It was a bright day in March, and the clocks were striking 13. Outside 10 Downing Street, Rishi Sunak stepped forward, bowed his head, and led his country in a minute’s silence. Above him, fluttering in the gentle breeze, was the Iraqi flag.
“Today marks 20 years since the beginning of an invasion and occupation that has been estimated to have cost more than one million Iraqis lives, along with those of 179 British servicemen and women,” he told a TV camera afterwards. “Today, we remember how the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, warned that the war was not in accordance with the UN Charter and was illegal. Last month, we observed a minute’s silence for those killed in another illegal war, started by Russia in Ukraine. If there is a lesson for all of us to learn, it is that the UN Charter is there for a reason.”
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Less than a mile away, at the Houses of Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, also observed the minute’s silence. “I have previously stated that the Iraq war was not lawful because there was no UN resolution expressly authorising it,” he said in a statement afterwards. “The decision to commit British forces was taken by a former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair. My Labour Party condemns all breaches of international law — both past and present.”
And then I woke up… to the dulcet tones of Tony Blair, sufficiently emboldened by yet another soft-soap BBC interview to pronounce, without a hint of irony, on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. When gently challenged over his own invasion of Iraq, he loftily declared that “each case must be judged on its own merits”. Blair, of course, has form with Putin, visiting the St Petersburg opera with him in 2000 as Chechnya was being pulverised. He later said that it is “important we support Russia in her action against terrorism”.
Twenty years ago, as an elected member of the Labour Party’s ruling National Executive Committee, I had a ring-side seat at the launch of the Iraq War. From the outset, I didn’t believe Blair’s claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. According to Robin Lustig, then a presenter on Radio 4’s The World Tonight, my clash with former US Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, was the first time anyone had publicly challenged the WMD claim. (So furious was Eagleburger, he started calling me “Buster”.)
From early 2002, it was already clear that America had a political imperative for Iraqi regime change. Tony Blair, far from dissuading President Bush, was actually helping him build an international “coalition of the willing”. On January 28, I sat next to the veteran Labour Left-winger Dennis Skinner at a meeting of Labour’s NEC as he jabbed his finger at Blair and said: “This will be the biggest mistake you will ever make!”
Unbeknown to Blair, I was working closely with Jan Kavan, a former President of the UN General Assembly and Czech Foreign Minister, and Robin Cook, who would later resign from the Cabinet in protest at Britain’s support for the Iraq war. Together we drafted a series of resolutions to be tabled at meetings of the NEC, in the hope that this might encourage a wider revolt within the Parliamentary Labour Party. On three occasions, with only the support of three other members of the NEC, we challenged Blair directly, submitting resolutions demanding that the Labour Government ascertain from the UN Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly the legality of any attack. The 30-strong committee voted us down twice and on a third occasion, as the countdown to war intensified, ruled a resolution “out of order”, which meant that it could not be voted on. This time, I walked out of the NEC meeting in protest. In another meeting, we were briefly handed a copy of the “dodgy dossier”, with its confected claim that WMDs could be launched against British military bases in Cyprus within 45 minutes. Then we had to hand it back.
When we took our opposition for a fourth time to the Labour Party Conference, despite party chairman Charles Clarke’s attempts to persuade us to withdraw our amendment, we were subsequently rounded on by tame, hand-picked speakers in the debate. I was accused of being an “appeaser” and “guilty of making orphans of the sons and daughters of servicemen in Cyprus”. Given that I was the son of a serviceman based in Cyprus who had been evacuated because there was a very real threat of a Turkish invasion at the time, it all seemed pretty hysterical.
On February 15, 2003, millions of people in more than 600 cities worldwide took to the streets to protest the impending invasion. In London, with more than a million people filling the streets and Hyde Park, I joined speakers including Reverend Jesse Jackson, Charles Kennedy, and Jeremy Corbyn. I had brought the nonagenarian Michael Foot from his home in Hampstead to give possibly one of his last great flights of oratory. In Europe, crowds were even larger. Anti-war organisers reported that the worldwide demonstrations collectively formed the largest peace protest since the Vietnam War.
What have we learned from the Iraq invasion? Precious little it would seem. Today, Gordon Brown, whom I had attempted to win over before the invasion, and who I knew in his heart didn’t really want to go along with it, is calling for a Nuremberg-style special court to try Putin for war crimes; the same was promised for Saddam Hussein and look how how that turned out. Meanwhile, arms control treaties have been ripped up and the UN Secretary-General is invisible enough for most not even to know his name.
In Britain, it is now very difficult to find anyone who was ever in favour of the invasion and dismemberment of Iraq. Yet Tony Blair has never apologised or been held to account; instead, he has become revoltingly rich, partly by advising the kind of regimes he once railed against. Meanwhile, his chief propagandist, Alastair Campbell, is treated reverentially by the media, holding forth with no hint of self-awareness on such vexed issues as “standards in public life”. However, perhaps Peter Mandelson is thriving the most: he is now back in control of a Labour Party that Starmer claims as his own. This is the legacy of Iraq for New Labour: the lies might seem a distant memory, but the liars are most certainly not.
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