Iraq and British Political Culture: 5 Years On
'Often it is difficult to know where the self-deception ends and the deliberate mendacity begins.' (P. Cockburn)
The Independent has two Iraq articles worth noting:
Patrick Cockburn: This is the war that started with lies, and continues with lie after lie after lie
Adrian Hamilton: Why did so many people support the war in Iraq?
There are plenty of issues relating to deceit and the Iraq war but for now I want to focus on the role of British political culture. I was never remotely convinced that New Labour cabinet (some of whom of course were hostile opponents of the Falkland's war - when in opposition, naturally) would do anything other than support a war and say whatever needed to be said but then there were backbenchers and with Robin Cook resigning, who knows? The problem for me that this was a time when there were plenty of details being put forward about double standards (even Robin Cook, still a relatively loyal backbencher after he resigned, admitted this in his resignation speech) in dealings in international politics. The issue of support for the Stalinist and human boiling Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov was raised in the national newspapers, by the then British Ambassador Craig Murray, and by dissenting politicians. Consequently, these details were known yet British politicians (e.g. John Reid) could still say that the West no longer supports unpleasant regimes as if that were all a thing of the Cold War. Yet why was the this not an overwhelming issue in party political discussion of Iraq? Why were even opponents of the Iraq war so accepting of Blair's motives?
Adrian Hamilton suggests something relevant:
There is a generational point, too, to explain the contrasting tenor of the Falkland and Iraq debates. New Labour and the post-1997 intake was filled largely with what might be called the "jammy generation", a group that on the whole had had life very easy. Not a few had been parachuted into their seats, most had come from a background in politics, media, advertising and research with a political career in mind. They had views on economics and society, but no particular sense of what was right and wrong in the big judgements. Effectiveness is what mattered and it is still in terms of effectiveness that the Iraq war is almost exclusively discussed today. The people on the demonstrations thought it was a matter of principle and morality. The people inside the Commons, with a few honourable exceptions, did not. Even the influx of women MPs, which some had hoped might alter the framework of debate, didn't and it wasn't only because, being new to the game, they were over-anxious to play by the male rules. The strongest voices against the war among women came from the older generation of Mo Mowlam and Clare Short, not Blair's babes.This is general but I think there is something in it. In addition to this there is something related and which may support this but something I don't fully understand: how various politicians were coming up with arguments that were rhetorically deceitful. Were they lying? I just don't know in some cases, perhaps they really believed the deceitful views they were peddlinng? When I was at a debate sometime after the beginning of the war with New Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, one of THE cheerleaders of the Iraq War. Throughout he spoke of his experience working with the foreign office yet when confronted with evidence e.g. Uzbekistan he claimed not to know and would check it out 'later' and look at Amnesty's site etc. I was and remain deeply suspicious that this was anything other than devious. I went to another debate just before the war when a Conservative MP ruled out all sorts of options in favour of the war. He said the UK had acted unethically in international politics, the WMD issue was not really conclusive, and so on. His reason for war was simple: he had seen intelligence reports that linked Iraq with the 2002 Bali bombings. Now why wasn't this never used when WMD was discredited? Was he lying? I'm reluctant to say he was telling the truth.
Here there is something problematic and interesting. The majority of the British public had far better judgment, it would seem, than the majority of MPs who had even better access to relevant material than most. What happened to MPs? Well there are the comments made above. Obviously, there are also the constraints of power and the Iraq war seems a shocking example of an utter failure of, let's say, collective morality at the highest level. There is the very related issue of the media largely supporting, including some from the left (most spectacularly the Observer, who went and lost readers because of their support for the govt!). Clearly there was a difference of interests between the powerful and the rest. But this seems to me, and I may be wrong, that we are now witnessing an era when people outside are, for all the money spent selling the Iraq war, not buying it. What the result of all this will be, who knows, but it is certainly an interesting development and one small, albeit bitter, victory for all those highlighting the problems with foreign policy for the past few decades and an indication of basic human decency.
I'll have more to say on how broader issues cultural embeddedness relating to issues surrouding the Iraq war (and other big issues the past 40 years) in the next few months and how many issues are just repeated uncritically. But that can wait for now...