It attests to the eccentricity and archaic nature of British democracy that it has taken all of 13 years to finally receive an independent report from John Chilcot on why Britain was dragged into supporting the George W Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003. Viewed from the perspective of today it is not unfair to conclude that the war on Iraq was “another time, another place”. A similar phenomenon registered in Ireland with both the Mahon inquiry into planning corruption and the Moriarity Tribunal into Mr Haughey’s money-taking.
Back in 2003 I was a backbench government member of the Dáil, making speeches, and writing sometimes controversial articles for the Evening Herald that were, in some cases, critical of the government I was mandated to support. As to the War in Iraq I was strident in my support of the US position but justified it on the basis of the record of Saddam Husssein rather than any spurious resort to the idea that he held or was ready to deploy chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. In short I believed him to be a nasty dictator, quite capable of twinning up with terrorist networks like those who had carried out the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
During my 14 years in the Dáil, the only occasion on which Bertie Ahern rang each of his deputies in turn, was before the Dáil vote on the use of Shannon Airport by the US Army to transport troops and military materiel to Iraq. Keeping Shannon open to the Americans was a vital national interest in the context of US support for our peace process, Foreign Direct Investment from the states and the historic connection between the two countries. Bertie Ahern was taking no chances with the relationship. It was hardly necessary that he ring me given my very public support for the US. Many of us were hugely spooked by the huge demonstration that occurred in Shannon and the effect it had on some of our US investor friends. Quite a few leading US business people rang me as minister to complain of the protest, as if we in the government were somehow responsible for the large turnout when in fact we were the subject of the ire of those demonstrating precisely because we insisted on facilitating the US troops there. When America goes to war everyone, even sane-minded businessmen, closes ranks.
Meanwhile Tony Blair was performing all sorts of gymnastics in his efforts to ensure that the UK would be quids in with its long-term partners on their latest military adventure. Chilcot’s report reinforces what we already suspected: that private notes written by Tony Blair to George Bush, well before the military intervention required justification, had pledged the UK to join the war effort no matter what the circumstances.
Tony Blair was prepared to gamble everything, including his own long-term credibility, on supporting the US because he clearly felt that the vital or ‘special’ relationship between the US and the UK superseded all other considerations. Depending on your view of Blair and the war itself this was either a very brave or foolish decision. It is certainly one that has dogged Blair in retirement but on the other hand underpinned huge fees and earnings in his political afterlife as international advisor and investment professional.
It is deeply ironic that the Chilcot report should come out precisely at a time when Britain is going through its own, distinct, existential crisis caused by the electorate’s decision to vote to exit the European Union.
The war in Iraq led to a puncturing of the ‘politics of spin’ so adroitly deployed by both Bill Clinton and then Tony Blair. Blair and Clinton were the world’s high priests of a political art that has enjoyed a prolonged life.
Its final destruction is evident in the recent referendum result in the UK and the sundering of David Cameron’s career as Prime Minister. Cameron continued the largely value-free politics of Blair and Clinton, reinforced by the gloss of the old Etonian, one who had worked directly as a professional in the public relations industry. Cameron, superficially, believed he could both spin the EU into major concessions on how it would reform itself and then win the referendum. He came back with meagre fare and the electorate believed it was being sold a pup. He was prepared to risk selling his country and his legacy for his party and, now this has been detected, there is every danger his party will be the greatest loser of all.
Under a new Conservative leader the UK is likely to get a Norway-style deal from Brussels, with a face-saving, but totemic, gesture made to accommodate it on the hot-temperature issue of immigration. Few in the EU will enjoy appeasing the UK but the importance of the City of London and the trading-investment relationships make it foolhardy to push it out altogether.
We are in the middle of the collapse of the period of politics when everything the electorate did or said was monitored by focus groups so the political elite could play it back for the electorate, to maximum political advantage at least in the short term. This was the era when Blair and figures such as Peter Mandelson, the Prince of Darkness, shaped a politics which, in effect, suppressed the truth to the point where every mistake, contradiction and error could be justified or apologised – parallel to the truth. They were in effect creatively re-working what had already happened in the private sector – advanced customer care meets mendacious marketing by way of polling research.
In many ways it was the triumph of ephemeral, commercial, values over substantial political, and public, service.
In the US, George Bush and his neo-conservative supporters and friends became the first major victims of the souring of the Iraq War and its aftermath. It is quite clear that the Neocons (Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld etc.) had in a real sense captured the President’s brain, a fact acknowledged publicly by George Bush Senior who claims they exerted far too much influence over his son. Colin Powell was also a victim of the conflict as it is clear he was ruthlessly exploited by his own administration to present, suspect intelligence to the UN Security Council as part of the US bid to get it on side for the war. In the UK, such was the headlong rush to support the Americans that intelligence that pointed away from evidence that Saddam had nuclear weapons was quietly dropped, suppressed and the intelligence dossier itself ‘sexed up’ by the spin merchants employed by the government.
If the war in Iraq represents the modern high point of the special relationship between the UK and the US, the decision to exit the European Union must signal a significant subversion of its utility to Americans. Sure, like all politicians, Obama has made the ritual announcement that the vote will not affect the special relationship between the two countries. In fact the US, back to the time of Clinton, has been incrementally re-defining its relationship with Europe so that Germany is becoming the “critically important” US friend in Europe. The change will now become more overt.
Another festering casualty of the war in Iraq has been the British Labour Party. So tainted was the legacy of Tony Blair, and his centrist Labour colleagues that, when given a free vote and an opportunity to escape this legacy the ordinary members of the party voted by a huge margin for a radical-left Trotskyite alternative in the right-on shape of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war and has tactically apologised for the party’s promotion of the Iraq war, even as Blairite MPs and others seek to displace him as leader.
The 2003 Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2008 are still working themselves out in terms of global politics. Brexit cuts across the evolving fallout.
Deference to the elite is gone forever. Populism has become the order of the day and not exclusively the preserve of fringe parties and the traditional left.
Right-wing movements are making the most headway, as they did in the 1930s, when the existing economic order was seen to fail. The winners include Trump in the US, Le Pen in France and UKIP in the UK. Others lurk, even in progressive Western Europe.
The British referendum featured an illogical debate about migrants which was allowed to triumph over basic national interest. The results have been unpleasant but have been registered all around the world by forces both vicious and ambitious. Ordinary migrants complain of being subject to increased abuse and attack. The fact that two of the leading campaigners for a British exit (Farage and Johnson) have now fled the stage exemplifies how obviously unappealing it will be to piece a unifying UK politics back together.
The EU system, despite its critics, is far to big to fall apart. It is also the case that those ruling over Europe are now fully battle-trained in the art of crisis management. The migration crisis, the euro crisis and the threats of default in Greece means there are experienced hands at the tiller in the European institutions. Things will not fall apart.
It is not clear whether particular countries from Europe to America to the Muslim world and the former Soviet Union will be so lucky.
In Ireland there are signs that the centre in Irish politics is about to reassert itself. Serial crises have led the public to the edge of the abyss. They have stared into this abyss and the uncertainty experienced may lead to a return to more traditional voting patterns.
Fianna Fáil’s advance in the opinion polls was simply explained by a senior Civil Servant l spoke to recently – “Fianna Fáil is in power but not in office: Fine Gael is in office but not in power”.
By Conor Lenihan