We now come to the main business, and I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Also, to accommodate the nationalist parties, I have decided that there will be an eight-minute limit on speeches in the Opposition day debate. That will apply after opening speeches, and until we come to the final two winding-up speeches.
I beg to move,
That this House believes that there should be a select committee of seven honourable Members, being members of Her Majesty’s Privy Council, to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq and all matters relevant thereto, in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and in its aftermath.
It is an honour to move this motion on behalf of my hon. Friends and of right hon. and hon. Members on all sides of the House of Commons. It is the culmination of a long campaign, and it is a debate that is long overdue. The motion has cross-party support because the issue at its heart is far bigger than one of party politics. It is about accountability. It is about the monumental catastrophe of the Iraq war, which is the worst foreign policy disaster certainly since Suez, and possibly since Munich. It is about the morass in which, regrettably, we still find ourselves. It is also about a breakdown in our system of government—a fault line in our constitution that only we, as Parliament, can fix. Fix it we must, if there are not to be further mistakes and other Iraqs under other Prime Ministers, in which case we shall only have ourselves to blame.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall not. I intend to be as generous as I can, but I wish to develop my arguments. We need to hear as many voices as possible in this debate, and there is a time limit on speeches, but I shall give way to interventions.
The debate on 18 March 2003 was one of the most momentous—some would say calamitous—debates in the House of Commons in modern times. The Prime Minister gave one of the great performances of his life; it was full of certainty and undaunted by doubt. But unfortunately, we now know that much of what he told us that night was false. It is no wonder that democratic politics has haemorrhaged public confidence. Only we in this Parliament can stem that flow; we can rebuild some of that trust by holding a proper inquiry into what went on.
What could an inquiry usefully do? There will inevitably be a range of views within the House, which is why we need a sufficiently broad remit. But three central questions need to be answered. How could the Government take us to war on claims that turned out to be false? When precisely was the decision to have this war made? Why has the planning for, and conduct of, the occupation proved to be so disastrous? Maybe the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) can give us some answers?
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, like many other Members, I have constituents who are now on their third deployment to Iraq, and, yes, they want us to debate this issue. Some would argue—like the hon. Gentleman, no doubt—that we should not even have this debate while troops remain on the ground in Iraq. If we follow the logic of the Government’s argument, the graver the mistake—and, therefore, the greater the danger to which our troops are exposed—the less the Government should be required to defend their record.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to remind the House that the argument that we should not debate these matters when troops are operational is precisely the argument that was made in the Norway debate, and which, happily, was rejected by people like my father, who voted against Chamberlain and brought in Churchill?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes the point very well. We need to turn the logic of the Government on its head. We need to do so precisely for the sake of our troops. We have been led into this quagmire by way of a false rationale and without a clear strategy, and we need to debate the Government’s appalling record. The troops deserve nothing less.
I wish to make some progress, if I may.
Almost on a weekly basis, we see senior military figure after senior military figure making yet another devastating assessment of the Government’s policy-making capacity. Lord Guthrie said that the policies are cuckoo. Lord Inge said that there was a lack of clear strategy at the Ministry of Defence. Most damning of all was the verdict of the current head of the Army, who said that
“history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial…war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning.”
Unfortunately, we have not seen that kind of honesty from any Government Minister to date. However, it is fair to say that the Foreign Secretary came perilously close when she said that history may judge the Iraq war to have been a disaster. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of waiting for history’s verdict; we need some answers and action now.
A Government who were prepared to parade before our eyes dossier after dodgy dossier of carefully edited intelligence will not now let us read any of the intelligence on what is happening on the ground. We have had no comprehensive statement to date of Government policy. In February last year, the Prime Minister promised the Liaison Committee that General Luck’s audit of coalition security strategy in Iraq would be published. For the record, I quote the Prime Minister:
“I have seen a draft that is still under discussion…When there is a finished article, it will be published.”
It never was.
Before the Government come back and say, “That was not our fault; the decision not to publish was made in Washington”—like so many other foreign policy decisions under this Government—I should point out to Treasury Ministers that they have not published a single word of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s assessment of the UK’s contribution to Iraqi security sector reform, which was completed 10 months ago. Of course we understand that parts of these reports have to be withheld for security reasons, but does the Foreign Secretary really believe that Parliament can do its duty in holding the Government to account if we get no information about their strategy?
There are two Iraqs: the Iraq of George Bush and the Prime Minister, where things are going to plan and getting better all the time; and the real Iraq of murder and mayhem, whose future is uncertain. The state of denial that characterises the Government’s policy now mirrors the state of delusion that characterised their policy in the run-up to war. The Prime Minister told us that night that it was “beyond doubt” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, even though the intelligence supplied was packed with doubt. He rattled off the huge quantities of WMD that he said had been left unaccounted for. Then he treated us to the punch-line:
“We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years—contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence—Saddam decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 762.]
Well, not as things turned out. In my more uncharitable moments, I am reminded of that famous Aneurin Bevan put-down during the Suez crisis. He said, “If Sir Anthony Eden is sincere in what he is saying—and he may be, he may be—then he is too stupid to be Prime Minister.”
To be fair—
The difficulty that I and many others have with the idea of a fresh inquiry is the partisan response to the previous four inquiries, whereby those who did not wish to accept what they heard simply rejected them as whitewashes. Does the hon. Gentleman accept the Butler inquiry, the Hutton inquiry and the all-party inquiries that we have already had?
I have heard this charge of political opportunism—[Interruption.] Well, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, facing as we are elections in Wales and Scotland, and given that we have one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers in history, political opportunism should mean that we would like to keep him there. In fact, we are doing what is right on a cross-party basis. On the inquiries to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the key issue is: how can the Butler and Hutton inquiries have been genuinely independent of the Executive when their remit and membership were decided by the Prime Minister himself? When you are in the dock, Mr. Speaker, you are usually not allowed to make decisions about the charge sheet, the judge and the jury.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that during the debate on the Hutton inquiry the Prime Minister actually confessed that he was unaware that there was evidence that the weapons of mass destruction for which he was looking were just defensive weapons—artillery shells or small-calibre weaponry? He was unaware of that at the time, as was Hutton, so we had a situation in which the Prime Minister was making representations to the House on evidence that he did not understand and had not read.
Absolutely. The responsibility of Ministers to tell the truth is not just in making sure that they say what they believe to be true, but testing it against the facts—actually getting into the detail—and there is plenty of evidence, as the hon. Gentleman says, that that did not happen in that case.
Is not this symptomatic of the way the Government address such important issues? They held several narrowly defined inquiries, rather as they did with foot and mouth, so that we never got the full picture, which is of course very much to their benefit.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that one of the things at stake this afternoon is the credibility of Parliament, and that the key responsibilities of Parliament are to scrutinise the Executive and hold it to account? If we fail to fulfil those responsibilities in relation to the Iraq war we shall further deepen the growing and worrying imbalance between Parliament and the Executive.
Some have accused the hon. Gentleman of opportunism in choosing to debate this subject on an Opposition day, but does he agree that the people of Wales are keen to get to the truth of the matter and that what we really need today is a sober and considered debate rather than point-scoring—primarily by a very defensive Government? Does he hope that rather than putting party political interests first we can make the interests of democracy and our mistakes in Iraq the primary consideration in our debate?
I agree, and I pay tribute to courageous Members on both sides of the House who have declared support against their party line. Some things are genuinely more important than party politics, and it is a good day for parliamentary democracy when we see beyond party loyalty and look at issues of principle.
I have been generous, but I must make some progress because we need to hear as many Back-Bench speeches as possible.
I want to return to some of the Prime Minister’s statements that were out of kilter with much of what he was being told. To give just one example, on 3 April 2002 he said: “We know that he”—Saddam Hussein—
“has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons.”
But in the previous month, the most that the Joint Intelligence Committee could come up with was:
“We believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of chemical warfare agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons.”
So “may” became “we know” and “small quantities” became “major stockpiles”; that was the pattern in the presentation of the case. Small changes in emphasis and the selective use of intelligence were repeatedly used to transform a threat from minor to dire and doubtful to definite, and caveats and caution to blood-chilling certainties.
Evidence that would have undermined the case was held back. The Prime Minister frequently cited the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, and his admission in 1995 that Iraq had indeed had an extensive WMD programme. However, what the Prime Minister omitted to tell the House was that Hussein Kamel also told UN inspectors in 1995 that he had personally ordered the destruction of all biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and that that had happened.
Most indefensible of all was justification of the war in Iraq on the basis that it would reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack, even though the intelligence services were saying the opposite at the time.
Does the hon. Gentleman also concede that any inquiry should look in some detail at the circumstances under which the UN weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, were withdrawn from Iraq in January 2003 and not allowed to go back, having confirmed that they believed with 99 per cent. certainty that there were no such weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
As we have learned over the past few days, with the leaked Cabinet minute and the leaked national intelligence estimate from the United States, the invasion of Iraq has increased the threat of terrorist attacks. It is a sad indictment of the Government that we learn more from leaked Cabinet papers than we ever do from a Cabinet Minister speaking at the Dispatch Box. I hope that this afternoon will be an honourable exception.
Another critical issue surrounded by confusion and controversy was the timing of the decision to go to war. We were told right up to the last few days before the debate in the House that no decision had been taken, but there is now compelling evidence that the Prime Minister had already made a decision to invade a year earlier. As early as March 2002, the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, was assuring Condoleezza Rice of the Prime Minister’s unbudgeable support for regime change. Days later, Sir Christopher Meyer sent a dispatch to Downing street detailing how he repeated that commitment to the US Deputy Defence Secretary. The ambassador added that the Prime Minister would need a cover for military action:
“I then went through the need to wrong-foot Saddam on the inspectors and the UN Security Council resolutions.”
Yet throughout that period, the Prime Minister was insisting that the war was not inevitable and no decision had been made.
Most incredibly of all, in the most recent leaked memorandum, we read that, in a meeting with the Prime Minister, the President even suggested provoking a war with Saddam by flying a US spy plane bearing UN colours over Iraq and enticing the Iraqis to take a shot at it. That is the clearest suggestion yet that the UN was being used not to prevent war, but as a pretext for beginning it.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether, in his preparation for this debate, he had discussions with any representatives of the Iraqi Government? Has he had representations from the Iraqi trade union movement? Is it not right that the voice of ordinary Iraqi people who support their democratic Government and the actions taken should be heard in this debate?
I would welcome the opportunity to go to Iraq. I have been trying to go, but I was told by the former Foreign Secretary that it was not safe for a Member of Parliament to go to Iraq. That is a sad indictment of the state of affairs on the ground. Those who will support the motion include Members who opposed the war and those who supported it.
I need to make progress.
There is no shame in changing one’s mind when new facts come to light. Ask the Attorney-General. He changed his mind three times in three weeks. He finally decided on 13 March 2003, after talking things through with his secretary, that his 7 March opinion was wrong after all and that, to quote the Attorney-General’s recent disclosure to the Information Commissioner,
“the better view was that a further resolution was not legally necessary”.
Incredibly, that U-turn was not based on a detailed paper setting out the legal arguments. The Attorney-General who, by his own admission, is not an expert in international law, did not ask for legal advice until after he had come to his decision. [Interruption.] The Minister is shaking his head. I am reading from the Government’s own disclosure to the Information Commissioner, which states:
“It was also decided to prepare a statement setting out the Attorney’s view of the legal position and to send instructions to counsel to help in the preparation of that public statement.”
So the Attorney-General decided what the legal position was, and then asked for legal advice. You could not make it up, Mr. Speaker—well, you could if you were the Attorney-General, apparently.
The Attorney-General went on in the same disclosure statement to admit, crucially, that the revival argument—the notion that the use of force authorised by resolution 678 from the first Gulf war was capable of being revived by the Security Council—“was and remains controversial”. Finally, a full three years on from the invasion, we have an unequivocal admission from the Attorney-General that his statement to the House that the war was legal was “controversial”—his word, not mine.
The hon. Gentleman has said one thing this afternoon with which I wholeheartedly agree: the people of Wales will be looking at the debate with interest. However, many service families will want to know his view not about the beginnings of the war and whether troops should have gone to Iraq in the first place, but about whether they should remain there now. Is it his position that they should leave immediately?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, he knows my position because we debated that a week ago. We are having a different debate, but my position—[Interruption.] I would gladly debate this with the Prime Minister any time. Let us have—[Interruption.]
There is a fundamental breakdown at the heart of the Government that is continuing to affect decisions that are being made now. The Government have made a catalogue of errors that have resulted in problems on the ground. As hon. Members have said, the problem was that we had not government by Cabinet, but government by cabal. The delicate checks and balances of our constitution were swept away. Cabinet was sidelined and Parliament was misled—[Hon. Members: “Order!”] I did not say by whom.
There is a problem at the heart of our constitution and tonight we need to reapply the constitutional brakes. The military men have been lining up to criticise and so have the mandarins. A letter from Sir Michael Quinlan, of all people, a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, said that the Prime Minister
“exerted or connived … to mould legal advice to his preference and failed to disclose fully … even that moulded advice; and … so arranged the working of the cabinet that colleagues had no timely or systematic opportunity to consider the merits of his policy in an informed manner”.
Lord Butler made the same point in an interview in The Spectator. He pointed out that decisions were made on the prime ministerial sofa, rather than in meetings with minutes around the Cabinet table, with all that that meant for both the quality of, and proper accountability for, decision making. Pluralism in the Government, a proper role for Parliament and the Cabinet and a truly independent civil service are there to act as a check on hubris in government. That is why we need to recalibrate the constitution of this United Kingdom and rebalance power for the benefit of Parliament, at the expense of an over-mighty Executive. We are otherwise reduced to the sorry spectacle of an Attorney-General changing his mind to save his political master’s skin.
Let us remind ourselves once again of the central fact: we fought the war because of an arsenal of weapons that proved to be non-existent. Many thousands of people have paid with their lives for that mistake, and the same mirage of deception and disinformation continues to cloud our understanding of what is happening on the ground.
We had a full debate, which I led, and my position is absolutely clear. Where was the right hon. Gentleman?
The constant hailing of non-existent progress by the Government is an insult to those who genuinely appreciate what is really happening in a worsening situation. It is a scandal that, as yet, not a single Minister has unequivocally admitted that things in Iraq have gone wrong. Both in the run-up to the war and in its aftermath the Government’s policy has been characterised by a cocktail of wishful thinking, self-delusion and evasion. The sequence of events that led us to commit our armed forces to a war that was illegal and unnecessary is as yet unexplained. The strategy for removing them remains unpublished. The inquiry that we are calling for is not only essential to understanding what happened three and a half years ago; it is imperative in understanding where we go from here. It is impossible truly to discern the problems on the ground in Iraq unless we appreciate what went wrong—the mistakes and misjudgments that took us there in the first place.
History does not repeat itself, as Mark Twain once said, but it does rhyme. Fifty years ago today, our Government began bombing Egypt under the cover of darkness. That invasion, too, was based on a falsehood. Anthony Eden secretly colluded with Israel and France, and kept Parliament in the dark. It is a matter of debate as to whether the Prime Minister deliberately deceived us, but one way or another we were certainly misled. The evidence clearly suggests that he had privately assured President Bush that he would join the invasion. Here was a Prime Minister so deluded by his determination to do what he believed to be right that he began to think not as primus inter pares but as an acting head of state. It is time now to tell the Prime Minister and all future Prime Ministers that they are not presidents, and that the policy of this United Kingdom does not always have to be the policy of the United States.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“recognising that there have already been four separate independent committees of inquiry into military action in Iraq and recognising the importance of learning all possible lessons from military action in Iraq and its aftermath, declines at this time, whilst the whole effort of the Government and the armed forces is directed towards improving the condition of Iraq, to make a proposal for a further inquiry which would divert attention from this vital task.”
The motion before the House today calls for the creation of a new inquiry
“to review the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in relation to Iraq…in the period leading up to military action in that country in March 2003 and in its aftermath.”
The question that I want to put to the House is not so much why—because of course it is perfectly sensible and legitimate to say that there will come a time when these issues will be explored in the round and in full, so that we can learn whatever lessons we can from them—but rather, why this specific inquiry, and much more to the point, why now.
Unlike at the time of the Falklands war we now have a framework of Select Committees that carry out independent inquiries. I recognise that the official Opposition have tabled an amendment that suggests a Falklands-type inquiry in the next Session of Parliament, without pointing out that that begins in just two weeks. I am afraid that I think that that, too, is not sensible. It avoids none of the dangers of sending the wrong signals at the wrong time and distracting resources and attention from where they are most needed. Indeed, it risks appearing to set a deadline for our operations in Iraq which would be politically and militarily damaging.
Not for the moment.
There have already been two parliamentary Committee reports on Iraq: the Foreign Affairs Committee report, “The Decision to go to War in Iraq”, and the Intelligence and Security Committee report, “Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction—Intelligence and Assessments”. There have been two further independent reports: the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly CMG, and the Butler review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Is this the moment to take a decision and a step of the kind recommended in the motion? My answer is a resounding no. There is absolutely nothing in the unquestionably difficult and delicate situation in Iraq today that makes this the obvious and right time.
What I am saying to the House, and what I shall say repeatedly, is that this is not the time for making these decisions. I will tell the hon. Gentleman why. Our words in the House today will be heard a very long way away. They can be heard by our troops, who are already in great danger in Iraq. They can be heard by the Iraqi people and by their Government, many of whose members I know many hon. Members in all parts of the House have met—people whose bravery and fortitude is humbling and who still need our support, not the rehashing of issues that have been gone over umpteen times in the House.
The Foreign Secretary asks why now. What if, God forbid, Parliament has to vote to send our brave armed servicemen and women into war again? We need an inquiry now to ensure that the British people can once again trust the Government. I do not think that that is possible, but I hope that in the House today the Foreign Secretary will agree to an inquiry in order that future wars can be built on trust and on the full backing of Parliament and the people, without mass deception.
I do not take any lectures from Conservative Members, who never, ever gave the House a vote about sending troops into action, including on some occasions when I do not necessarily dispute that it was right to send them, including on occasions without United Nations authority.
The Foreign Secretary prayed in aid the Select Committee’s report. I was a member of that Committee, and I have to say to her that her predecessor and the Government obstructed the Committee’s proceedings at every stage possible, refusing to produce witnesses and documents.
Not for a minute. I am in the middle of answering a previous intervention. I followed those matters as carefully as I could, and I observed—and I observed it from Committee members who had ministerial experience—people asking for papers and for disclosures which they, as former Ministers and experienced Members of the House, would never for a single second have contemplated disclosing. I reject utterly the suggestion that the Committee did not get full support.
Does the Foreign Secretary think I am exceptional, in the sense that not one of my constituents has asked me to press for an inquiry into the causes of the war? However, many of my constituents are troubled about which moves we should make in the best interests of the people of Iraq. Many of them would be appalled at the fact that much of the debate is looking backwards. There will come a time when accounts are settled, but my constituents are desperately concerned about the right moves for the future.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who I know is held in high regard in all parts of the House. What he says is also my experience, and I expect that he speaks for Members in all parts of the House who may not all wish to acknowledge it.
Several hon. Members rose—
I shall make a little progress, if I may.
What happens in the House today will be heard not only by those in Iraq—the people and the Government—but by those whose intention it is to do us harm, whether in Iraq or beyond. Again, I ask the House to consider whether now is the time to send a signal—every Member of the House knows in their heart that this is true—which many will undoubtedly interpret as a weakening of our commitment.
Several hon. Members rose—
I shall give way in a moment.
There is an important tradition in the House that all political parties give our troops and are seen to give our troops their full support while they are in conflict. That is a precedent which it would be dangerous to break.
The Foreign Secretary would get rid of the dissention this afternoon and send out a fairly united message if she said that there will be a Franks-type inquiry into the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath as soon as the troops are withdrawn. I cannot understand whether she is saying that she accepts the need for such an inquiry but that the time is not ripe, or whether she is saying in weasel words that we have had enough inquiries already. If she accepted what will be forced on the Government in any event—a Franks-type inquiry when the hostilities have ceased—we would send a united message from this House.
As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s contention that a Franks-type inquiry is required, I refer him to the discussion in this House in July 2003 when one of my former colleagues, Mr. Tam Dalyell, who was summoned to give evidence to the Franks inquiry, commented on how inadequate it was.
I have been on my feet for seven minutes, and I have made very little progress.
It is now more than three years since the Government committed UK forces, as part of an international coalition led by the United States, to military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had repeatedly and openly defied the authority of the United Nations, and before UN Security Council resolution 1441, which was carried unanimously because of the unanimous conviction that he represented a serious danger to the international community, he already stood in material breach of 17 separate UN resolutions. He refused fully to co-operate with the weapons inspection regime imposed on him as someone who had both possessed and used weapons of mass destruction. The international community as a whole—not just the United States and the UK—believed that he had developed and wished further to develop WMD capability.
Does the Foreign Secretary realise that her opposition to an inquiry into the origins of the Government’s policy on Iraq would be more convincing if the Government were not simultaneously bitterly opposing any debate on the future of their policy in Iraq? Is she not ashamed that, in the three years since the war, the Government have not initiated a single debate on the subject in this Chamber? The United States Congress was permitted a full debate on the matter as recently as June. Is it not appalling that, when the Government have been responsible for such an arrant misuse of their powers, this Chamber has not been allowed to debate the matter?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking complete nonsense, as he must be well aware. He is a former Secretary of State for Defence, and he knows that there are five defence debates a year and that there are debates on foreign policy, all of which are in Government time. Of course it is open to people to debate those issues.
The Foreign Secretary seems to be saying that an inquiry now would be wrong, because our forces are in the field. Indeed, she has accused the Conservative party of never having succumbed to such a debate in the past. How does she answer the historical fact that in May 1940, while British troops were fighting and losing a campaign in Norway, a Conservative Government allowed a debate in this Chamber in which the Labour party, the Liberal party and some notable people from the Conservative party conspired to vote against the Government of the day, which led to the resignation of the then Prime Minister and the installation of a coalition Government? When our troops are in a campaign, that is surely when this House—a democracy—should be allowed to debate their conduct.
I did not say the words that the hon. Gentleman has put into my mouth, and I am sorry if he misheard me. I continue to take the view that this is not the time for this debate. Moreover, I have been reminded that the motion to which the hon. Gentleman has referred was taken on the Adjournment and was not a motion to bind the Government of the day.
I am willing to give way, if I have time, but I must get on with my speech.
The decision to take part in military action was not taken lightly or trivially. In an unprecedented step, it was the subject of a full debate and a vote in this House, which was right. Committing British troops to a war is one of the most solemn decisions that any Government can ever take, but we did so because we judged, and because this House judged—the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) talked about voices being heard; some 52 Members of this House spoke in that debate—that the threat to international peace and security was very real and very grave. The original decision to take military action provoked fierce debate in this Chamber and across the country, and I have no doubt that it will continue for much time to come; but the decisions we take in the weeks and months to come should surely have as their priority what is best for Iraq and its people, here and now, as well as the impact that any decision we make may have on our troops in the field.
Last December, more than 75 per cent. of the Iraqi people elected a new Parliament under a permanent, new constitution; and let us not forget that they did so under threat of death from those who sought only destruction in Iraq. This spring, that Parliament elected a new Government of national unity representing all Iraq’s main political parties, and for the first time in their history the people of Iraq began a bold attempt to share power equitably among the nation’s ethnic and confessional populations.
I will not give way for the moment.
I do not in any way underestimate the terrible difficulties that many people in Iraq are facing. Many of them have to cope today and every day with the kind of terrorist horror which so profoundly shocked our own country last July. As I have said, their bravery in the face of that threat is humbling. The Iraqi Government, headed by Prime Minister Maliki, are barely five months into their term. From the outset, they have faced a daunting array of political and economic challenges of a kind with which any Government in the world would struggle to deal. Overshadowing all else has been a relentless and rising tide of murderous violence, some of it a very deliberate effort to destroy the fragile foundations of Iraq’s democratic system.
Cannot the Foreign Secretary understand that a good part of the deep frustration expressed by this House arises because the Prime Minister refuses to come to this House and lead a debate on current and future policy on Iraq? Given General Sir Richard Dannatt’s recent comments, and the fact that the situation seems to be deteriorating, will the Foreign Secretary now encourage the Prime Minister to come to this House and lead a debate?
My hon. Friend is entirely correct.
Elsewhere, we have seen a spiral of retaliatory sectarian killings. Here, too, existing ethnic tensions have been carefully exploited by those who have no interest in Iraq becoming a fully functioning state and every interest in dragging it back into chaos and lawlessness. It is this violence that has held up and disrupted the supply of essential services to Iraqis; it is this violence that has meant that the political framework is taking longer to develop; and it is this violence that is holding millions of ordinary Iraqis back from a better future for themselves and their families. That is why Prime Minister Maliki has made tackling the violence his Government’s highest priority. We are in Iraq at the express request of that Government and with the full support of the United Nations, and so our responsibility is to support the sovereign Government of Iraq in their objectives.
The Iraqi Government and the coalition forces are currently engaged in a critical attempt to make Baghdad more secure. In Basra, British troops are in the middle of a similarly vital mission to take on the violent extremists and lay the foundations of long-term security. The challenge faced by the Iraqi people in those two cities, as elsewhere in the country, is not purely military. Much of the current violence has political roots and it will be through determined political efforts—led by Iraqis—that it will ultimately be addressed. There can be no substitute for strong political leadership in Iraq. We have strongly supported Prime Minister Maliki’s commitment to national reconciliation and have worked hard to bring all Iraq’s political and clerical leaders fully and wholeheartedly behind it, because that offers the best chance of building a consensus among Iraq’s divided communities, all of whom are suffering from the current levels of violence, and of isolating those who are trying to drive the Iraqi people further from one another.
At the same time, we are urging Iraq’s political leaders to move ahead without delay in taking crucial decisions on the country’s future. We are offering strong support for their work to reach agreement by the end of the year on a new law setting out the future of the oil and gas sector, which is central to Iraq’s economic regeneration. We are actively encouraging the Iraqi Parliament to pass new legislation—again, by the end of the year—setting out how the militias can be disbanded and reintegrated into society. We are pushing the Iraqi Parliament for a decision on reforms to the process of de-Ba’athification, as well as on how the agreement to review the new constitution will be implemented. Those are all difficult as well as complex issues—otherwise, they would have been solved long ago—but if we get them right, we can create a new, more positive political dynamic in the country.
Prime Minister Maliki wants to make rapid progress towards the Iraqi Government and security forces assuming responsibility for the country’s security.
I am explaining why the motion is so profoundly misconceived. The future of Iraq and its people is at stake, and that is what really matters. If the signal sent from the House casts doubt on our support for what is happening in Iraq, for the actions of our coalition forces, and for those who are not in our forces but who are engaged in trying to support the people of Iraq, ultimately, that will be utterly to their disadvantage.
I am sorry, but I must continue my speech.
The Government share the Prime Minister’s determination—as, I have no doubt, does every Member of the House—to see responsibility pass to Iraqi police and security forces. That is fundamental to the coalition’s strategy for progressively scaling down military support to the Iraqi Government. British soldiers are doing an astounding job in the most difficult of circumstances, as they do whenever and wherever they are called on; so, too, are a large number of British civilians—civil servants, policemen and women, aid workers and many more, many of whom I met in Basra not long ago. I am sure that all Members, whatever their view of the motion, would recognise the bravery and sacrifice of those people. That contribution is essential in support of the future in Iraq.
The new Iraqi army is getting more capable and more confident. It is increasingly non-sectarian. Two of the 10 divisions of that new army have already been transferred to the direct control of the Iraqi Government, and more will follow in the coming months. Therefore, in spite of the violence, we are seeing major strides towards equipping the Iraqi Government with the tools that they need to protect their people without relying on indefinite help from the international community. Two entire provinces—
Two entire provinces, al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar, have already been handed over to Iraqi control, and more will soon follow. In our area of responsibility in the south, we hope that Maysan province will also have been handed over by the end of the year. A central aim of our current efforts in Basra is to get that province to the point where it, too, is ready to be handed over to Iraqi lead security control. We hope that that can be accomplished at some point next spring. We share the hope recently expressed by the commander of the multinational force in Iraq that all 18 provinces can be handed over to Iraqi control by the end of 2007.
This debate is not about the conduct of policy in Iraq now, but about whether we should hold a Select Committee inquiry into the way in which the war has been and will be conducted in future. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) made the valid point that the inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee was thwarted by the Government, which the Foreign Secretary refuted. I would like to quote what the report says—
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, the inquiry was followed by the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Butler reports, which considered the issues in depth. I would say to him, and to those Opposition Members who have been muttering and grumbling, that what I am talking about—the present position in Iraq—is exactly the point. That position is difficult; we do not dispute that at all. It is also extremely delicate. We are at what could be a turning point in Iraq, and this is not the time to do what the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr did in moving the motion, and rehash all the debates and arguments that have been held over and over again, not only in the House, but in a succession of inquiries.
Is the Secretary of State aware that when the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq was in the House last week, he made the point that any decisions on the future of Iraq, including on the deployment of US and British troops, should be made according to the needs of Iraq, and not of the political agendas of either the US or the UK? Does she agree with that, and does she think that the Opposition parties’ motion is helpful or unhelpful in that regard? [Interruption.]
I utterly agree, and I simply tell Opposition Members that they do not have much cause to complain, as I have given way only once to a Labour Member. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the motion is not helpful to the people or the Government of Iraq, but it is not intended to be.
We expect the Iraqi Government to request an extension of the UN mandate under which we are currently operating until 2007, and if they ask for ongoing support, we will provide it. I take very seriously, and hold strongly, the view that at this critical juncture, when Iraq’s future hangs so clearly in the balance, it would be plainly and simply wrong to heed those who argue for us just to wash our hands of responsibility and walk away.
We have been working hard in recent months with the Iraqi Government and our international partners to develop an international compact for Iraq, modelled on the Afghan compact, so that the international community can provide further involvement and support for the people of Iraq, and we are keen to use that opportunity to encourage its neighbours to engage fully in the country’s stabilisation and reconstruction. An important step forward on that initiative was taken at the UN-hosted meeting that I attended in New York on 18 September, and a further preparatory meeting is taking place in Kuwait today, so critical decisions about the future of Iraq are being taken today even as we debate the issue in the House.
We would, of course, like two of Iraq’s neighbours—Iran and Syria—to play a similarly positive role in promoting stability and development, although the Iraqi Government themselves are convinced that at present those two countries are doing precisely the opposite. We will continue to pressure them to take a different approach, but it would be naive to imagine that that is a straightforward task. I have set out the objectives and strategy that we, our allies and the Iraqis are currently pursuing, and I can see no credible alternative.
Those lives have been taken as a result of action by the insurgents. Our troops are there to make sure that action does not take place. Every day, a huge number of people in Iraq lose their lives, and what Opposition Members have done today is encourage that process. What we need to do—
Hon. Members: Withdraw!
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. What I meant to say was that actions taken here are watched throughout the world and that there are people who will capitalise on these actions and further put at risk the lives of our service people in action—[Interruption.]
I have repeatedly told the hon. Lady that I am not giving way to her.
Some have argued that we should abandon the idea of preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity and accept the break-up of the country. I do not believe that it would be in anyone’s interest—not the Iraqi people’s, not the region’s, not our own—to try to partition Iraq’s communities. There are no neat divisions in Iraq. Its great cities host a medley of communities. Splitting Iraq’s people apart and forcing people to move from their homes would risk bloodshed on a scale far worse even than we see today, but engaging in that argument at all seems to me to miss the crucial point.
Our task in the House and in the country is not to speculate on or to predict what decisions a future Iraqi Government might or might not take. It is to unite now in support of the national Government of Iraq, who were elected by the Iraqi people to govern that country. I believe that those who tabled this motion and those who are considering supporting it have fallen into the same trap of ignoring the imperative of the present difficult situation in Iraq.
I have no doubt that there will come a time when we will want to look at the lessons learned from our full experience in Iraq, just as we have from every other major conflict in the past, but now, I repeat, is not that time. The challenges Iraq faces are, as I have set out today, acute. They will require our undivided attention and focus. Our responsibility to the people of Iraq demands nothing less.
I recognise that Conservative Members have proposed an amendment that suggests a Falklands-type inquiry in the next Session of Parliament. As I have explained, I believe that that is also unwise. Whatever anyone’s view of the decisions that were made in 2003 and subsequently, it would be the wrong decision today to divert the time and energy of all those working hard to secure a better future for Iraq. I have to say that I deplore the apparent complete disinterest in the future of Iraq that some Opposition Members have displayed—[Interruption.] It would be a waste to divert our energies to a further inquiry.
I hope that all Members will think very carefully indeed before casting their votes tonight. It is all very well to say, as some Opposition Members have said, that it is all right to vote for the motion because they do not really support it. I fear that the parliamentary nuances will be lost on the Government of Iraq, let alone the wider international community. Furthermore, Conservative Members should reflect on with whom they will be going into the Lobby if they support the motion. Many of those who support the motion have always opposed this action. Before hon. Members decide how to vote tonight, I ask them to weigh very carefully indeed what signals will be sent out.
There is a strong case, which is felt throughout the House, for a lengthier and wider-ranging debate than the one that is possible today. We shall ensure that in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, far longer consideration is given to international affairs, including the future of Iraq. Whatever our analysis of the past, as the Foreign Secretary said, the decisions in the coming months on the future of Iraq are immensely important. On that—and much else—the Foreign Secretary and I fully agree.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) would not expect me to agree with everything that he said, and I did not. However, the call for a major inquiry at the appropriate time into an operation so vast, expensive and chequered with successes and failures as the war in Iraq and its aftermath has obvious merits. The Foreign Secretary made a mistake in her inability to tell the House today that such an inquiry would take place at some stage. To argue against a Franks-style inquiry on the ground that someone thought that the Franks committee was inadequate is not a logical reason for opposing a future inquiry. It is also illogical to suggest that an inquiry would be calamitous on the ground that four have taken place already, and to say, in any debate in the House of Commons, that we should be careful about whom we join in the Lobby. Surely hon. Members should cast their votes on the merits of the case.
Whatever our views of the origins of the war—I have supported the Government’s objectives throughout—none of us can credibly argue that there will be no important lessons to learn for the Government and all future Governments. Ministers should not hesitate to acknowledge that freely this evening.
The Conservative amendment makes it clear that we differ from the proposers of the motion on two important points. First, we believe that the membership of any committee of inquiry should be modelled on the Franks committee, which met after the Falklands war. It should consist of Privy Councillors but be able to draw on expertise and independence that may not be available in the House. A committee of seven Members of Parliament would necessarily be a partisan committee and the credibility of its findings would be correspondingly reduced. There would be a useful role in any inquiry for leading public servants who are not politicians. The motion would be stronger if it allowed for that.
The right hon. Gentleman says that there will be lessons to learn, and he could be right. However, does he agree that it would much better to hold an inquiry to learn such lessons after British troops had done the job in Iraq and withdrawn, and when the process of restoring a democratic Government to Iraq was complete, rather than undermining the morale of British troops in the next Session?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the Foreign Secretary has been unable confirm that there would be an inquiry at all. That remains one of the differences in the House today. I presume that the hon. Gentleman believes that an inquiry should take place at the point that he identified. Perhaps he should have intervened on the Foreign Secretary, rather than on me, to make that point.
Our second difference with the motion is that we do not believe that such an inquiry should be established now. As the Foreign Secretary said, important operations are under way in Iraq. Major political decisions in Iraq and efforts to contain the insurgency appear to be in the balance. The Baker commission is expected to report in the next few months. Any inquiry should be able to examine what happens in the coming months as well as the events of recent years. To begin an inquiry now would therefore be premature—to that extent, I agree with the Foreign Secretary—but there is no legitimate reason why the Government cannot say today that an inquiry will be established at some point in the next Session. That means any time in the next 12 months.
The Defence Secretary has spoken about being
“quite far down the process of transferring responsibility to the Iraqis”,
and the Minister for the Middle East has said:
“certainly within a year or so there will be adequate trained Iraqi soldiers and security forces…in order to do the job.”
Ministry of Defence sources told The Daily Telegraph last week that more than half the British troops would be withdrawn by next February. It would be inconsistent to make those assertions while maintaining that in the course of the next year no committee of inquiry could even begin its work, which would presumably take a further six to nine months to report in 2008.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it is clear from the debate that the House of Commons will demand an inquiry of the kind that he is requesting when troops are safely back home? The real question that we must decide today is whether the inquiry should take place then, or whether we should fix a timetable although our troops may still be engaged.
I do think that there is a great demand for the inquiry, although it is a pity that Ministers are not participating in that demand, which is felt in so many other parts of the House. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can rely on its being forced on them at the time.
Of course it is an alternative to say that rather than the inquiry taking place in the next Session of Parliament, it should take place after the conflict has ended—although Ministers have not even gone so far as to say that this afternoon. The difficulty with that idea is that the end of the conflict was pronounced three years ago, and it did not come to an end. It is sometimes very hard to define when the conflict has ended. I feel, for the reasons that I have given, that specifying the next Session of Parliament, over the next year, is a wholly reasonable request.
I will give way a few more times later, but I must make some progress first.
The argument put to the press by the Prime Minister’s spokesman in the last 24 hours that if the Government were to open the door to an inquiry with such a time scale it would damage the morale or performance of our troops who are in Iraq at the moment does not bear serious scrutiny. Many of our troops—currently facing a very difficult situation in Basra, with the British consulate under mortar attack in the last few days, and doing an heroic job in very difficult circumstances—will want to know that politicians of all parties have studied the Iraq war in great detail, so that decisions can be made in the future from which they and their colleagues will benefit.
Furthermore, it was the Chief of the General Staff himself who said two weeks ago:
“we need to reflect on what has happened over the previous three years. It has proved more difficult than expected.”
That is precisely what an inquiry in the future would be able to do. He also said—and this is a stronger criticism than anything that has been said from the Opposition Front Bench—
“the fact we are still there is leading to problems”.
General Dannatt may have been stretching his relationship with the Government, but no one has suggested that he was undermining the morale of the troops by making those points, and that accusation should not be made against other people who make those points.
I will now give way to the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy).
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—although I am sad to see him allying himself and his party to the shabby political opportunism of the nationalists.
In considering what he would say tonight, did the right hon. Gentleman take into account the words of the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq when he visited Parliament last week and was able to brief Members? He made clear—he pleaded with us—that the absolute, overriding priority for this Parliament was to concentrate on building Iraq for the future. Did the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to be briefed by the Deputy Prime Minister? If he did, what was he advised?
We do not disagree with that at all. Of course it is a great priority. But it would be a mistake to think that we can build properly for the future without any regard to the lessons of the past, and it would be a great mistake to argue that we cannot do better in the future—in future conflicts, or in Iraq, or in Afghanistan—without holding inquiries of this kind.
The right hon. Lady asked whether I had met the Deputy Prime Minister. I have not, but my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Defence Secretary, has been to Iraq and met many of the people there. There is no shortage of contacts between the Opposition and politicians in Iraq. We listen to them, just as Labour politicians rightly listen to them.
Will my right hon. Friend also remind the House that President Bush himself commissioned former Secretary of State Baker to examine the present situation in Iraq and come forward with policy options? No one anywhere, even on the Labour Front Bench, has suggested that that was inappropriate.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a valid point. Similarly, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Inge, has said:
“I don't believe we have a clear strategy in either Afghanistan or Iraq. I sense we have lost the ability to think strategically”.
Is he, a field marshal, to be accused of damaging our troops by raising any questions in public?
I do not believe that it is possible to argue, in a House of Commons which 80 years ago instituted an inquiry into the Dardanelles campaign while the first world war was still raging, that to raise even a suggestion of an inquiry in the future is somehow to undermine the British Army. The British Army is both tougher and more thoughtful than that. Its operations should not be used as an excuse to avoid examining any of our political processes and judgments.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the military families campaign—many of whose members have lost loved ones in Iraq in the past three years—has sent a letter to many hon. Members before today’s debate supporting the call for an inquiry, because they want to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones, and whether they died for a legal or an illegal war?
Those people will be particularly concerned about our deliberations today, but it is also in the interests of the whole nation—and the conduct of policy by this or any other Government in the future—to learn the lessons at the appropriate time.
Let us be clear that the demand for an inquiry is not set against a background in which everything has failed. Saddam Hussein has been removed from power and is rightly on trial before his people. Three sets of free and fair votes, including two parliamentary elections, have been held in Iraq, and the hard work to build up the Iraqi security forces, many of whom now operate with great dedication and bravery, has shown substantial success. But it would be utterly naive for those of us who supported the invasion of Iraq not to acknowledge that other things have gone wrong or fallen below expectations, and that unless the British people can see that those matters have been examined minutely, properly, and thoroughly with a view to informing the future decisions of all of us, the strength and unity of this country in facing future international crises will be undermined.
According to the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, who has issued 41 reports and audits without being accused of undermining the troops, the assumptions made pre-war about the oil and gas sector in Iraq—that its revenues would pay for reconstruction, that foreign investment would quickly flow in, and so on—have all proved to be incorrect. It will be vital to study in the future why, in his opinion,
“corruption is another form of insurgency in Iraq”.
It will be vital to study why nearly $9 billion of revenue dispersed by the coalition provisional authority could not be accounted for. As this country has committed some £500 million to reconstruction, is it not essential to examine its effect?
No one can really deny that the question of why only one third of projected reconstruction has been achieved to date, and what impact that has had on respect for coalition forces and the political progress of Iraq, must be thoroughly assessed in the future. We must be able to come to a view about whether more could have been done to control or seal Iraq’s borders, whether more could have been done to win the hearts and minds of the population, and whether, if the coalition forces had been able to impose their authority by preventing looting in the days immediately following their arrival in Iraq, subsequent developments might have been different. We do not know the answers, but we need to know.
The Chancellor has said that
“the lesson of Iraq is that we didn't prepare enough for the transition.”
If that is the lesson, we all need to learn more about it. The Foreign Secretary has herself said, in a commendably frank answer to the question whether future historians might see the Iraq war as a foreign policy disaster:
“Yes they may. Then again, they may not.”
It cannot be argued that it is fine for the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary to say all those things, which question what has happened in Iraq, but that for any Opposition Member to suggest an inquiry is some traitorous act that lets down the country or our troops. It will not be sufficient for the assessment of the historians that the Foreign Secretary mentioned, or for her and her colleagues in Government, or for any who hope to serve in a future Government, to base their assessments on hearsay, impressions or half truths. The case for a searching inquiry, at the right time, is so strong that the Government should have no problem in acceding to it and I am astonished that they are not able to do so.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, I congratulate him on putting forward a more coherent case than did the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price). He has argued especially strongly against holding an immediate inquiry, and I agree about that. Does he therefore accept that it would be logical for him and his party to join us in the No Lobby if the House votes on the motion later tonight?
No. Given the practical confines of House of Commons procedures, it is logical for an Opposition to try to produce the effects that they want. The Government have failed to give any assurance about holding an inquiry, in the next Session of Parliament or at any time. I certainly recommend that my hon. Friends vote for the motion, as the practical effect of ensuring that it is carried, or nearly carried, is that the Government would have to think about coming forward with their own proposals for an inquiry, of the right kind and at the right time. That is the right way for Opposition Members to vote.
There are members of various parties who have given strong support to the Government but who are adamantly of the same opinion. In the interests of time, I shall refer only to the former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen—[Interruption.] Labour Members should not tut-tut, as he was a Labour Foreign Secretary. At the end of June, he said:
“There is now an overriding case to establish an inquiry similar to the Dardanelles Commission”
He went on to say that
“there is no more important issue now for restoring morale in the services than for the Parliament of this country to assert its rights over the Executive and establish that inquiry, even though it is likely to be fought tooth and nail by the Prime Minister.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. 1350, 1353.]
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have been fighting in Iraq for the cause of democracy and liberty, and that there is no finer sign that that is what we believe in than the fact we can hold a democratic debate in the House and set up a proper democratic inquiry? What is the point of democracy if we cannot challenge how the Executive have handled a very contentious war?
Mr. Hague: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As I have said, our predecessors in this House debated the Dardanelles. They also debated the Morris report in 1918, to the great embarrassment of Lloyd George, and the 1940 Norway campaign. They were not scared that debating such matters might have given heart to the Germans, in either the first or the second world war. We will not be worthy of being their successors unless we are unafraid to debate things in this House as well.
I am less hard on the Government than Lord Owen or the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr. We on the Opposition Front Bench do not call for this inquiry to be established immediately. We would be happy for the Government to give thought as to when it should begin its work, but we also believe— given that operations have been going on for more than three years and are expected to diminish considerably in future months, and that we live in a country where we are meant to enjoy the great democratic strength of discussing our successes and failures—that to postpone the establishment of such an inquiry beyond the end of another Session of Parliament would be beyond the limits of what is reasonable.
All we want the Government to say is that, in recognition of the force of the arguments for an inquiry in due course, the relevant Committee, based on the Franks model, will be established within the next year. We would consider such a response to be a proper one. If the Government gave it, we would abstain from voting on the motion tonight. However, if they are unwilling to say that, even though there are two significant points of differences between many of us and the proposers of the motion, we believe that the House of Commons should send Ministers a message that they must come up with their own proposals. In the absence of those proposals today, all who believe in the proper scrutiny of the Executive should cast their votes accordingly.
Those who from the beginning were against the action that we took remain opposed to it. Those who wish that they had been against it, and who have not yet declared, are likely to vote with the Opposition tonight. The very few who have changed their minds are reluctant to say so. However, the majority of Members, not only on the Labour Benches but in the House as a whole, have not changed their minds about the validity of the action taken, on which we voted on 18 March 2003. There are also those who have not changed their minds, but who cannot miss an opportunity to have a go at this Government, at our Prime Minister and at the actions that we have taken, regardless of the consequences in terms of demoralisation and the difficulty that doing so causes for our troops in Iraq and for the Iraqi people.
By his own admission, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, does not agree with the motion that he is asking Members of his party to vote for. He clearly said that he did not agree with the structure, the membership, the terms of reference or the likely outcome of an inquiry on the terms laid down in the motion. That is what the right hon. Gentleman said. He then went on to say that he did not agree with the timing of the motion and that there should not be an inquiry now.
The right hon. Gentleman made a powerful case for further debate. The “Hear, hears” that were uttered across the Chamber were in recognition of the fact that there is a case for a debate. It has been made over and over again this afternoon, in terms of what happened in 1918, or in May 1940 on the abortive Norwegian campaign. However, nobody at those times suggested that there should be an open public inquiry and that we in this House, our armed services and our security services should be diverted into answering to it in the middle of a conflict. A debate was agreed to, by all means, but not an inquiry. There is a substantial difference between the Opposition advocating this afternoon that their Members should go through the Lobby in support of a motion that they do not agree with in respect of its terms of reference, structure or timing, and on the other hand advocating a debate.
On the timing issue, the right hon. Gentleman suggested that he did not agree that there should be an inquiry now, but that he thought that there might be one in the next Session of Parliament—in other words, in the next year. He was presuming that there would be substantial change in Iraq, and we all hope that there will be. But what message would be taken by the opposition in Iraq—by the terrorists and insurgents in Iraq—from the suggestion that it might be inappropriate to have an inquiry now, but that it might be appropriate to do so in the next 12 months presuming that, if the right hon. Gentleman gets his way and the House agrees tonight that this is likely, not only will things have improved, but our troops will have withdrawn within those 12 months? We cannot, in all honesty, make that presumption.
No, I will not give way, as I have only a few minutes left.
There are, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, known knowns and known unknowns. The right hon. Gentleman this afternoon listed a group of issues that he said we needed an inquiry to determine. I agree that the issues he raised are on things that went wrong following the first three and a half weeks of the Iraq campaign, but we know the answers to the questions that he raised. We know the answers to the questions that the Opposition generally have raised this afternoon.
We know that there was controversy about whether the action we took under international law was illegal. As someone who was closely involved in that, I want to put on the record that it was a deep slur by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price)—the mover of the motion—to suggest that the Attorney-General, who is an internationally renowned human rights lawyer, did not know what he was doing, or that he altered his advice to suit the circumstances. That is a slur that the hon. Gentleman should have withdrawn, and it is an absolute disgrace that he made it. Of course there was, and there still is, controversy about the legality of the action that we took, and controversy will remain about that. Those who believed that it was right will believe that it was legal, and those who did not, will not.
No, I will not give way because we have an eight-minute rule.
In all conflicts, what happens in them determines how people see the outcome. In Kosovo we had—thank God—an outcome that saved tens of thousands of people from genocide. The illegality of the action taken fades into history. I hope—[Interruption.] Well, that is a simple point about those who have been, and remain, against our action in Iraq, but who have somehow never been against our action in Kosovo. Our action in Kosovo saved lives, and our action in Iraq is now determining whether there is a structure that can hold and a security system that can take care of the future functioning of the state of Iraq.
We all know that had other action been taken to retain the civil service, the local government, the administration and the middle and lower echelons of the armed services in Iraq, our debate today might have been unnecessary because there would have been a different outcome. We know what has been revealed over the past three and a half years, and many of the questions that have been asked not just this afternoon but over that period have already been answered. We know that there are lessons to be learned, but we also know the consequences of a vote tonight that casts any doubt whatsoever on the UK’s determination to stand by the people of Iraq, to stand by the democratically elected Government and to stand by our armed services, who are doing their job in Iraq. There are consequences to the votes that we cast, and when the main Opposition vote, knowing that they disagree with the motion but determined to give the Government a bloody nose, they can only be described as hypocrites.
This is a very important debate, and anybody who doubted the need for it just needs to cast their eye over some of the recent estimates produced by, among others, the United Nations, which points out that some 3,000 civilians are being killed every month. Some 100 United States military personnel have been killed in October alone—the highest figure since the initial invasion—and British armed forces continue to suffer losses and terrible injuries.
One cameo reveals a lot. Three years ago, soldiers patrolled the streets of Basra in caps and berets and handed out sweets to children. Now we learn that, for the safety of our staff, which must be paramount, people have been evacuated from our consulate in Basra. If this is not the time for a debate and an inquiry, when will be the right time?
We welcome the Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party motion, which was co-sponsored by Members from all parts of the House, but what does it say about the real situation in Iraq when the Government are not prepared to provide their own time for debate? We of course welcome the Foreign Secretary’s presence and hope that, before too long, she will introduce such a debate in Government time. At the very least, her speech today has provoked a great deal of reaction, and there is much more to debate.
Previous contributors have properly paid tribute to the armed forces and their bravery, professionalism and dedication in the most dangerous and difficult of circumstances. A total of 120 United Kingdom service personnel have been killed since the invasion three and a half years ago, and about 5,500 have been evacuated from Iraq due to injuries since the conflict began. The Chief of the General Staff, General Dannatt, is more aware than most of the sacrifices and hardships that have been endured. Nevertheless, his dramatic recent intervention took the country by surprise. We cannot underplay the stark nature of his message. He said:
“Whatever consent we may have had in the first place may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance…the original intention was that we put in place a liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region, was pro-West and might have a beneficial effect on the balance in the Middle East. That was the hope. Whether that was a sensible or naïve hope history will judge. I don’t think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition.”
In normal times, there would be serious questions about the appropriateness of the general’s intervention, but it was a sign of the severe level of frustration in the armed forces and of the fact that Parliament has not been doing its duty of holding the Government to account and challenging the lack of a proper strategy. We have always recognised our responsibilities to the Iraqis and for wider regional stability. Ultimately, however, our responsibility is for the security of our armed forces, ensuring that they have sufficient and appropriate resources and a credible mission that they can hope to achieve. What General Dannatt highlighted is that all those things are in question and that there appears to be no strategy to address the problems.
It is a revealing insight into the weakness of the Government’s position that the general was not asked to resign after making those remarks. In fact, the Prime Minister said:
“What he is saying about wanting the British forces out of Iraq is precisely the same as we’re all saying.”
When Sir Richard said that the presence of the troops exacerbated problems in Iraq, the Prime Minister said that he was “absolutely right” Really?
Does the hon. Gentleman think it perverse that a serving general can ask for a reflection about our time in Iraq, and the Government allow him to do so, yet they do not allow the House to reflect on the situation in Iraq or the future of that country?
The hon. Gentleman makes a first-class point. I hope that Members on the Government Benches will reflect on it.
Of course, nobody believes that the Prime Minister’s words were what he was really thinking, especially when he routinely talks of “staying the course” and says that we will not “cut and run”. That has become a mantra, but it is not a strategy. Time and again, what is repeated echoes the line taken in the United States of America, but we should pay attention because debate in the US has moved on. Even President Bush has abandoned the mantra. At the White House, on 11 October, he said:
“Stay the course means keep doing what you’re doing. My attitude is, don’t do what you’re doing if it’s not working; change.”
If President Bush can change, why not our Government, too?
All Liberal Democrat Members, and many other Members, opposed the original dreadful decision to invade Iraq. We feared the worst, but even in our pessimism we underestimated the horrors of the situation that we see now. There needs to be accountability for the mistakes that were made, and lessons need to be learned. We have already discussed the narrowness of the Hutton and Butler inquiries and the difficulties with the investigation undertaken by the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The motion is an important step forward. It echoes the early-day motion tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and should be regarded as a serious attempt by Parliament to assert its rights and do its job of scrutinising the Executive.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is considerable disquiet in the country about the fact that in the past decisions have not always been taken on the basis of what is best for the Iraqi people? That should be the guiding factor in how we behave and how decisions are taken in this country, so is not it important that we have a transparent process to ensure that that happens now and in the future? Does he agree that the troops would want us, as decision makers, to consider that?
As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) remarked earlier, it is extraordinary that it is apparently acceptable for the head of the Army to speak out on behalf of his troops—as he ought to do, even though normally and more traditionally it would be done in private—yet the House is supposed not to have that debate.
Four years on from the dossiers and the fateful decisions to go to war, we are still none the wiser about the political decision-making processes that led to the war. We have been given snatches from the Attorney-General’s legal advice and titbits from the diaries of Cabinet Ministers and former diplomats, but no serious examination of the critical issues. How did the Prime Minister and the Cabinet consider the issues facing the country? Where did Foreign Office advice fit into the calculations? How serious were the attempts to get the second resolution? At what point did we make a commitment to the United States to support them in the invasion? When and how did the Attorney-General get himself involved in the process? What planning was there for the aftermath in the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development? That is just a sample of the huge range of issues that we have still not considered in this country.
We must learn from the past, but we must also ask about the future and what the strategy now is. Across the Atlantic there is a debate about that, and it is every bit as fierce as here. The difference is that in the United States there is a serious attempt to fashion a new strategy, with the bipartisan Iraq study group chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. That group’s remit is to review the strategic environment in and around Iraq, the security of Iraq and the key challenges to enhancing security within the country, political developments within Iraq following the elections and the formation of the new Government, and the economy and reconstruction of that devastated country.
Secretary Baker has said in plain American terms that Iraq is a “helluva mess.” Already there have been suggestions that his panel will depart from Mr. Bush’s repeated calls to stay the course. In particular, Mr. Baker has strongly suggested that the White House enter direct talks with countries that it has so far kept at arm’s length, including Iran and Syria. He has indicated that if a new strategy is not found within the next few months, the whole process could be overtaken by the chaos on the ground. The search is on for the least worst option, with the group’s overriding concepts being “stability first” and “redeploy and contain.” That is a blunt but welcome recognition of the new realities and indicates a greater emphasis on stabilisation, especially in Baghdad.
None of that is easy. Much of it has been thought unthinkable in the United States up until now. However, the United States is having a proper debate. What about here? Has the United Kingdom been involved in making submissions to Secretary Baker’s group? What does it make of the suggestions that are being discussed fairly openly in public now?
As the hon. Gentleman is speaking in this debate, some of my constituents in Blackpool are being deployed to serve in Iraq. Does he think that it is helpful at this time to put forward the sort of arguments that he is making? On the back of the things that he has said already, will he tell us whether or not the Liberal Democrats are committed to a process of immediate withdrawal?
We are not, and I will get to that point. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who will be putting their lives on the line—again, if they have been there before. Not one person in the House will do anything other than support them to the hilt. We ask of them huge things: to give up their lives and to risk serious injury. Frankly, it is not helpful to the debate to suggest that there is any lack of support by people on this side of the House, or anywhere else, for what they are doing. I refer him not just to what General Dannatt said on behalf of the Army, but to the reaction on websites and in chat rooms all over the place, which shows how people in the Army feel. The hon. Gentleman will find that, finally, people think that here, today, we are getting an opportunity for Parliament to do its duty.
The hon. Gentleman has used the name of the Chief of the General Staff several times. That is up to him. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) did the same earlier. Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is wise to imply that the Chief of the General Staff of the Army supports an Opposition motion in the House?
I know the hon. Gentleman well. We have had debates on Iraq in private and in public many times over the past three or four years. I have made no suggestion about what the general thinks about this debate. I have simply quoted what he has said on behalf of his men and women serving in the Army. The hon. Gentleman can make his case in due course if he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Considering what is going on in the United States, where is the equivalent United Kingdom commission to recognise the changed realities and to prepare the thinking to allow for a phased withdrawal of British forces? We are not short of former senior figures in this country of different political persuasions and none—from government, the diplomatic world, the military and academia—who could examine these issues and allow Britain to make its contribution to the debate. If that can happen in the United States, why not here? We certainly cannot allow the policy thinking and policy making to occur across the Atlantic but not here. In the final analysis, Britain must make its own assessment and act accordingly.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, but this is not just a question of looking across the Atlantic to see what is happening. In this country, the public, the media and the armed forces are debating the matter. The only place that is not debating it is this Chamber—that needs to be put right.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We are seeing that there is a lot of pent-up demand for that debate.
Earlier this year, the leader of our party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), set out the key stages of a possible strategy for Iraq that would allow the phased withdrawal of all coalition troops. He talked especially about the need to internationalise and, specifically, to involve the neighbouring states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iran. There would be immense difficulties with that, not least because of the role of some of those countries in Iraq at present, their links with Hamas and Hezbollah, and fears about Iran’s moves towards a nuclear capability. However, we must now contemplate that as part of the broader issue of regional stability. Those countries have a direct stake as neighbours. Iraq is one of the most intricate pieces of the jigsaw in their neighbourhood, and the middle east peace process is inextricably linked to what goes on in Iraq. Our Prime Minister says that he wants to stake his reputation on making progress with the middle east peace process. How on earth will that be possible while we are mired in Iraq and unwilling to deal with some of the key regional players?
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), made a welcome statement in Westminster Hall last week:
“those people who are part of the problem must be part of the solution, otherwise they remain part of the problem … We must reach out and find a way to deal with the problem.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 25 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 435-36WH.]
That is just one of the issues to be tackled. Other hon. Members have set out many more. We should be grateful for the Minister’s recognition of at least that point, but that one concession does not amount to a strategy, and we need one fast.
The mid-term elections in the United States next week will set the scene for the report of the Iraq study group, which is expected between then and the end of the year. Are we just to accept the position passively, or will there be a proper debate here as well? The shadow Foreign Secretary has already indicated that there will be the traditional international affairs debate following the Queen’s Speech in a couple of weeks. That debate will offer some scope for hearing more from the Government, but given that so many other issues are pressing at the moment—the middle east, Darfur, North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan—it will surely not be enough. The Government should thus either set aside an extra day for debate after the Queen’s Speech, or provide time for a separate debate on a substantive motion in the very near future.
General Dannatt put it in bald terms. He said that we should
“get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems”.
He also said:
“We’ve been there 3 and a half years and we don’t want to be there another 2, 3, 4, 5 years … We’ve got to think about this in terms of a reasonable length of time … and I hope that will be sometime soon.”
His comments acknowledge that whatever our substantial obligations to the Iraqi people to sort out the mess that we helped to create in their country, ultimately our responsibilities are to our armed forces, who put their lives on the line. We need to be able to show that in doing so they are following a strategy that is clear and deliverable. We need to take account of what is happening in the USA and prepare an appropriate British strategy. That strategy has to recognise the worsening realities in Iraq; it has to appreciate the situation of our armed forces as described by General Dannatt and supported by many ex-Chiefs of the Defence Staff; and it has to amount to a plan for a phased withdrawal of British troops in months, not years.
I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), who was speaking for the Liberal Democrats, save that in not a single sentence did it address the motion. He read out what General Dannatt said and told us that we need a phased withdrawal, but the motion under debate tonight has only one thing at its core: a sectarian proposition by the Scottish National party inviting this House to do, not what the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested and examine over the next 12 months the desirability of having such an inquiry, but to resolve tonight to set up an inquiry involving seven Privy Councillors of this House. I am not making a job application for one of those slots because I agree with the shadow Foreign Secretary that there are other Privy Councillors, outside the House, who could make a useful contribution.
I also agree that we need a debate on our policy in Iraq and the broader middle east. I would have been happy to see Parliament recalled in September. I would have been happy if last Monday, when we had some trivial Opposition day debate that attracted about four or five dozen Opposition Members, had been devoted to Iraq. The principal Opposition party could give a whole day to the subject, not just the three brief hours that the Scottish National party has obtained today. I appeal to my Front-Bench colleagues to make that time available.
We have had a great deal of debate, however. What we have not had is agreement in this House that the position—toppling Saddam Hussein and going in to help the Iraqi people hold elections for a democratic Government—involved a decision with which some in the House fundamentally disagree.
Will hon. Members forgive me if do not give way because of the time limits?
We now have a very odd position in which the Members who tabled the motion—not the amendment that was not selected—have invited Members to forget party affiliation and vote across party lines. I am fairly sure that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends will accept that invitation. I put it to Opposition parties that they consider my invitation not to indulge the Scottish National party by voting for the substantive motion, the only one before us tonight.
I agree that Iraq poses an enormous challenge and great difficulties. At times, the present Secretary of Defence in America may be to President Bush what Senator Varus was to the Emperor Augustus. I invite the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) to interpret that bit of Roman history, but he is too busy writing articles explaining why Iran should have nuclear weapons—whether that is the official Conservative policy I do not know.
Tonight we face a serious parliamentary decision. Do hon. Members who dislike this Government and believe that the duty of Her Majesty’s Opposition is simply to oppose go into the Lobby, lock, stock and barrel, with the party that opposed our intervention in Kosovo and would have left Milosevic in power, and opposed our intervention in Iraq and would have left Saddam in power—the party that has not found any tyrant or despot around the world that it is not willing to support as long as he is anti-American and anti-western?
We are combating a new axis. It is an axis of insurgency, of jihadi fundamentalism—what Joschka Fischer has called the new totalitarianism—and, of course, of terrorism. I invite some hon. Members not to join the axis of opportunism offered by the Scottish nationalists this evening.
We need a broader debate, one in which many voices can be heard in this House. I read with admiration contributions on this matter from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). I read last week in The Guardian a very good contribution from the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring). I read the wise statements of the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). There are people making serious contributions on the need for a whole new approach to Iraq and the middle east region.
We have scores of thousands of troops of the western democracies engaged from the shores of Lebanon to the frontier mountains of Pakistan, trying to confront a situation that tactically and strategically we have not, I accept, got right. None the less, they are there at the invitation of Governments and under the authority of the United Nations.
I will not give way.
I do not understand why the United States will not talk to Iran. I do not understand why France will not talk to Syria. I do not understand why Syria will not have an embassy in Beirut. I do not understand why very few Arab Governments will have diplomatic relations with Israel or why Israel will not talk to the elected leaders of the Palestinian people. But when there is complete refusal, on our part as much as on that of some of the actors in the region, to indulge in jaw-jaw, alas there is an alternative. That is why I want to see my Government leading a political and diplomatic offensive to start talking to the people whom we do not like. In the end, one makes peace with one’s enemies, not one’s friends.
I conclude by inviting some fellow Members—not the Scottish nationalists, who have never supported any attempt to liberate people from tyranny and despotism for as long as I have been in this House—to have the honour of saying that they did not join this cheap anti-American crusade. I invite them not to call today for the Scottish nationalists’ committee of inquiry. The Member who moved the motion has already referred to this war as illegal and immoral; he has decided what the outcome of the committee of inquiry will be before it has even met.
I invite some Members to say that this House does not have to follow the cheap partisan lines on offer tonight. I invite them to vote with their conscience for further debates and, some time in the next Parliament, when our men are out, for a full inquiry. We should not tonight lower the honour of the House, which has sent its men to support a democratically elected Government, now under full UN authorisation. We should say to the world that the British House of Commons knows the meaning of honour. Members should not go into the Lobby to vote for this cheap, sectarian motion of which the Scottish National party should be ashamed.
The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was, in my view, a strategic, political and humanitarian blunder of historic magnitude. It was a strategic blunder because the traditional aim of British foreign policy over the centuries, the maintenance of a balance of power in each region where we have a national interest, has been destroyed in the middle east. It rested on the balancing of the triangular animosities of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran—respectively secular, Sunni and Shi’a—each hostile to the other two. That is why when Iraq invaded Iran in the 1980s, and it looked as though Iran would win the war, Britain and the United States gave much support to Saddam Hussein, despite his being already a proven warmonger abroad and a murderous tyrant at home.
The major beneficiary of the overthrow of Saddam and his secular tyranny has been Shi’a, theocratic, nuclear Iran, a far greater threat to western interests today than Saddam was in 2003, with his by then non-existent weapons of mass destruction—the excuse for the invasion so shamefully advanced in the House by our Prime Minister, to his everlasting disgrace. I did not believe him then, and I voted against the invasion.
The occupation of Iraq by foreigners has made Iran the most potent political force in the middle east, as Hezbollah recently demonstrated in Lebanon, so the neo-cons, who had long been plotting an attack on Iraq, in the event achieved nothing for Israel, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are more than ever fearful of Iran.
The invasion was a political blunder because the attack on Iraq divided the United Nations, divided NATO, divided the European Union, inflamed Islamic opinion against Britain at home and abroad, constrained British diplomatic influence and commercial success in the middle east and beyond, increased the influence of President Putin’s Russia, weakened the world economy by forcing up the price of oil and, at a significantly lower level of importance, has largely destroyed the political reputation of our Prime Minister.
The war was a humanitarian blunder because of the tragic deaths of so many British and American soldiers and the many more whose bodies have been maimed and whose lives have been ruined, and the sadness and suffering that that has brought to their families, which will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It was a humanitarian blunder also because of the countless and largely uncounted tens of thousands of wholly innocent non-combatant Iraqis—Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds—who have been slaughtered, mutilated, orphaned or robbed of their homes and livelihoods by reason of the chaos into which the invasion has plunged the country that was Iraq, but can never be Iraq again.
As a result of his tragic misjudgments in the middle east, our Prime Minister is, figuratively speaking, more deeply steeped in blood than any Scottish politician since Macbeth. We need an inquiry to tell us how he led us into this disaster, and to make sure that no vainglorious and ignorant Prime Minister can ever do so again.
Having asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the situation in Iraq, and having been disappointed at the time with his reply, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate.
The situation in which we find ourselves in Iraq is serious and worsening, and the House of Commons has not given the matter adequate consideration. I was one of the Members of the House who voted against the war before it was launched in March 2003. We were wrong to go to war when we did. To be justified, military action must be absolutely the last resort, when all other options have been exhausted. The military action was launched in the name of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, but the alternatives to war to achieve that aim had not been exhausted. The House will remember that the United Nations weapons inspectors were forced to leave Iraq before they had had the opportunity to complete their work.
Not only was the war unjustified, but it lacked the support of the international community. Having failed to get the support of the UN Security Council for a resolution authorising war, the US and UK went ahead and invaded anyway.
Since the invasion of Iraq, 2,800 American soldiers, 120 British soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed in this unnecessary, unjustified and illegal war. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the families of the victims in the United Kingdom and Iraq deserve to know what went wrong and what lessons should be learned from this tragic conflict?
I have no doubt that my hon. Friend is speaking for his constituents when he makes that statement, and I agree.
It was clear to me that launching this unjust and unauthorised war in the middle east would damage the coalition against international terrorism that had been put together since the atrocities of September 2001. I was also very concerned that invading Iraq could only help those violent extremists to turn new volunteers to their cause.
In September 2003 the Intelligence and Security Committee, of which I was then a member, published a report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. We were able to make public that the Joint Intelligence Committee had said in February 2003 that al-Qaeda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest threat to western interests, and that that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.
As time has passed, those who support the invasion and occupation of Iraq have developed new and intriguing justifications for doing so, but none of them hold water. In recent months proponents of the war have argued that al-Qaeda was a force in Iraq prior to invasion, and that one of the justifications for invasion was to take on al-Qaeda in Iraq. That is just not true. In recent months it has been suggested that we had to go into Iraq because the US went in. That reflects an unsatisfactory analysis of the role of the UK in the world today. I am not sure whether the proponents of that argument think that being alongside the US in Iraq somehow gives us greater influence over US policy. Given the widespread recognition of the huge blunders that have been made following the invasion, surely that argument is also discredited.
To those of us who argued that the situation in Iraq has been fanning the flames of terrorism in Iraq and world wide, Ministers have countered that we are making an excuse for terrorist outrages. I know of no Member of Parliament who would ever excuse such atrocities, but the evidence is increasingly decisive that the action in Iraq is fuelling terror. The current reality is that the war in Iraq is not a war against international terrorism; it is a war that is feeding international terrorism.
The amendment tabled by the Government refers to improving conditions in Iraq. I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends sincerely want to see improved conditions in Iraq, but we must look at where we are after three and a half years—thousands and thousands of Iraqis killed in the escalating post-war violence, terrorist attacks and kidnappings proliferating, basic utilities unavailable or unreliable. The situation faced by the troops in Iraq is increasingly harsh. Over 3,000 have died in Iraq, 120 of them British. Rightly, much attention has been directed at the sectarian killings between Sunnis and Shi’as, and there are also rival Shi’a groups fighting each other, but we should not lose sight of the fact that much violence is directed against the foreign occupying forces, especially in Sunni areas such as Falluja.
I am concerned about the conditions of our service people. A constituent who came to my surgery to express her profound distress at Government policy in Iraq pointed out to me that soldiers went to the shops in Edinburgh to get decent footwear to take out to Iraq. The head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, expressed his own concerns two weeks ago and warned that we must not break the Army on the operation in Iraq.
It is possible, as has been said, that some movement is taking place in the United States. Popular support for the US presence in Iraq is very low. The Vice-President, Dick Cheney, said yesterday that al-Qaeda is timing attacks to influence the mid-term elections. To me the fact that he said such a thing is an indication of the desperation in the pro-war leadership of the Republican party. Obviously, it is my profound hope that the outcome of the elections will lead to a real reappraisal of the situation in Iraq.
General Sir Richard Dannatt gave a most illuminating insight a fortnight ago, when he advised that we should
“get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems”.
After all the damage that we are responsible for in Iraq, I would not suggest that we can wash our hands of the future of the Iraqi people, but we must address the question of the extent to which the presence of British forces is part of the problem, and the change of policy that we clearly need to adopt in Iraq must reflect that assessment.
In conclusion, we were wrong to go to war in Iraq, and we cannot wash our hands of the harm that we have done. However, we must not allow ourselves to be influenced by simplistic slogans such as “cut and run” or “stay the course”. Instead, we must make an honest assessment of what we can achieve in Iraq that is in the best interests of the Iraqi people and our own service personnel.
The best debates in this House are when hon. Members on both sides find themselves in almost total agreement, and I pay tribute to what the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) has just said.
It is a depressing illustration of the Government’s indifference to this House that the Foreign Secretary, in the first debate of more than two years on the Floor of the House specifically on Iraq, left the Chamber shortly after her own speech and will presumably not return until the winding-up speeches. The Foreign Secretary and the Government have been reluctant to answer to this House for far too long.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who has raised this valuable debate. However, I must say that I am slightly nervous in one respect, because the Government may seek to use the debate to avoid pressure which they otherwise deserve. It is extraordinary that on an issue such as going to war—the war has led to the disastrous consequences referred to by many hon. Members—it has been three years since the last Government-initiated debate, which took place before the war had even begun. Since then, not only have several thousand coalition servicemen lost their lives and, probably, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis been slaughtered, but we have seen the disintegration of that country, which is unlikely to be reversed. We have also seen sectarianism that is the opposite of what both this Government and the United States Government intended. So far, the only serious beneficiary of the war is the Iranian Government, who are now clearly the power in the region. That extraordinary consequence of Bush-Blair policy was far from what they intended.
Today is not the day to go into the merits and details of the policy, but if we live in a parliamentary democracy in which the Government are accountable to Parliament for the way in which they conduct their affairs, then not having a debate in Government time for three years on a matter as serious as going to war is an extraordinary disgrace of which the Government ought to be ashamed. In reply to my earlier question, the Foreign Secretary said, “We have had debates on foreign policy. We have had debates on defence. No doubt we will have a day on this subject as part of the Queen’s Speech debate.” That is hopeless and unacceptable. The Government’s policy has failed so far, and they are in denial. If they want to recover support in this House and in the country, they must have the guts to come to the Dispatch Box to explain and defend their policy, not once every three years but on a regular basis, to allow their claims to be tested.
Today’s motion is justified because the troops in Iraq and the nation as a whole are not impressed by the argument that this Parliament, which they elected to represent their interests, cannot be trusted to debate these matters without destroying the morale of our forces in Iraq. That argument is absurd, and the Government should be ashamed of it—indeed, I doubt whether they believe it—and it should not be repeated.
No; I am sorry, but I have limited time.
Some of us were always against the war, while others, on both sides of the House, were in favour of it. That does not necessarily make it any easier to reach a judgment on what should happen now and on whether our troops should be withdrawn. I happen to take the view that precisely because the war was an extraordinary and foolish mistake we do not have the luxury of withdrawing our troops immediately—if we conclude that we should not have gone there in the first place. We must reach an honest and objective judgment on whether the balance of interests for the people of Iraq is served by our continuing presence in that country. The arguments in favour of that proposition are, I regret to say, getting weaker and weaker as the months go by.
The Government need to answer certain questions. What will it take for them to admit that their policy has been a failure? How many more people have to die—British troops, American troops and Iraqi civilians? How much further has the disintegration of Iraq to go? We are sometimes asked, “Were you not pleased to see Saddam Hussein go?” Of course I was. If I were a political opponent of the previous Iraqi Government, I would probably be better off now than I was during Saddam’s time, but I regret to say that the lives of the vast majority of Iraqis, including those who have no interest in politics, are vastly worse today than they were three years ago in terms of security, life expectancy, access to public utilities and ability to live their lives without fear. I bitterly regret having to make that point.
The Government must reach a view. When will they admit to this House and to the people of this country that the policy was a fundamental error? That is important not only because confession is good for the soul, but because until the Government accept the failure of their policy, their proposals determining where we go from here will not carry any credibility. If they are seen simply to be defending themselves in an impossible situation, they will carry no authority with regard to future policy.
The relationship between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States has been central to the Government’s policy. The Liberal Democrat spokesman was right to refer to what is happening in the United States, where an extraordinary public debate is taking place. Congress had a full debate on the issue as recently as June this year, and a commission was set up under James Baker with the co-operation of the White House. Massive issues are being discussed openly in the United States. What are the Government doing to contribute to that debate in the United States, or are we excluded from it? Will we simply receive instructions on what the United States Government have decided on either the withdrawal or the continuation of troops in the region? What are the Government doing to encourage an open debate in this country with people in the services, in politics or in other aspects of public life who have a contribution to make?
The Foreign Secretary said only a few days ago that the fragmentation of Iraq might happen and that it is up to the people of Iraq, as if the Government can be indifferent to that consequence. The Government must realise that if Iraq were to disintegrate, which may be the result of their policy, it would have enormous consequences for stability in the Gulf and the middle east as a whole. That outcome would remove an important state in that region, further increase the power of Iran and make the task of obtaining stability in the region much more difficult.
I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall conclude by saying the following, and I make no apology for it. The Government have lived a lie for the past three years. They took this country to war on a false prospectus, and tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, have died as a consequence. The situation in the middle east has never been worse, and both the US Government and the British Government are responsible. This is not the worst disaster since Suez, because it is worse than Suez, and it is worse than Vietnam—at least in Vietnam the war had already begun when the Americans intervened to help one side. On this occasion we actually started the war, which has had horrific consequences. If the motion forces the Government, most of whose members are absent from the Chamber—the Prime Minister did not even turn up in the first place—to realise that their policy will not carry credibility until they claim not only the minimal successes, but the massive failures, then the debate will have been worth while.
On 17 March 2003, I voted against my Labour Government for the first time. It was one of two occasions when I have voted against the Labour Whip. When considering the motion before the House, it is relevant to look back at the reasons why I, and many colleagues, voted against the Government on that day. I was very clear in my own mind that I did not support military action because it was not supported by a United Nations resolution. I had been particularly impressed with the work of Hans Blix and the UN weapons inspectors in the difficult situation during the months leading up to the decision to commit troops, and therefore followed every word that he said and set great store by it.
About two years after we decided to commit troops to Iraq, I attended a meeting addressed by Hans Blix in this House and was struck by what he had to say. He told us that in March 2003 it was his belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Before today’s debate, I looked at the Prime Minister’s speech from 17 March 2003. It was very clear from what he said on that day—and it has always been my judgment—that he believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but I still voted against the Government. I did so because I believe in the rule of law and that international action must be governed by the United Nations, and I took the view that we had not exhausted all available options to avoid war.
On that day, I had already made my decision. I remember coming to the debate and hearing what the Prime Minister had to say. He made his case very eloquently and powerfully. However, I had already met him to discuss the position. I met him eyeball to eyeball and asked him about weapons of mass destruction. I take the view, as I always have, that his honest belief was that those weapons existed in Iraq. I resent the constant assertions by Opposition Members that the Prime Minister in some way misled the House. I do not believe that he did; I believe that he made an honest and genuine mistake. I still believe that it was a mistake—I wish that the decision had never been made—but I cannot support the opportunistic, cynical motion that is before the House today. The nationalists are engaged in a constant campaign to slur the integrity of the Prime Minister, to attack the Labour Government and to make political capital for cheap political ends.
My hon. Friend speaks of the mistakes that were made at the time. Indeed, in their amendment the Government talk of
“the importance of learning all possible lessons”
from what went wrong. Does he agree that there is a widely perceived inadequacy in the inquiries that have taken place so far, which have completely failed to address the mistakes that were made or to reassure the House and the public more widely that the lessons have been learned? Does he agree that in saying that this is not the right time for a major inquiry the Government would be in a much stronger position if they were to tell us when the right time would be?
My view is that in due course there will be an inquiry into the events that led to the troops being committed. However, the issue that was key for me will not be changed by any such inquiry because, as we all know, the United Nations did not pass a resolution authorising military action. The issue of weapons of mass destruction was not the issue that determined my vote. I note that the Government amendment refers to declining “at this time” to have an inquiry. I will support their amendment.
Opposition Members are using the motion to obsess about the past at a time when Iraq is in a position of crisis. Last week, many of my colleagues and I heard the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, address members of the parliamentary Labour party. I am sure that he addressed Opposition Members too. He said that he needs our help and that we must not “cut and run”. I opposed the war in Iraq because I believed that it was wrong, but I believe that we have a moral obligation to support the people of Iraq. We created the difficulty in Iraq and we cannot leave until that position is resolved.
I will not give way, because the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) refused to give way to me, no doubt because he was frit. Opposition Members are cynical opportunists who are exploiting the motion for cynical political ends. They should be addressing the position in Iraq today. They should be looking at the future of Iraq and listening to the elected representatives in Iraq who are saying, “We need your help—give it.” Let us stop obsessing about the past and work together for the future of Iraq.
For personal reasons that the House will well understand, this is the first time that I have contributed formally to a debate since stepping down as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Let me put on the parliamentary record the genuine gratitude of myself and my family to colleagues on both sides of the House, in all parties, for the expressions of goodwill and support that we have enjoyed and much appreciated over the course of the past few months. I am particularly grateful to be contributing to this debate, on this of all issues, which probably consumed more of my time as leader of the Liberal Democrats than just about any other, short of fighting general election campaigns.
I have two brief backward-looking reflections that are central to the whole issue of having an inquiry now. First, during the build-up to the Iraq war, I repeatedly asked the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s questions whether there were any circumstances—given that the Ministry of Defence must plan for all sorts of contingencies as regards any potential trouble spot anywhere in the world that might involve British forces—in which the British Government would not have backed the Americans had they decided to invade Iraq without the authority of the United Nations. That seemed a reasonable question, yet the Prime Minister never answered it. That creates the obvious suspicion that there was never a contingency in his mind that involved anything other than going in with the Americans—preferably with a second UN mandate, but if that was not forthcoming, then without it. We have subsequently read in Mr. Woodward’s book about assurances that the Prime Minister possibly gave, including when he met the President in Crawford at his ranch. That in itself merits a legitimate inquiry, because it has never been properly addressed by any of the inquiries that have taken place.
Secondly, I recall the role played by the Conservatives. I do not want in any way to shatter the convoluted consensus that the former leader of the Conservative party, who is now its foreign affairs spokesman, sought to fashion earlier, but we should remember the time when Conservative Members were shouting out things like “Charlie Chamberlain”—showing, I always felt, a paucity of knowledge of the history of their own parliamentary party—and failing to ask the pertinent questions about what became known as the dodgy dossier.
I can tell the House—as I had my briefing in No. 10 a few minutes later—that the Prime Minister was as taken aback as anyone when the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), emerged from No. 10 Downing street and announced on its steps that war was now both inevitable and desirable, which was not even the official position of the Government at that point.
The Conservatives have not exactly played their part in asking pertinent questions, which is why inquiries remain outstanding. When the Conservatives had the chance of the Butler inquiry, which we decided not to join because its remit was not sufficient, they gave their member of the committee a Privy Counsellorship so that he could join it. They then came out, but their member said that he was not coming out. He stayed in, I presume, as some kind of country club member. He continued with his Privy Counsellorship—and, of course, the Butler inquiry satisfied nobody. Worst of all, the Butler inquiry’s conclusions were dismissed by the Prime Minister in less than 60 seconds in a subsequent debate in the House.
I wish the shadow Foreign Secretary well in building convoluted consensus, of which we have a little tonight. On that track record—who knows?—he might yet form the amorphous new European conservative parliamentary grouping in Brussels on which he seems to be working so hard.
I want to address some points briefly. First, the Foreign Secretary has asked why we should request an inquiry now. The reason is that all the previous inquiries were insufficient. Does that undermine the troops? I remember going to the memorial service as party leader, and talking to parents and relatives of those who have lost their lives. Some supported the Government’s action in Iraq, and some opposed it. I asked each and every one whether it was right for me, and for us, to question the wisdom of the action. Whatever their view on the rights or wrongs of the war, they said, “Our sons and daughters have given their lives in Iraq supposedly in the name of freedom and democracy. If you people back in Westminster cannot exercise and exhibit that freedom and democracy, what were they doing there in the first place?”
Secondly, we have heard about the debate taking place in the United States against the background of the mid-term Congressional elections. Mr. Baker is no soft touch. He was the Secretary of State for the first President George Bush who was told to tell Tariq Aziz across the table that if the Iraqis dared to use chemical or biological weapons against the allied forces after the invasion of Kuwait, the response would be, to use his word, “disproportionate”. If, in the charged electoral context of the United States, somebody like that can play such a pivotal role, what on earth has the British House of Commons to fear from a sensible inquiry at this point?
Finally, as the goalposts have kept moving throughout this tragic episode, the Prime Minister said at one point that there was a great moral case, and at another that the action was a strategic defence of our interests, as we were under a 45-minute threat of potential obliteration. But what did he say in the final debate in the House before the fateful decision was made? Even at that late stage—the record shows it—he said that Saddam and his sons could “save their regime” if they complied with the weapons inspectors. So much for the moral argument being put forward at the time.
The truth will out one day. We will never know how many people lost their lives. On the political tombstone of this Prime Minister will be the word “Iraq”. For hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians in that country there will never be a tombstone, and we will never know their names. More than a hundred soldiers from our country, although we do know their names, are lost. The same is true of thousands of soldiers from the United States. It has been a tragedy, and the House cannot shy away from it.
I understand that those on the Front Bench want to start the wind-up at 6.40, and I will co-operate with that.
The debate is essential, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) for securing it in the first place. It is a debate about our role as Members of Parliament in holding the Government and the Executive to account. That is what we are sent here for. That is why people vote in parliamentary elections. If we want to do something to restore people’s confidence in the democratic process in this country, we should support the motion at 7 o’clock.
We should do that for several reasons. The inquiries that are necessary into the war in Iraq might spare us involvement in future conflicts. They will open up the books and the record on what happened in the run-up to the war in 2003. In an earlier intervention, I asked the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr about just one example of that. In 2002, the Prime Minister met the President of the United States on several occasions, many summit meetings were held, troops were deployed to the theatre of war, and there were constant reports about the weapons inspectors, who were apparently having success both in ridding Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction or the ability to make them, and in reducing the appalling human rights abuses that Saddam Hussein and his regime had been committing against the people of that country. A serious process was going on.
Using our power in the Security Council, however, we prevented the weapons inspectors from going back into Iraq in January 2003. At the same time, massive public demonstrations took place, including the million-plus march in London and equivalent sized demonstrations in the USA. I had the privilege of attending the one in London, and of attending an enormous one in San Francisco. There was always huge opposition to the war in the USA, and as President Bush is about to find out next week, that opposition has grown a lot bigger. We need answers to that question about the weapons inspectors.
We also need answers to the question of the legality of the war. Let us consider the way in which United Nations Security Council resolution 1441 was constantly prayed in aid by Ministers as a justification for the war. There is no justification for war when no ever-ready, real or present threat existed, when there were no weapons of mass destruction, and when no weapons were going to be fired off at 45 minutes’ notice. What we had was a President backed into a corner and troops in theatre, so we had to go for it. The war duly took place.
As other Members have pointed out, since the troops arrived in Iraq, according to The Lancet, 650,000 Iraqis, more than 2,000 American soldiers and more than a hundred British soldiers have lost their lives. In my involvement with the Stop the War campaign, I have met many of the families of British soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq. In my constituency, I have also met many Iraqis seeking asylum from both Saddam Hussein and the current situation. None of them praised Saddam Hussein, but all thought that the situation was now more dangerous and worse than when the invasion took place. Those views need to be heard, and the inquiries need to be held.
No. I have only one minute left.
I want the motion to be carried so that we establish a committee of inquiry into all the circumstances surrounding the run-up to the war, the aftermath of the war in Iraq and what we do in future. We live in a world where terrorism has been encouraged by the invasion of Iraq, and, I believe, by the continued presence in Afghanistan. If we want to live in a world of perpetual wars throughout this century, we are going the right way about it. If we want to live in a world of peace and justice, we need to examine how we got into this perilous situation, why we are continuing in it, and what we are doing to address the grievances in the world—Palestinian grievances, the gap between rich and poor, and all the other problems facing the planet. That is the way forward. We should examine our consciences and what we have done, and learn the lessons from that.
It is an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), because if I remember correctly he was one of 23 hon. Members who, two years ago, started the campaign to bring parliamentary accountability to the situation. Over those two years, the motion put forward for discussion has changed—it has had to—and tonight 170 Members from both sides of the Chamber, including Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru, Independent and Conservative Members, are brought together to endorse the motion before the House.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give me a minute or two to develop my point first. I certainly will not forget him: he signed the early-day motion. I just hope that he has the courage to follow his conscience into the Lobby this evening. No doubt he will tell us in a minute or two.
I pay tribute to the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrat party for their position on the war. It was not so difficult for us to follow through on that position because we are united as parties, but when Labour and Conservative Members differ from their party it may take a great deal of moral courage to go against what their Front-Bench spokesmen say. The fact that the motion is being debated in the House is a demonstration of Back-Bench responsibility. It is the duty of Parliament to hold the Government to account.
Last Wednesday, I remember that the Prime Minister told the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that he would be delighted to debate Iraq in the House “at any time.” Clearly, tonight was not convenient for the Prime Minister. He would have been well advised to turn up, because the Foreign Secretary did not give him the sort of defence that I would like her to give me, if my conduct was being examined.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Let me say to him, in a comradely way, “You tube”, because I have just been watching him on YouTube, where he says:
“On Halloween the ghost of Iraq will return to haunt Blair. The SNP and Plaid Cymru have put down a motion to impeach Blair and hold him to account.”
What is it to be—impeachment or an inquiry?
The hon. Gentleman should accept that we ought not to allow the Leader of the Opposition to be the only politician on YouTube. I would not want to condemn the youngsters of this country to such a situation. If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, rather than preparing his question, he would know that that I referred to precisely that issue—to the 23 Members, including the hon. Member for Islington, North, who came together to introduce a motion of impeachment. However, it was argued that we should change the motion for two reasons. The first was to broaden the base, because it is not just the Prime Minister who is responsible. Ministers have collective responsibility, and it was Government policy that took us into Iraq. The second reason, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows even though he is relatively new, was that the process of impeachment is a trial in Parliament by the House of Lords. Given what I found out recently about the complexion of Members in the House of Lords, I now think that Members of the House of Commons are the right people to hold such an inquiry. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
I am glad to see that the Foreign Secretary has returned to her place. Earlier, she made the extraordinary proposition that it was not the right time to hold an inquiry. Apparently, we can allow an inquiry by Lord Butler and Lord Hutton when our troops are in the field, but not a parliamentary inquiry. What kind of argument is that? I know that the Foreign Secretary only recently took up her post, and perhaps she is not yet fully in command of her brief, but when she was asked a direct question by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples)—a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee—about its inquiry, she said that there had been no Government obstruction of that inquiry. That is remarkable, because I have before me the title of the first special report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which reads “Implications for the Work of the House and its Committees of the Government’s Lack of Co-operation with the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Inquiry into The Decision to go to War in Iraq”. If the Foreign Secretary wants to be a success in her position and to defend the Prime Minister, she should familiarise herself with the work of that Select Committee.
I was interested to hear the Foreign Secretary pray in aid my old friend Tam Dalyell against the Franks committee. I am in no doubt whatever about which Lobby Tam Dalyell would go into this evening, if he were still in the House. There are three basic arguments for the motion. The first concerns parliamentary accountability. It is pretty unprecedented in recent times, but the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) reminded me that Lord Liverpool, in 1855, fell on just such a motion—
Yes, it was Lord Aberdeen who, in 1855, fell on just such a motion, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is claiming to have personal knowledge of that debate. Nonetheless, we should be reminded by history that it is not unprecedented for a motion to have such results. I have listened to every word of this debate, unlike the Foreign Secretary, and so can say that we should have such debates more often in the House, because they do us enormous credit. The debate is on current events in Iraq, as well as the history of the war. That is why the motion refers to the war “and its aftermath”.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, in a second or two.
The Foreign Secretary shook her head when my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who moved the motion, suggested that she had admitted that historians might judge the Iraqi adventure a foreign policy disaster. I have with me the transcript of her interview on BBC Radio 4. Asked whether historians might ultimately conclude that the war was a “foreign policy disaster” for Britain, the Foreign Secretary replied:
“Yes, they may. Then again, they may not.”
I am reluctant to intervene, but what the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) actually claimed was that I had said that the war was a disaster. I did not say that; I would never say that, and I am sick and tired of journalists putting words into my mouth, as they so frequently do.
Asked whether historians would judge Iraq to have been a “foreign policy disaster”, the Foreign Secretary said:
“Yes, they may. Then again, they may not.”
She will forgive us if that does not fill the House with confidence about her confidence in the policy on Iraq. She should accept that Members may judge, before historians do, whether the policy has been a disaster. Members might sometimes offer the Government some wisdom that could change the situation and—who knows?—alter the course of events and save lives.
Before I give way, the third reason for supporting the motion concerns what happens if the same circumstances arise in future. Surely we should look to the future. What happens if there is another conflict that the House is misled into supporting, and if we are bounced into another Iraq? The back-stop of full, parliamentary accountability will make any Government, and any Prime Minister, think again before taking the course that the Prime Minister took.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we do not have an exit strategy on Iraq, and that the chaos can continue for many years to come? Does he agree that if we are to decide on an exit strategy, we first need to know why we were there, and does he agree that we should not accede to the American aspiration to set up permanent bases, which will almost certainly mean a permanent insurgency?
I agree with the right hon. Lady. I understand that she was at the Cabinet table when the decisions were being made, and I respect her opinion. Her doubts carry a great deal of credibility—perhaps more credibility than the words of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). He accused my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr of impugning the motives of the Attorney-General. I read the former Home Secretary’s memoirs only a few days ago, and, as I understand it, they suggest that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may have fallen in behind the Prime Minister only because he was frightened of losing his job. When it comes to impugning motives, my hon. Friend can take lessons from the former Home Secretary.
Those of us who know the hon. Gentleman from his work in Scotland know that he is a straight-talking guy, so before Members from both sides of the House go into the Lobby, can he tell us, unequivocally, whether he has said today that the motion is about the impeachment of the Prime Minister? Can he answer that question?
The motion began as an impeachment motion. [Hon. Members: “Answer!”] We tabled the motion that appears on the Order Paper to secure maximum unity across the House. It is concerned with parliamentary responsibility and accountability. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read it and follow his conscience by joining us in the Lobby.
Many of us remember the debate on Iraq in which the Prime Minister said that it was “palpably absurd” not to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He told us that he had never made the argument for regime change when defending the decision to invade Iraq. He has made that argument many times since the invasion, because clearly he can no longer make the argument about weapons of mass destruction. Those are not matters of opinion, but of fact—we know that there were not any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that the American justification that al-Qaeda was involved was tenuous at best. There was no connection with 9/11 to justify the invasion and the casualty toll as a result of the action is a matter of fact: 120 British soldiers and 2,821 American soldiers are dead. Tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of Iraqi civilians are dead. Those are the consequences of the decision by the House.
Suez was raised a number of times in our debate, but casualties there did not approach the total that I have just given the House. Certainly, lives were lost, but not to the extent that they have been lost in Iraq—16 British soldiers were lost at Suez, every one a tragedy; 1,650 Egyptians were killed, every one a tragedy. Compared with the consequences that have befallen us in Iraq, however, Suez is as nothing. Yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a campaign to save the world from climate change. They have spent $5 billion in Iraq and the Americans have spent $200 billion. What if those resources had been devoted to saving the planet, rather than starting an illegal war?
Finally, our genuinely cross-party motion provides a chance to achieve parliamentary accountability. It is an opportunity for the House of Commons to live up to our constituents’ expectations. It has been said that our soldiers would be discouraged if the motion were agreed, but they would be discouraged only if they thought that the House had forgotten them and was frightened to debate the implications of Iraq. They would be discouraged if they thought that Members were not prepared to table motions or consider how we can get out of the morass into which we have been led. It is the Government who refuse to debate or introduce policies, but it is the House of Commons, by voting in the Division Lobby tonight, that can finally hold them to account.
There is one thing that can be said about the nationalists—never do a deal with them, because they have already eaten into my time. I shall come on to the shoddy deals that have been done.
In opening this debate, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the historical context to explain why we engaged in Iraq. She mentioned the need to uphold the integrity of the United Nations, pointing out that for 12 years Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime had defied the authority of the international community. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that that entailed 18 resolutions. All of them, including the resolutions under chapter VII of the UN charter, were ignored by Saddam Hussein. There is no doubt that when the House considered the need to take action against Iraq on 18 March 2003 that was very much at the forefront of many right hon. and hon. Members’ thinking.
May I give one quote from that debate in the Official Report that sums up that view and my assertion? It reads:
“Those who say that action is not necessary now must remember that we have passed so many deadlines, so many ultimatums, that not to take action now is to reduce the credibility of any action being taken…The Prime Minister has put before the House the right decision. He deserves the support of hon. Members in all parts of the House.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 793.]
That judgment was right then, and it is right now. It was made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) who, as shadow Foreign Secretary, now advocates that we revisit the decision that he strongly supported at the time. In his contribution, he asked a litany of questions about the past that needed to be answered. We have accepted, time and again—
No, I shall not give way at the moment.
We have accepted that things could, and should, have been done differently. There is no question about that—it is a given statement of fact. At all times, however, we must analyse what is happening to find the best way forward and develop a course of action now and in future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is little hunger in our constituencies for a retrospective inquiry? However, will Ministers give an undertaking tonight that we will regularly return to this debate in future to determine what is best for our forces and what is best for Iraq?
My right hon. Friend has made a valid point. It has been said tonight that we have innumerable foreign affairs and defence debates, and we have tried to address the matter in those debates. We do not control what is said, and we must respond to the points that are made. There will be five more defence debates in the near future, and I am sure that there will be many other such opportunities. I am on record as saying that we must constantly make clear what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and anywhere else where our troops are deployed. The short answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is therefore yes.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did not provide a single idea about how to deal with the present or with the way forward, which leads me to ask what type of evidence he and his party would give the inquiry. I believe that they are going to vote for it to be set up now, so he had better start thinking about what he is going to say, because he did not have an iota or shred of idea about how to move forward. His motives, and those of his party, must be called into question, not because they disagree with our actions in Iraq, but because they want to score a cheap political point to gain political advantage at a difficult time.
I accept that that is part of the normal cut and thrust of our parliamentary democracy, but on this occasion it has arisen at a time when our armed forces are engaged in a mighty struggle alongside the legitimate Government of Iraq and their security forces. That is what makes it different. The hard logic is that Opposition parties are asking for an inquiry into the past, probably into the present and—this is not quite clear—into future strategy. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made plain, however, we are at a critical point in Iraq. Is it being suggested that we suspend our analysis of the way forward or change our course of action if required while we await the results of such an inquiry? That could be one implication of the motion. The judgment is that we have got it wrong in the past and present, and will probably do so in future.