the first Labour government in a hundred years to finally introduce a minimum wage, which Britain never had. A government that transformed the National Health Service, [about] which, in the late-1990s, people were debating — will the National Health Service survive in the 21st century? A tax-funded, free-at-the-point-of-use health service, and we left office with a satisfaction rating of 90 per cent among patients. Not to mention the small matter of peace in Northern Ireland. I think you can forget these, you can even take these things for granted!

Obviously on overseas matters, I think there were some things that are consensually of credit. Notably in respect of overseas development where we reversed the factual position of reducing overseas aid spending. Most people would say that the Kosovo adventure was a successful one. And then you have very divisive conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I think the Blair premiership gave Britain a sense of its place in the world which was modern and forward-looking — not harking back to Empire as the Conservatives sometimes did or harking back to isolationalism, which sometimes has been the problem on the left.

And the mistakes? Iraq?

Well, Iraq was above all a tragedy for the loss of life, the loss of trust that came from the WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction], the absence of WMD. And obviously if we had known in 2003 that there were no WMD, there would have been no war.

A lot of people knew that there were no WMD.

Well, no — I don't accept that. I'd like to see anyone saying that. Because even those intelligence services in countries which opposed the war, like the Russians, were firmly of the view that there were WMD. And people like Hans Blix, who subsequently has spoken against the war, produced three weeks before the war a 172-page document outlining the unaccounted-for contents of WMD. So it's not the case that there was a debate at the time about [President] Saddam [Hussein].

The debate was whether it was the right thing to do. Obviously, if we had known then that there were no WMD, there would have been no war.

There is a view among commentators, Andrew Rawnsley, among others, that Prime Minister Blair was pressured, to put it mildly — virtually forced — into aligning the U.K. with the U.S. position, notwithstanding the voices of dissent. And it was a U.S. decision that was pushed down.

It was obviously a U.S. decision and the tragedy is that all the focus was about the war, not about the peace. Ali Allawi wrote this book, Winning the War, Losing the Peace, about Iraq. I think that's a pretty good description of what's happened.

And Iran, how do you see it going?

Well, I've written in the Financial Times [“Risks of sleepwalking into a war with Iran,” David Miliband and Nader Mousavizadeh, December 1, 2012] that I'm very concerned about the drumbeat of war. I think that's very foolish. I support a twin track of engagement and pressure. But the engagement track needs to be revived. That's very difficult when there is truculent noise coming from Iran, which there is. But there is a massive set of divisions within the Iranian regime; they're competing against each in the way they play off each other against the international community. We've got to be smart about that. We've got to understand that while some of what is said is for foreign consumption, a lot of what is said by the different factions in Iran is for domestic consumption. I wrote my piece in the FT because I think it's very, very important that we don't allow the drumbeat of war to become a sort of inevitability.

Yes, you called it sleepwalking, in the FT piece. But this has got wider ramifications in the region. The Iraqi coalition government has just about collapsed, and it's left a Shia-led government of dubious status, to say the least, in place without significant opposition. What would the former invading powers say, or how would they see the prospect of increasingly explicit Iranian involvement in Iraq?

Well I think everyone, whatever position you took ten years ago, would say that the territorial integrity of Iraq needs to be respected, the independence of Iraq needs to be respected, the devolution within Iraq needs to be respected, the federalism needs to be developed. I think that's a very important point. I say very clearly, the list of negatives outweighs the list of positives since 2003, but the situation of the Kurdish regional government, the position of the Kurds in northern Iraq, is on the positive side in the last nine years. I think that one would enjoin the Iraqi leadership to develop its federal structure, and one would also enjoin the other powers to leave Iraq alone, to sort out its own problems.

Now you've got tumult in the Middle East, much of it in the name of universal values of human rights, of human dignity, and democracy, and personal freedom, and that's one of the remarkable things about the modern world, how ideas transition right through the barriers of the most repressive regime, and that is being played out in a very bloody way in Iraq. There was this terrible bombing yesterday [on January 6], and the spectre of Sunni-Shia conflict is horrific, really — but what you'd say to Iran is to leave Iraq alone.

You've been Foreign Secretary, that was in Gordon Brown's Cabinet, and you've recently criticised Prime Minister David Cameron for a ‘phantom veto' over the attempts to save the eurozone, in effect for walking away from significant engagement with the rest of the EU over this very significant and perhaps decisive matter — but what kind of issue does this make the EU within British politics?

Britain is unusual, has been unusual for the last 20, 15 years, for having a debate that is for or against Europe, whereas in the other European countries that debate hasn't existed. Now Euroscepticism is growing a bit, there's Le Pen in France, who is running on a pretty sceptical platform. But Britain still has, I would say, an illusion, or some parts of the British political spectrum have an illusion, that there's a future for Britain as the sort of Switzerland of Europe, or as an imitation Switzerland. Now I think that's really foolish.

But one has to have the humility, if one's on the pro-European side, to recognise that we haven't shifted public opinion in a pro-European direction; if anything, the other is happening. Now there are a number of reasons for that. One, the European Union has been consumed with a not particularly edifying constitutional renewal exercise, an institutional renewal exercise. Secondly, you can't really divorce the European Union question from the euro question; the travails of the euro have given the European Union a bad name, and threaten the European Union. But in terms of British politics, I think there's a short-term bounce for David Cameron in two senses. One, he's tried to claim that he's standing up for Britain, and secondly, the pact is as yet undefined; there is no treaty for us to sign, and that's why it was a phantom veto. He didn't actually stop the 26 other countries, 17 in the euro, and nine outside, fashioning a compact. What he said was he wasn't willing for that to happen with British consent, even though it didn't actually affect us; none of the rules would have affected the U.K.

So I think it will come to be seen as something for which Britain is in danger of paying quite a high price. The other thing to say is it's bad for Europe for Britain to be on the sidelines, not just bad for Britain.

(To be concluded.)

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