[1st Allotted Day]
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2015–16, on Flexible response? An SDSR checklist of potential threats and vulnerabilities, HC 493, and the Government’s response, Fourth Special Report of Session 2015–16, HC 794. Eleventh Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2014–15, on Decision-making in Defence Policy, HC 682, and the Government’s response, Third Special Report of Session 2015–16, HC 367. Seventh Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2014–15, on The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH), HC 690, and the Government’s response, Twelfth Special Report of Session 2014–15, HC 1126. Fourteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2013–14, on Intervention: Why, When and How?, HC 952, and the Government’s response, Fourth Special Report of Session 2014–15, HC 581.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Report of the Iraq Inquiry.
I welcome the opportunity to open this first day of debate on the report of the Iraq inquiry. I suspect that, in the circumstances, the world’s eye will not be focused on our proceedings with quite the laser-like intensity that might have been expected when the debate was originally announced.
Let me start by paying tribute to the work of Sir John Chilcot and other members of the inquiry committee, including the late Sir Martin Gilbert, who sadly passed away during the writing of the report. For anyone who has read even just part of this report—I defy anyone to say that they have read the entire thing—it will be clear that the committee has discharged what is a Herculean task thoroughly, fairly, with great rigour and a degree of frankness that will reassure those who feared a whitewash and that ensures there can be no ambiguity about the lessons that need to be learned.
I also want to signal my understanding that the publication of the Chilcot report a week ago will have been a poignant and no doubt difficult moment for the families of those who lost loved ones in Iraq. It is important, even as we examine the detail of the report and conduct this debate, that they know that this House will never forget the sacrifice of the 179 British servicemen and women, as well as the 23 British civilians, who lost their lives during the conflict and its aftermath. We will also never forget the service and the sacrifice of the thousands more who suffered life-changing injuries, and we reaffirm to them today our determination that they will get the care they need for the rest of their lives. I hope that the survivors and the relatives of the fallen alike will have taken comfort from the assiduous and detailed examination of the war to be found in this report. The sacrifice of our service people demands nothing less.
More than 13 years since the invasion of Iraq began, 10 years since the Conservative party and others first called for it, and seven years since the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally commissioned it, the Iraq inquiry report sets out to try to answer the crucial questions that have dominated the debate about the war in Iraq and the events that preceded and followed it. Did the United Kingdom decide to go to war on a mistaken or false premise? Were all the decisions leading up to the war and subsequently properly taken and informed by proper consideration of legal advice? Was the operation to invade Iraq properly planned and executed? Did the Government of the day foresee and prepare adequately for the aftermath? Were our armed forces adequately funded and provided with the proper protection and equipment for their task?
Digesting fully the contents of this report will take weeks rather than days. In 13 volumes and 2.6 million words, Sir John and his committee take us in painstaking detail through the decision making in Government between 2001, when the possibility of military action first arose, and 2009, when British combat troops finally departed Iraq. They set out the conclusions that they have reached on some of the central issues that have proved so controversial, including the handling, use and presentation of secret intelligence, and they identify many lessons that should be learned and implemented for the future.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that a number of us are a bit perplexed at the speed with which this admittedly two-day debate is taking place? As he said, there are 2.6 million words to be read, and for a full understanding it seems to me that today’s debate is a little premature and might have been better left until the autumn.
I suspect that right hon. and hon. Members would have been dismayed if they had not had an opportunity to put on record their reactions to the Chilcot report, albeit necessarily initial reactions. We will no doubt hear in the course of debate whether the concerns that my right hon. Friend expresses are widely shared.
The words of the very first paragraph of the executive summary of the report spell out the enormity of the undertaking and thus the gravity that should have attended all aspects of its preparation and execution:
“In 2003, for the first time since the Second World War, the United Kingdom took part in an opposed invasion and full-scale occupation of a sovereign State–Iraq.”
A reading of Sir John’s report, however, suggests that flaws, errors and omissions abounded. If the House will allow me, I will try to summarise the key findings that he makes.
First, on the question of why the United Kingdom went to war, the two issues central to the case that Tony Blair put forward were Saddam’s failure to comply with the obligations imposed by the UN Security Council between 1991 and 1999, and the message that the international community would send if those obligations were not enforced, and the threat to international peace and security from the weapons of mass destruction that, he argued, were at Saddam’s disposal.
The report identifies an
“ingrained belief of the Government and the intelligence community that Saddam Hussein’s regime retained chemical and biological warfare capabilities, was determined to preserve and if possible enhance its capabilities . . . and was pursuing an active and successful policy of deception and concealment.”
There were good reasons for this belief, given the past actions of Saddam’s regime. His past use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians and Iranian military forces, his refusal to comply with the demands of weapons inspectors, and his refusal to comply with UN Security Council resolutions all pointed in that direction. As Sir John set out:
“As late as 17 March, Mr Blair was being advised by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons, the means to deliver them and the capacity to produce them.”
However, as Sir John also says:
“It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments.”
He finds that
“At no stage was the proposition that Iraq might no longer have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined”
by either the Joint Intelligence Committee or the wider intelligence community.
In the case that he set out to the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, Mr Blair also argued that there was a link between international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and that—I quote from the then Prime Minister’s statement—
“the two together constitute a fundamental assault on our way of life.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 767.]
Sir John finds that
“While it was reasonable for the Government to be concerned about the fusion of proliferation and terrorism, there was no basis in the JIC Assessments to suggest that Iraq itself represented such a threat.”
When it comes to the use and presentation of intelligence, in particular the Government’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction published on the day of the Commons debate on 24 September 2002, Sir John finds that
“There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No.10 improperly influenced the text”
“The JIC accepted ownership of the dossier and agreed its content.”
However, he also finds that the judgments presented in Mr Blair’s statement to the House that day and in the dossier
“were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”
The Joint Intelligence Committee, he finds, should have made it clear to Mr Blair that the assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt either that Iraq had continued to produce chemical or biological weapons, or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued.
On the much debated question of the legality of the war, the inquiry has not expressed a view on whether military action was legal. As Sir John says, that could
“only be resolved by a properly constituted and internationally recognised Court.”
The Government are refusing to release confidential advice that Whitehall officials gave to Gordon Brown about the remit of the inquiry. This advice was what made it impossible for Sir John Chilcot to rule on whether the 2003 war was illegal. The Government’s refusal flies in the face of an Information Tribunal ruling which ordered the material’s release, and it means that the public cannot see what options were considered when deciding on the nature and the scope of the inquiry when it was established. Will the Government reconsider their refusal to release that information?
The Government, in considering this report, will look at all these matters, but that is not the answer that Sir John has primarily identified for his decision not to pass any view on whether military action was legal. He says that the inquiry was not constituted in a way, nor did it have the necessary skills or qualifications, to make that decision.
With respect, that is precisely my question. The Information Tribunal has ordered the release of material showing why the remit of the inquiry was so refined. This is not a criticism of Chilcot; it is a criticism of the present Government for refusing to release information about why the scope of the inquiry was restricted and could not look at the legality. That is what the public want to know.
The point I am making is that Sir John himself identifies not the lack of remit, but the lack of qualifications of the members of the inquiry to reach that decision. He says that that could
“only be resolved by a properly constituted and internationally recognised Court.”
The hon. and learned Lady will know that a huge number of documents have been declassified and made available in this process, but clearly it is not possible to declassify every document.
Sir John goes on to find that, although the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, advised on 13 March 2003 that there was, on balance, a secure legal basis for military action,
“The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory.”
Sir John, however, is clear that military action was not undertaken as “a last resort”— that there were further diplomatic steps that could have been taken to seek compliance by the Saddam regime—and that by moving to a military solution when the UNSC would not sanction such a development the UK, far from upholding it, was “undermining the Security Council”.
The Foreign Secretary will have seen the comments of Robin Butler before publication of the Chilcot report last week. According to Robin Butler,
“The legality or illegality of the Iraq war was never a question Sir John Chilcot was asked to deal with”,
so why will not the Government release the documents which might give the public and Parliament an insight into why the Chilcot inquiry did not have the remit and was not qualified to deal with the legality question?
The point that I have made already and will make again is that as I understand it Sir John has not identified lack of remit as the reason why he has given no opinion on the legality of the war. He has identified a lack of appropriate skill sets in the inquiry, and he suggested that it should be a matter that is dealt with by a properly constituted and internationally recognised court. As I have said already, the Government in looking at the report of the Iraq inquiry—it will take some time to do that—will consider all these matters, including questions that the right hon. Gentleman is raising about whether any further documents can appropriately be declassified and made available.
Obviously, John Chilcot’s report is masterful in its description of the formal records and the detail, and in the lessons he very wisely draws. However, will the Foreign Secretary, as a politician, look at the political context for a moment? Does he agree that the background was clearly that the Americans and the Blair Government wished to invade Iraq to change the regime and get rid of Saddam Hussein? However, that would have been illegal regime change, so what my right hon. Friend has just gone through—people’s desperate desire to find evidence and to persuade themselves that there were weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam was not co-operating with the inspectors, that there was a risk of terrorism and so on—was mainly, and no doubt subconsciously, motivated by a desire to give the Attorney General some basis on which he could say that this action was legal?
My reading of the inquiry report is that it does indeed identify that regime change as an objective would be illegal in UK law, but I think the suggestion is that, through a process of group-think, the people who were involved in this process came to see regime change as a means to deliver the legitimate objective, which was compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions. A fair reading of the report suggests that that is the process of mind that is being spelled out by Sir John.
I hope I may be able to assist the Foreign Secretary, although whether he will regard it like that is another matter. I perfectly understand what the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) says, and I understand that it is a view that he has held for a long time, but having had the advantage—that he did not—of being in the Cabinet room when these discussions were taking place, can I just tell the Foreign Secretary that, as we got closer and closer to decision time, the then Prime Minister, Mr Blair, stressed on repeated occasions to the Cabinet that the resolution called for Saddam Hussein to comply with the UN inspectors, and if he did so comply, there would be no military action? He pointed out that the downside of that was that this terrible man, who certainly did commit war crimes on a mass scale, would remain in power, but that that was a downside we would have to accept.
I am sure the House is grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving that insight from the frontline, as it were, of where this debate started, but one of the things that comes out very clearly from a reading of the report is the misalignment between the position of the UK Government and the position of the US Government, who clearly were pursuing regime change as an objective, as they were legally entitled to do under their own regime.
On operational planning, it is well recorded that the initial invasion and defeat of Iraqi forces proceeded rapidly. The UK’s armed forces performed extremely well—a fact of which we and they should be proud—despite the changes to the overall invasion plan as a result of the Turkish Government’s decision to refuse access to Iraq’s borders through Turkish territory. In fact, Iraq’s military turned out to be a good deal less formidable than many of us had imagined.
The task that should have been at least as big as preparing for the invasion was preparing for the aftermath. As Tony Blair said before the Liaison Committee in January 2003:
“You do not engage in military conflict that may produce regime change unless you are prepared to follow through and work in the aftermath of that regime change to ensure the country is stable and the people are properly looked after.”
However, Sir John has found that, when the invasion of Iraq began, the UK Government
“was not in a position to conclude that satisfactory plans had been drawn up and preparations made to meet known post-conflict challenges and risks in Iraq”.
Understanding what those challenges were—the need to restore broken infrastructure, administer a state and provide security, including against the threats of internecine violence, terrorism and Iranian influence—did not, as the report clearly states,
“require the benefit of hindsight”.
However, the Government assumed that the US would be responsible for preparing the post-conflict plan, that the plan would be authorised by the UN Security Council and that the UN would play a major post-conflict role, with the international community sharing the post-conflict burden.
The report finds that the Government
“expected not to have to make a substantial commitment to post-conflict administration.”
It concludes that the failure to anticipate and plan for post-conflict challenges in the short-to-medium term increased the risk that the UK would be unable to respond to the unexpected in Iraq, and, in the longer term, reduced the likelihood of achieving the UK’s strategic objectives there.
Let me just bring the Secretary of State back for a second to the point about regime change. Does he agree that it is important that what is said in private should be reflected in Parliament, and vice versa? On 18 March 2003, Tony Blair said to Parliament:
“I have never put the justification for action as regime change.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 772.]
However, in a private note to Bush just a week later, on 26 March, he said:
“That’s why, though Iraq’s WMD is the immediate justification for action, ridding Iraq of Saddam is the real prize.”
It goes without saying that Ministers—indeed, all Members—should be completely truthful in their utterances to Parliament at all times, and the ministerial code makes that clear.
Specifically on the reconstruction effort, Sir John finds that
“the UK failed to plan or prepare for the major reconstruction programme required”
and that lessons that had been learned through previous reviews of post-conflict reconstruction and stabilisation
“were not applied in Iraq”.
On the issue of de-ba’athification, Sir John finds that early decisions on the form of de-Ba’athification and its implementation
“had a significant and lasting negative impact on Iraq.”
Limiting de-Ba’athification to the top three tiers, rather than four, of the party would have had the potential to be far less damaging to Iraq’s post-invasion recovery and political stability. The UK chose not to act on its well-founded misgivings about handing over implementation of de-Ba’athification policy to the governing council.
Turning to the equipping and resourcing of British troops, Sir John finds that the Government failed to match resources to the objectives. He records that by undertaking concurrent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Government
“knowingly exceeded the Defence Planning Assumptions.”
At least in part as a consequence, Sir John concludes that the military role ended
“a long way from success.”
Furthermore, he finds that
“delays in providing adequate medium weight Protected Patrol Vehicles and the failure to meet the needs of UK forces...for ISTAR and helicopters should not have been tolerated”
and that the
“MoD was slow in responding to the developing threat from Improvised Explosive Devices.”
At the end of this analysis, Sir John finds plainly that
“the Iraq of 2009 certainly did not meet the UK’s objectives...it fell far short of strategic success.”
These findings relate to decisions taken at that time, and the arrangements and processes in place at the time. It is, therefore, for those who were Ministers at the time to answer for their actions. This Government’s role is not to seek to apportion blame or to revisit those actions; it is to ensure that the lessons identified by Chilcot are learned, and that they have already led to changes or will lead to changes being implemented in the future.
The Government, including previous Administrations, have not stood still while waiting for the findings we have before us today. There were a number of important reviews relating to the invasion and occupation of Iraq before Chilcot, including Lord Butler’s review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, Lord Hutton’s inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly, and the inquiries of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee of both Houses. As a result of each, lessons have been identified and changes have been implemented, so a good deal of the work has already been done.
I hear what the Foreign Secretary says about processes, but does he judge that the post-war reconstruction in Libya would give us any confidence that the lessons have been learned from the post-war reconstruction of Iraq?
I think the two things are completely different. In Iraq at the end of the war, Britain was a joint occupying power and shared joint responsibility for the occupation commission. We were in control of the territory, exercising all the functions and responsibility of Government. As a result of the decisions that were taken around Libya, British boots were never on the ground, we were never in control of that country and we were never an occupying power, so we did not have it within our capability to take the actions that we should have done.
Let me summarise the most important lessons that Sir John has drawn in this report. First, taking military action should always be a last resort. Only after exhausting all credible alternatives should we consider taking the country to war. I believe—this is my personal belief—that the political price that has been paid for apparently neglecting this important principle will ensure that future Administrations are unlikely to overlook it.
Secondly, how government is conducted matters. The failures of process, of challenge, and even of proper record-keeping identified by Sir John were serious and widespread. In part to prevent such failures in the future, the Conservative-led coalition Government established the National Security Council in May 2010 to ensure that there is proper, co-ordinated, strategic decision making across the whole of Government. The NSC includes the Chief of the Defence Staff, the heads of the intelligence agencies, and the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as well as relevant Ministers—and now the Attorney General—alongside senior officials. It is properly supported by a dedicated secretariat led by the national security adviser, ensuring that all parts of the national security apparatus are properly joined up across Whitehall and beyond.
So we now have a system that ensures that decisions on serious security issues are taken on the basis of full papers and proper challenge and discussion, with legal advice fully explained and considered, and proposals stress-tested by Departments, with decisions formally recorded. Having sat on the National Security Council for six years, first as an occasional member, as Transport Secretary, and then permanently as Defence Secretary and now Foreign Secretary, it seems to me highly improbable that the process of conduct of business in relation to this matter through 2002 and 2003, as set out by Chilcot, could be repeated now.
I think that the Foreign Secretary’s last comment was particularly complacent. Looking at, for example, the Attorney General, why is that not an independent appointment? Why do we still allow the Attorney General to be an appointment of the Prime Minister? It should be somebody who is independent and legally qualified in this area, and that certainly was not the case during the Iraq war.
The Attorney General’s office is of course filled with expert lawyers. The Attorney General produces his advice on the basis of the advice provided to him by his expert lawyers. I have no doubt, from my extensive experience of Attorney General advice, both as Defence Secretary and as Foreign Secretary, that it is impartial, fearless, and quite often gives us advice that we perhaps do not like, and we have to change course accordingly, as is appropriate. [Interruption.] No, the hon. Lady is taking a conspiracy theory too far. If we get advice from the Attorney General that steers us away from a course of action, then we move to a different course of action. I can tell her, from my own direct experience—my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will have similar examples from the relatively recent past—of advice from the Attorney General causing us to think again and go in a different direction.
It is important to note, is it not, that when sofa government takes place, officials from the Government Legal Service and the Attorney General’s Office are not present to hear the conversations and to give advice where necessary?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is one of the purposes of a more formal process of decision making. I can say from personal experience that Attorney General advice is often complex, and it is necessary to have it in advance of the meeting at which decisions will be discussed and taken so that one can absorb it and consult one’s own departmental lawyers, as a departmental Minister, to explain it, challenge it, or review it further.
The third lesson to draw from the inquiry is that a culture at the heart of Government that welcomes challenge to the conventional wisdom of “the system”, or the strongly held convictions of Ministers, is essential to avoid the sort of group-think that led to what Chilcot describes as
“the ingrained belief…that Saddam Hussein’s regime retained chemical and biological warfare capabilities”.
Inevitably, the culture at the centre of any Government is a product primarily of the climate established by the Prime Minister of the day. Ensuring that people around the NSC table feel free to speak their minds without jeopardising their careers is the greatest contribution a Prime Minister can make. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) for the way in which he has done that over the past six years.
Fourthly, proper planning for the aftermath of any intervention in another country is vital to successfully delivering the overall objective. The failure in London properly to plan for the conflict’s aftermath, fatally combined with the flawed assumption that the Americans must have a plan, when they did not, led inevitably to the chaos that we saw on the ground in Iraq. As we know will be the case in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and again, today, Iraq, when the current conflicts in each end, the challenge of rebuilding effective governance in conflict-torn countries is enormous. Under this Government, we have created the conflict, stability and stabilisation fund—CSSF—with £1 billion a year in it now, rising to £1.3 billion by the end of the spending review period. It builds on the success of the cross-Government stabilisation unit to ensure proper planning and preparedness for post-conflict situations and a capacity for rapid deployment of expert staff anywhere in the world.
The fifth lesson that we draw—one that I feel particularly keenly as a former Defence Secretary—is that our armed forces must always be properly equipped for the tasks we ask them to do. That is why we have instituted quinquennial strategic defence and security reviews to ensure that we commit the level of resources necessary to meet the ambition set out in the national security strategy. Since 2010, we have eliminated the £38 billion black hole we inherited in the defence procurement budget; we have continued to meet the NATO commitment to spend at least 2% of our GDP on defence; and we have set out a 10-year forward defence equipment programme, planning to invest at least £178 billion on new military equipment over the next decade. I am proud of these decisions. But we should be clear today that the decision to send our troops into a pre-planned engagement without the right equipment, in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, was unacceptable and something that no Government should ever allow to happen again.
There are, of course, many more lessons to be drawn from the report of the Iraq inquiry—too many to fit into a single speech—and some of them, I am sure, will be drawn out during the course of the debate today and tomorrow. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney said in his statement last week, there are also some lessons and conclusions that we could draw, but should avoid drawing. First, we should not dismiss the importance of solidarity with our close friends and allies, the United States, when our common security interests are threatened. As both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have reaffirmed in their respective recent visits to London, the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is special. We share not only culture and history, but fundamental values. America is our principal ally and partner around the world, and our partnership remains vital for our continued security and prosperity. Of course, that does not mean that we should blindly or slavishly follow US foreign policy, or fail to speak frankly and honestly, as close friends should. But we must be clear about the value of the relationship between our two countries, and clear that that value is a legitimate factor to be taken into account in British foreign policy decisions. Protecting and enhancing the special relationship, in itself, makes Britain safer.
Secondly, it would be wrong to conclude that we cannot trust the analysis and judgments of the UK intelligence community. As Foreign Secretary, I know as well as anyone the vital contribution our intelligence agencies make to keeping Britain and the British people safe, and I know the risks they sometimes have to take in order to do so. But intelligence is rarely black and white, and it always comes with a calibrated health warning as to the confidence level the user should attach to it. That places a burden of responsibility on the user when decisions or, indeed, strategic communications are based on intelligence. The reforms that were put in place following the Butler report have, quite properly, separated the process of assessing intelligence from the policy making that flows from it. I believe that our intelligence and policy making machinery today is in much better shape than it was in 2003 as a result of this and other reforms.
Thirdly, we should not conclude that our military lacks capability to intervene successfully around the world. As the Chilcot report highlights, the military invasion of Iraq, despite the problems of planning, was successfully and swiftly completed. It was the failure of policy makers to plan for the aftermath that led to the subsequent deterioration in the security situation.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, we must not conclude that military intervention in another country is always wrong. As the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 and the French-led intervention in Mali in 2014 have shown, there are circumstances in which it is absolutely right and appropriate to intervene. Having commemorated just two days ago the 21st anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, we must also acknowledge that there have been times in our recent history when the international community should have intervened but did not, with Srebrenica and Rwanda being the most prominent examples.
Despite the risks of action and the failures of the past, Britain must not and will not shrink from military intervention as a last resort when our security is threatened; nor will it resile from its proper role on the world stage. Our commitment to the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria is testament to that resolve. Today the United Kingdom stands united with Iraq in the face of continued terrorism. We will continue to help the Iraqi people as they defeat Daesh, reassert the territorial integrity of their country and seek to build a better future for their children.
There is no greater decision that a Prime Minister and a Cabinet can take than to commit this country to war, to ask our troops to put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. The decision to invade Iraq and topple its Government in 2003 was among the most controversial in our nation’s recent history. It is right, therefore, that we should seek to learn the lessons from the mistakes that were made, to ensure that they are not repeated in the future.
The report of the Iraq inquiry has been a long time coming, but I think that most agree that it is a thorough, independent and exhaustive piece of work. It does not pull its punches in its analysis, and its conclusions and lessons are clearly drawn and unambiguous. As I set out earlier, I am confident that many of the most important lessons identified in the report have already been learned and the necessary responses already implemented, but in the weeks and months ahead, as we examine the report in greater detail, the Government will look further at whether any additional steps are required.
A decision to wage war is not easily reversible, so it must be carefully and diligently made with proper regard to due process and legal obligations. War itself is, of course, intrinsically dangerous, so it must be properly prepared for and the people fighting it must be properly equipped and protected. The aftermath of war is unpredictable but usually ugly, so it must be meticulously planned for and systematically executed. But, subject to those conditions, we should be clear as a nation that we will not resile from the use of military force to protect our security where all other options have failed.
Sir John has done the nation a great service in pointing the way to ensure the proper, safe and legal use of military force. The rest is up to us.
If this is the Foreign Secretary’s last appearance at the Dispatch Box in his current role, he has made a typically serious and thoughtful speech for his farewell. It behoves all of us to reflect seriously and thoughtfully on the Chilcot report, and the Labour party has a duty to apologise for the mistakes made to all the families of the British servicemen and women and civilian personnel who lost their lives, to all those who suffered life-changing injuries, and to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died and are still dying today. The Leader of the Opposition has rightly done that.
If there is one grave danger that we face, it is that we will assume that all the lessons of Chilcot have been learned. I listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary, and I am concerned about some of his statements. One draws from them that he assumes that the mistakes made in Iraq cannot be made again. Indeed, the outgoing Prime Minister, in his statement last week, seemed to pick out the same five lessons that the Foreign Secretary mentioned today and said that he felt the lessons had been learned. He seemed to say that the actions that have already been taken, such as the setting up of the National Security Council and the creation of the conflict, stability and security fund, had effectively fixed the problems that arose from the Iraq war.
I will repeat what I actually said. I am confident that many of the most important lessons identified in the report have already been learned and the necessary responses implemented, but in the weeks and months ahead, as we examine the report in greater detail, the Government will look further at whether any additional steps are required.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that, because it is important to emphasise that further lessons need to be learned, some of which I hope to address. I will not spend time repeating any of Chilcot’s factual findings, because, looking to the future, we need to consider the lessons and make sure that we do not make any of the same mistakes again. The Secretary of State for Defence will speak later about operational lessons that the military must learn, and it seems to me that there are more lessons than the five that Ministers have outlined so far.
I want to outline some of the points that jump out at us from the report. It seems to me that we have continued to make mistakes during the current Prime Minister’s time in office, and I will explain why.
On the flawed intelligence, although Chilcot finds that no deliberate attempt was made to mislead people, the intelligence on which the war was based was clearly flawed and did not justify the certainty attached to it by the Government. Has that lesson been learned? Last year, the Government asked this House to authorise military action in Syria. By contrast with Iraq in 2003, the military action did not include the deployment of ground troops.
Is my hon. Friend aware of an attempt to get the House to consider a contempt motion against Tony Blair? Does she agree that, whatever else is in the Chilcot report, it does not give grounds for such a motion?
That is a serious point, and I hope that Members will consider it. The question is whether the House was deliberately misled. Chilcot concluded that, although the intelligence may have been flawed and the House misled, it was not deliberately misled. Therefore, in my opinion, if the House tried to make any findings of fact and act on them, it would move away from those previous times when the instrument of a contempt motion has been used. When it has been used previously, there has been a finding of fact upon which the House has been able to act, meaning that someone has either been found guilty or admitted an offence. There has been no admission of deliberately misleading the House, so if the House attempted to make a factual finding, it would become a kangaroo court, because the person accused would not be allowed to represent themselves or speak. In my view, such circumstances would fly in the face of this country’s established principles of justice. Opposition Members are particularly interested in the Human Rights Act, and in article 6, on the right to a fair trial.
The hon. Lady has pre-empted what I was about to say. It seems somewhat strange that some Members who rightly proclaim our need to adhere to the European convention on human rights should suggest a process that cannot meet article 6 requirements under any circumstances.
I always get very worried when I agree so thoroughly with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I find it happening on many occasions. [Interruption.] I hear from a sedentary position, “You lawyers are all the same”, but we do agree on certain principles. Frankly, our concern is sometimes to ensure that our colleagues who are not lawyers understand these basic legal principles.
Instead of worrying about agreeing with Government Members, should the hon. Lady not be worrying about disagreeing with the comments that her leader made just at the weekend? Has she actually read the private notes that the former Prime Minister sent to the President of the United States of America, and compared them with his public and parliamentary remarks? Does she find the two things consistent?
Chilcot considered those notes and statements over a long period. Sir John Chilcot is a man of great standing, and the report is very thoughtful, and I will not gainsay what he says. There are plenty of lessons to learn from the report, and in my view they go much further than simply focusing on one individual and what happened many years ago. What is important is what is happening now. We need to make sure that the Government make the correct decisions before intervening in other people’s countries and risking loss of life.
Is it the hon. Lady’s position that someone can be found in contempt of this House only if they admit that contempt? That is what she seemed to say.
No. What I am saying is that there are standards that we have always upheld. For example, I believe Warren Hastings was tried by this House 200 years ago, but he was tried by judges, he was represented and he was given an opportunity to say what he had to say. We should not draw conclusions that Chilcot did not without the person involved having an opportunity to speak or be represented.
In that case, will the hon. Lady tell us in which court the former Prime Minister could be tried?
I appreciate that there is speculation about what may or may not happen to the former Prime Minister. That is not within my brief today, speaking as the shadow Foreign Secretary and attempting to draw the lessons from Chilcot. It is important that I address that this afternoon and leave it to others to take such legal action as they think appropriate. It will be for them to take that to the proper court, which will make a decision. We cannot, within the great traditions of our country, constitute ourselves as a court.
Last year, the Government asked this House to authorise military action in Syria. By contrast with Iraq in 2003, the deployment of ground troops was ruled out, which meant a reliance on local forces instead. I mentioned flawed intelligence; at that stage, we were told that there were 70,000 moderate rebels in Syria who would help defeat Daesh, which would force Assad to negotiate a peace agreement and step down. Many of us were sceptical about that 70,000 figure, and I was certainly one of them. That figure was produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, and the Government declined to say which groups were included in that figure, where they were, what the definition of “moderate” was, how we could be sure that all these rebels were signed up to the coalition’s military strategy, or how they would get to the battlefield. All those questions mattered.
As the Government acknowledged, no military strategy could succeed without forces on the ground. Time will tell whether those 70,000 moderate Sunni rebels existed and whether they were in a position to fight the battles that it was claimed they would be able to. However, it seems to me that there is a parallel to be drawn between the intelligence that was relied on in relation to the 70,000 figure and the flawed intelligence that has been relied on in the past. It is therefore important for us to learn a lesson from Iraq 12 years earlier. Serious questions have been raised about the intelligence that underpins our decisions to take military action. Once again, Parliament was asked last year simply to take on trust what the Government said about intelligence.
There are further issues to consider, including a lack of ability for people to challenge things internally. Chilcot makes it clear that both civil servants and Cabinet Ministers lacked the opportunity, information and encouragement to challenge the case being made to them. The Prime Minister says that his National Security Council has fixed all that, but if so, why does the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy say that the NSC has so far proved itself to be
“a reactive body, rather than a strategic one, which seems to us to be a lost opportunity”?
That criticism is important, and we should not be complacent in the face of it.
The NSC certainly did not challenge the short-sighted and highly damaging cuts to our armed forces in the last Parliament, despite the huge and justifiable misgivings of senior military figures about the impact on our defence capabilities. Nor is there any evidence of the NSC doing anything to challenge the inadequate planning for the aftermath of the intervention in Libya, a subject that I will address shortly. Ultimately, while making progress in small ways, the NSC has failed to address the fundamental problem, which is a culture in Whitehall of overly optimistic group-think, which exposure to independent views could help us challenge. It is not good enough to say that it has been fixed, because it has not. [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary asks how I know that. I am giving him the evidence of how I know that there is overly optimistic group-think. It is partly because of the results of decisions that have been taken, but there is more, which I will go into later in my speech.
The hon. Lady is completely wrong in her analysis of how the NSC approached the strategic defence and security review in 2010. All the papers were put before members of the National Security Council—I was one of them—and we spent weeks reading the best possible advice. We made our decisions in the light of the very difficult economic situation that the country found itself in and the £38 billion black hole left in the defence budget by the Labour Government, but the idea that we lacked expertise before us at that time is completely wrong.
I spent only six months in the area of defence, but although I spent a great deal of time immersing myself in it, I am not just relying on my own views in saying what a disaster the coalition’s first so-called strategic defence review was. It is not just me who thinks that. Senior military figures, not just in this country but among our allies, were very concerned about what cuts to the military budget were doing to our capability. It is my view that the second strategic defence review spent a great deal of time patching up the holes that had been created by the coalition’s first one.
The hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. However, once again, she is wrong. The most senior military officials and soldiers in the country were at the table for the first security and defence review. They were part of the discussion; they were not locked out.
The right hon. Gentleman has had his opportunity to put his views on the record, and I am sure that he will speak later. My view is that if things had been fixed in the way that the Foreign Secretary has stated, we would not be swinging backwards and forwards on our military budget. We make cuts and create holes in our defence capability, then the next time we try to patch them up.
As one of the Defence Ministers at the time, let me say that it was a most unpleasant experience, as a Conservative, having to make cuts in our armed forces. However, the truth was that the Budget deficit we inherited of £156 billion was itself a threat to our national security. We had to take action. Sadly, defence had to take some of those cuts. Where would the hon. Lady have made cuts, if not in defence?
We are moving a long way from the lessons that need to be drawn from Chilcot, and if I may, I will return to my speech. The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed defence on many occasions. I always enjoy the discussions, and I am quite happy to take his points at another time. However, I do not want to spend the entire afternoon discussing defence, much as I am tempted to. I simply say that if the NSC has brought in outside perspectives from time to time, it has clearly not done so enough to deal with the underlying problem.
Another issue that comes out in Chilcot, and that has not been fixed, is the lack of challenge in Parliament. That was the other potential source of challenge to the Government. Although there were vigorous debates in the House, those debates and the 217 MPs who voted to indicate that the case had not been made were ultimately not enough to stop the march to war. I was not yet in the House; I was on the demonstrations. Although more Labour MPs than MPs from any other political party voted against the war, there were not enough of us to stop it.
Have we moved on since then? Many people have said that the 2013 vote against taking action in Syria was a watershed moment. It cemented the convention that whatever the views of the Executive, this House has the final say. The House was asked to approve a broad mandate for the use of military force without a coherent strategy, clear objectives or a long-term plan. It was all too reminiscent of the approach to Iraq. Members from all parts of the House exercised a healthy degree of scepticism, and they were right to do so.
At the same time, the Government have increasingly taken advantage of loopholes in that convention to intervene in more conflicts with less oversight. They have developed military capability in cyberspace, but they refuse to say in what circumstances it might be used or when Parliament might be informed. They have increased investment in drones and special forces at a time when there have been many cuts to other parts of the armed forces. They have shown a willingness to use both as a means of intervening in conflicts to which the UK is not a party; that has included the use of special forces in quasi-conventional combat roles. In doing so, the Government seek to bypass not only parliamentary support for their interventions but any form of parliamentary oversight. The development of hybrid warfare demands new mechanisms for holding the Executive to account. All parties, on both sides of the House, should be working on developing those mechanisms, because as we all know, hybrid warfare is likely to be the future.
Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that there is at least an argument that to use the whipping system to secure a parliamentary majority for a predetermined war emasculates the House of Commons rather than empowers it, because it prevents Back-Bench Members of Parliament from thereafter holding the Government to account? Does she agree that there might be an argument in favour of introducing some kind of UK war powers Act to get around that difficulty?
There is continuing debate about the matter. As long as we can be confident that a decision made in this House will not need to be taken off to the courts, for the judges, eventually, to decide whether we go to war—that would be entirely inappropriate—and as long as we can keep control of any such legislation so that it ensures that, where possible, the Government will come to Parliament and allow us to express our view, I think that that is right.
I understand that this is the system that we have at the moment, but I am concerned that although the convention continues to develop and strengthen as time goes on, it is still in the gift of the Executive to decide whether they will bring the matter to Parliament. There is an argument for putting the convention on a more formal footing, but there is the danger of court intervention. It is a moot point, and something that we must continue to look at.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s strategic lesson in the modern combat capability of Her Majesty’s armed forces. I was interested in her description of the use of special forces in almost-combat capability. Having served with various parts of Her Majesty’s forces in the past, I know that most foreign deployments are considered to be near to combat even if they are in a training role, because of the pressures on them. It is a very novel interpretation to suggest that hybrid warfare may not continue to exist.
We are getting into a rather bizarre discussion, if the hon. Lady will forgive me for saying so, on the strategy and use of the armed forces, when surely the focus should be on the legality and the appropriateness of the deployment. It might be best to stick to the areas that the House is qualified to talk about, rather than to dress up as armchair generals and pretend that we know what is going on in different areas.
It is important that we look to tomorrow’s problems. Special forces are likely to be used increasingly. On the idea that we will send, for example, special forces into Libya in a training capacity, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about how that might end up a quasi-combat role. Presumably, if the training forces are in Libya, they will be in a camp. They may be in a part of Libya that is allegedly safe, but they will need to be guarded. Who will guard them? We can see how it is possible to slide down a slippery slope. At the moment, although it would be inappropriate in the case of a decision to send special forces or trainers into an area, if we can have parliamentary scrutiny of our secret service—if the behaviour of MI5 and MI6 is at least answerable to a Committee of this House—it is not beyond our wit to allow there to be similar accountability over special forces. I have written about this issue.
It is important to point out that the oversight that the Intelligence and Security Committee, prominent members of which are present, exercises over the intelligence community is always post the fact. The only kind of meaningful oversight over special force deployment of the type that the hon. Lady is talking about would have to be before the fact. That would be a very different proposition.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for making that point. I do not expect special forces, before they are used, to have to go before a Committee of Parliament and get permission, but I do think that there should be some form of accountability and some explanation. It was embarrassing, and it demonstrated the democratic deficit in relation to hybrid warfare, to read in the papers that the King of Jordan was gossiping with Congressmen in America about our special forces, when nobody in this House had officially been told about it. That highlights the democratic deficit in this country. We should learn lessons from Chilcot. We should learn lessons about accountability and about not simply trusting the Executive to get a decision right. We should make sure that there is more accountability, and that we are on our toes. We must be prepared to modernise our structures as necessary to reflect the changing nature of warfare in the 21st century.
Let me go back to my speech. I talked about the development of hybrid warfare and new mechanisms for holding the Executive to account, and I believe that all parties should work together on that. Another point was raised about American-British relations. Chilcot made it clear that American-British relations would not have been harmed had the UK not joined the US-led coalition. Chilcot argues that that was not a basis for joining the invasion. In my view, that is another lesson that we have not learned. In 2013, pressure from the United States played a major role in the Government’s rush to intervene in Syria. It became obvious that the US Administration’s efforts to persuade Congress to back intervention hinged on the Prime Minister’s success in persuading Parliament to do so. Speaking after our House declined to support the action in Syria, the then Defence Secretary—now the Foreign Secretary—said that the vote would “certainly” damage the Anglo-American relationship. In my view, the relationship has endured. We have got over it without any adverse consequences, and it serves as a reminder that our alliance with the United States rests on stronger foundations than an expectation of unquestioning British compliance with American wishes.
The hon. Lady speaks of the special relationship, and I would be the first to acknowledge that the relationship with the United States goes much deeper than one incident or one vote, but is it not also valid to listen to the words of various American generals, including General Jim Mattis, who, as she knows, commanded Centcom? After the vote, he pointed to the damaging impact that it would have on the enduring commitment and understanding between the US and British militaries. Does she recognise that just as that special relationship is made up of many threads, undermining it thread by thread will weaken it?
I am sure that some American generals were disappointed that Harold Wilson would not agree to British involvement in Vietnam, but we got over it and our relationship is strong enough to endure differences of opinion. If we are to be good friends, it is important to recognise that good friends trust each other enough to disagree at times. The 2013 Syria vote made it clear that Parliament understood that; it also suggested that the Government did not. That is why it is such a tragedy that cuts to the Foreign Office budget have weakened Whitehall’s institutional knowledge of the world. It is important for our leadership role in the world to have proper understanding of it, and for hundreds of years we have had an insight into the world that other countries have not had. We have a leadership role, and we can have a voice that is different from that of the Americans because we will have a different understanding. To have 16% cuts in the Foreign Office year on year, and a hollowing out of our institutional knowledge, has in my view been a tragedy.
I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman has already intervened twice. I am taking a very long time, and I ought to get on with it.
Chilcot says that Tony Blair ignored warnings about the sectarian violence that would sweep Iraq after Saddam fell, and after the appalling loss of life that has followed in Iraq and surrounding countries, we are still very much living with that mistake. Again, has that lesson been learned? If we consider the intervention in Libya, it is clear that it has not been. During the uprising against Gaddafi, armed militias across the country focused their attention on toppling the regime, and the British Government later seemed almost surprised that once that goal had been achieved, those militias turned their fire on each other. Although divisions in Libya were always more tribal than the sectarian divisions in Iraq, the result has been the same. The belief that democratic elections would help to fill the power vacuum proved hopelessly optimistic, when factions that found themselves in the minority simply refused to accept that the result was legitimate.
Had those with knowledge of the country been directly consulted at the time, they would have warned the Government that such things would happen. Had informed and impartial advice been sought out, such warnings were readily available and in the public domain. It was also clear to many experts in the region that if Gaddafi was toppled there was a huge risk of knock-on instability when well-armed, highly trained mercenaries returned to their native countries such as Mali, Niger and Chad. Again, the warnings were there, but such advice was either not heard or not listened to until it was too late. Again, a parallel can be drawn between our intervention in Libya and our understanding of what would happen next and listening to experts, and what happened in our first intervention in Iraq when we did not listen to expertise or pay attention to what was said.
First, the intervention in Libya was at the request of the Arab League, which I suggest would have had an insight into the region and would count as people who knew what was going on. Secondly, although I understand the hon. Lady’s analysis, does that lead to the conclusion that toppling any despot always runs the risk of creating chaos and confusion? That is the nature of despotism. We are five years down the line from ending a 40-year brutal dictatorship in Libya. The game is not over yet, but I predict that Libya will end up a better place than it was under Gaddafi.
It is interesting to hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but that issue is one of speculation. In my view it is not legal to intervene in a country to topple a regime, and morally we should not intervene in a country unless we have some form of strategy to ensure that the country we leave is in a better state than when we first arrived.
When I was in government I had some involvement in the Libyan intervention, and from memory I do not think that there was a blinding of oneself to potential problems as a result of that intervention. We must also bear it in mind that the trigger for the intervention was the fact that Colonel Gaddafi was about to kill tens of thousands of his own citizens. That prompted the Security Council resolution that provided the legal basis for the intervention. That highlights—I will come on to speak about this—some of the really difficult decisions in those areas, where even questions of legality do not come into it. I certainly would not be willing to characterise that intervention as having been wrong in the circumstances that prevailed at the time.
I hear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, but my point is that, again, information was available and could have informed the intervention. Once the initial intervention had been made, what happened thereafter? How were manifest and obvious dangers protected against? I do not think that those important points were considered, and again we learn a lesson from Chilcot and Iraq that is so much more important that any form of soap opera regarding Tony Blair or not Tony Blair.
The other important issue is post-war planning, some of which has been touched on—this is my final point, Mr Speaker, as everyone will be glad to hear. Perhaps most devastatingly, Chilcot highlights the total absence of adequate planning for what would happen after the war and the long-term strategy for Iraq. If ever a mistake should never be repeated, it is the idea that we enter into another military intervention with no idea of its consequences, no plan for the aftermath, and no long-term strategy. And yet, that is the exact hallmark of all the outgoing Prime Minister’s interventions.
Again, we see the evidence in Libya. In the words of President Obama, the Prime Minister became “distracted”, and once the Gaddafi regime had been overthrown, the lengthy, arduous task of post-war reconstruction was all but ignored. In the years since, Libya has been riven by factionalism and violence. Its experiment with democracy was brief, with power in the hands of rival militias, and the ungoverned space that that created was an invitation for Daesh to establish a strategic foothold on the Libyan coast. It is a stain on this Government that they began to pay real attention to the mess they had left in Libya only once that terrorist threat from Daesh became too urgent to ignore.
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady has said anything about Chilcot’s findings on the circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation in Iraq, but he says that they were far from satisfactory. I am sure she will agree with me and endorse the view presented earlier that the Attorney General should give independent and impartial advice. According to evidence to the Committee, Chilcot details how the then Attorney General initially resisted the legality, and eventually acquiesced in the view that the use of military force against Iraq could be legally justified. Has the hon. Lady formed a view about what changed the then Attorney General’s mind?
Tempting though it is to debate that issue with the hon. and learned Lady, it is important to note that any Attorney General knows that they are the only person in the Cabinet who can say to the Prime Minister, “No. You can’t do that. It is not legal. You are not allowed to.” That heavy burden must be exercised by people of great courage and substance. It is about the rule of law and the fact that no one is above the law. All AGs need to learn that lesson, and they must be confident and capable of standing up to their leader. That is an important point and perhaps another lesson.
Britain has always been a leading light in the development of international law, and much international law has been a result of documents that we have drafted. Our adherence to international law has been a very important part in its development. One thing that has been clouded, as a result of the Iraq intervention and other interventions since, has been the need for a clear law on the circumstances in which one can and cannot intervene. That has not developed as well as it might have if there had not been a temptation to try to press the facts into what is understood of the law. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) is a big fan of the Responsibility to Protect. The effect the Iraq war had on the development of RtoP is very sad: Cook was attempting to develop it at the time of the Iraq war and it was held up as a result of the intervention in Iraq. Were the lessons on long-term planning from Iraq learned in Libya? I would say absolutely not. The central lesson is this: you cannot bomb a country from 30,000 feet into a western-style democracy.
In conclusion, we cannot turn the clock back. We cannot correct the mistakes that were made. We cannot bring back the lives that were lost. We cannot undo the chaos we have created, but we can, and we must, stop those mistakes being repeated. Unfortunately, as I have pointed out today, whatever his rhetoric and whatever his well-meaning intentions, too often the outgoing Prime Minister has repeated exactly the same mistakes in his own military interventions: relying on speculative intelligence, keeping Parliament in the dark, and failing to plan for what happens afterwards. It is to be hoped that the new Prime Minister will study the Chilcot report not as a commentary on decisions made in the past but as a guide to the decisions she will have to make. Let us hope she does so. As she takes on her new and onerous responsibilities, we wish her well.
The decision to invade Iraq was the most disastrous foreign policy decision taken by this country in my lifetime. It did not cause, but it greatly contributed to, the extraordinary problems that have persisted in the middle east and the wider world ever since. I fear it will continue to have tragic consequences for some years to come.
First, we all owe a debt to Sir John Chilcot for producing what will undoubtedly be the most authoritative analysis of how on earth such an appalling blunder came to be made. I certainly have not had the chance to get much beyond the executive summary and just a little bit of the rest of it. It will take a long time before anybody in this House gets through the millions of words that have been produced. The lessons for the inquiry into the Iraq war will be of benefit in particular to specialists: those in the military, the intelligence service, the diplomatic corps and politicians—Ministers, shadow Ministers and those who hold the Government to account—for many years to come. It is too soon to follow up on his extremely formidable findings, which I am sure are correct, but there is a role for this House to begin to consider, as we are, its political aspect.
Sir John Chilcot has examined the formal records, meetings and processes. He analysed them to see what happened, but he is not a politician. The House of Commons and the Ministers involved are able to look at this with a slightly different eye. Why did people reach particular decisions? What is it that makes us want to reach those decisions? Where did it go wrong, in particular as far as the collective system of Cabinet Government is concerned, and the accountability, through Parliament, to the wider public? Because Sir John Chilcot is not a politician, I am not sure that he is able to answer on the wider perspective.
I would like to begin by agreeing with one point made by the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and say how irrelevant it has been to try to turn all this into a witch hunt against celebrity individuals who were involved at the time. That is one of the great failures of political debate in our day. As far as the wider media and the world were concerned, the recent referendum debate was largely the Dave and Boris show. It is quite pointless to say, “Let’s persecute Tony Blair. He was in charge. Are we going to censure him? Is he going to be prosecuted as a war criminal?” and all the rest of it. That is also true for all the other individuals involved.
The one thing the report makes quite clear is that nobody has committed any crime. As one who was present at the time, I have absolutely no doubt that anybody acted on any other basis than that they believed passionately they were acting in the public interest. One of the great things about Tony Blair was that he did believe passionately in what he was doing at the time. That was very evident on the Floor of the House. He never had a doubt about what he was doing, so I am not surprised that he continues to protest as strongly as he does. He has not changed his mind. He believed he was acting in the national interest in cementing our alliance with the Americans. He thought that was absolutely key to our security. He thought that a British contribution would help the Americans with planning, advocacy and so on. He firmly believed that just removing Saddam Hussein was a virtuous act that would make the world a better place—he still does.
Then, as now, regime change is the point on which he gets most passionate. He really thinks—he is probably right; I agree with him, actually—that he got rid of an evil regime. I agree with those who say that that was not in itself a totally adequate achievement. He certainly believed that the regime had weapons of mass destruction. I faced him in the House, intervening on him and so on. I remember one day thinking, “This is the last man still living who still believes they are going to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” It was increasingly obvious to everyone else that no such material was going to be found. Pursuing Tony Blair is a complete irrelevance to what the House should be looking at.
I will give way briefly to the hon. Lady, but I am not on the Front Bench and cannot keep on giving way as previous speakers have. I hope everybody understands that.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way and agree with him on the dangers of focusing on just one person. We need to focus on that person, but we also need to focus on the system. However, I worry about the way in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman appears to be letting that one person off any real responsibility for misleading the House. We only have to read Chilcot to see, for example, how Blair misled the House about the position of the French. The motion Blair moved in the House stated that,
“it has not proved possible to secure a second Resolution in the UN because one Permanent Member of the Security Council made plain in public its intention to use its veto whatever the circumstances”.—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 760.]
Yet within a few minutes, even before Prime Minister’s questions, the French were on the phone to Tony Blair saying, “You are deliberately misrepresenting our position.” This happens time and again in the Chilcot report, so while we should not focus only on one man, let us not let him off the hook completely. That does not do any of us any good.
I certainly did not rise to defend Tony Blair, but he is not the first politician to make a mistake and he will not be the last. If the hon. Lady believes the French, she believes the French. The French were able to exercise a veto in the Security Council. It was a mistake at the time to try to blame the French entirely. They were never going to get a majority in the Security Council, but the French were adamantly—[Interruption.]
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. The House must come to order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made it perfectly plain that at this point he is not giving way. Therefore, the House must listen to the development of his argument.
Mr Speaker, I have already spent more time than I intended to on Tony Blair. Members who wish to argue about the French veto in 2003 can do so between themselves.
The political background to what was being decided and what the politicians wanted to do was key. I was a Back-Bench Opposition Member at the time, but I followed the events with some care. I had one advantage: I did not have access to what was going on inside the Government, but I knew a lot of American, as well as British, politicians. At various political gatherings—Bilderberg, Davos and so on—I knew and was on friendly terms with quite a few of the key American neo-cons. I was arguing against the merits of the invasion of Iraq before the debate ever even started here.
That is important background. In the Bush Administration, the key policy makers wanted to invade Iraq immediately after 9/11. By 2001, there was not the slightest doubt but that they would invade. They had a rather naive, idealistic approach that faintly shocked me: they thought the previous Administration had not used American military power for all the benefits it could produce in the world, but they were going to use it for good, and they thought they would be treated as liberating heroes when they arrived in Baghdad and set up a better regime.
They thought that a man called Chalabi would win the election held thereafter. I met Chalabi once or twice. He once got about 2% in an Iraqi election. They thought he would be in charge but that he would need supervision, so there was going to be a US general—constant comparisons were made with General MacArthur turning Imperial Japan into a democracy after the war. Much was also made of the importance of denazification following Hitler’s fall, hence there was going to be de-Ba’athification in Iraq to get rid of all these people in the army and the security services and so on. The House will be reassured to know that I fiercely disagreed. I liked these people, but my thought, during such a discussion, was always, “One of us isn’t on the same planet.” I formed a fairly hostile view, therefore, long before it arrived here.
If I knew in 2001 that the Bush Administration was going to invade Iraq, I am quite certain that Tony Blair and the British military knew, and that they had a long time to work out how they were going to join in. That explains a lot. Why did the Americans want the British to join in? They did not need us for military purposes. They could defeat the Iraqis without our military assistance. They did not rate our military that highly—although they thought our special forces and intelligences were very good—but we were a very valuable political ally. They thought that the presentation would be greatly improved if the British, of all people, were at the heart of the alliance, and as I have said, Tony Blair was very keen to join them. I doubt he bought all the neo-con theories, but he clearly thought that getting rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime was one of the best contributions he could make to the future of the Iraqi people and he was determined to join in.
Reading these mysteries, one must ask, “What was the snag for Tony Blair and the Government?” I am confident I knew enough, through my contacts, to know that the snag for Tony Blair, who wanted to take part and who—it seems—had already told George W. Bush that he wanted to take part, was that it was not legal for the UK to take part in a war being launched for the purpose of changing the regime in another country. When he received that advice, with which I think every lawyer in the place agreed, it was undoubtedly right.
As somebody said, however, that was not the view the Americans took. American neo-cons are not so impressed with international law. Their constitution does not constrain them. I once had a key American official tell me, “We have all the legal authority we need to invade: we have a large majority in both Houses of Congress.” And that was it. But they were so keen to have the British that they were prepared to give Tony Blair some time to tackle this problem of whether it was lawful for him to take part, and to work out a basis upon which the British could join.
At this point, I think, these people’s motives were virtuous. They believed all this. They were making the world a better place by removing a tyrant and installing a pro-American, pro-western, pro-Israeli, democratic Government in a liberal society. They were going to change the regime, and we were going to do it lawfully, so we had to turn to the question of the dreadful weapons that Saddam Hussein undoubtedly had used against his own people years before, and whether they had all been disposed of or whether we could demonstrate that he was a continuing threat. If we could demonstrate that he had weapons of mass destruction, that they were a threat to British interests and our neighbours, and that he was not co-operating with weapons inspections and so on, and if we could get a UN resolution, then we had a legal basis for invading.
Once one realises that that was the—perfectly worthy and well-intentioned—mindset of most of the British people taking part in the process to intervene, one can understand why some of these extraordinary processes happened. I personally believe that the American Administration delayed the invasion for a month or few—
Two months, says my right hon. Friend. They delayed the invasion to give the British more time to get through this convoluted legal stuff—I use sarcastic words of the kind the occasional impatient American used at the time—before they could join in. The problem was that the Americans, although they went to the UN and got resolution 1441 and all the rest of it, began to lose patience, seeing that this could go on forever, and it reached the stage where they were going to invade in March 2003. They could not wait any longer. The Blair Government—those who knew what was going on—had to speed the thing up a bit, realising that if they were not careful, they would fail to get there in time.
One thing that surprises me in the Chilcot report concerns the advice the Government got from the Joint Intelligence Committee, which eventually produced enough intelligence that was plausible and no doubt believed by those putting it in the reports for the Attorney General to be persuaded—obviously quite reluctantly—that there probably was a basis for going ahead. The urgent debates then took place in this House, the last one being about two days before the date when everyone knew the troops, already in battle positions in the middle east, were about to go ahead with the operation.
We should learn the political lessons from all that. One of the first lessons relates to the ever-increasing rush to get into the position of being able to invade lawfully, so that everybody wanted to be persuaded that various things were correct and that various steps had been taken. If they had submitted themselves to slower, more challenged and more careful consideration, however, it would have led to a different conclusion.
What, then, is the outline of the main political lessons to be learned from all this? First, the American alliance should not be entered into blindly. Let me say briefly that I am as passionate a believer as Tony Blair that our alliance with the United States is crucial to this country’s future security and role in the world. There is not a trace of anti-Americanism in what I am saying; our alliance is one of the most valuable features of our foreign policy. That does not mean, however, that we should allow ourselves to go along blindly and always—right or wrong—with what the American President of the day wishes to do. I take that no further, but we might have a President Trump, so it is a question worth bearing in mind. I agree with the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that the American alliance will not be destroyed—it might be damaged for a month or two—if we do not absolutely go along with what the American President wants us to do.
Let me move on to something that is clear in Chilcot—though I have not made the point much myself—and was plain to see in how the Ministry of Defence behaved at the time. The advice of our defence chiefs is hugely important, and I share the support for and pride in them that keeps being expressed in these debates. Yet—subconsciously, I am sure—they always want to take part in any military activity that the Americans want them to join. It might be considered advice, but it always comes down to “We must ask the Americans to let us make as big a contribution as we can”. A trained military man is trained for the purpose of using military force in the national interest and further worthwhile objectives, and cannot help thinking, “This is our moment; this is the great action in which we must take part.”
It is the same with the intelligence services. They prize their relationship with the Americans above all other relationships they have with the outside world. They are dependent on co-operation in some ways, but they are anxious to please and to do what they think their American colleagues wish them to do. In this particular case, we had a Prime Minister and a Government who wanted to enter the war, so everybody was extremely anxious to find the facts, to be convinced of the situation and to enable the Prime Minister to go ahead and do what he wanted. That is an essential point, but it requires a simple politician like me to make it; it does not appear in the pages of the Chilcot report. When one is raising one’s eyebrows at what happened, I think that that answers a lot.
Particularly at the time we are talking about—and sometimes still today—there were not enough diplomats involved. There was not enough looking at the expertise of the Foreign Office. We had a lot of Arabists. The Americans had some, but they got rid of most of theirs and brought people in who had been involved in the Nicaraguan episode because they were seen as being ideologically more sound. Americans did not like the Arabists we had in the Foreign Office because they kept complicating things by talking about tribes and different sorts of Muslim, which the policy makers in Washington thought were irrelevant to the new era of western democracy in which they thought they were going to take the country.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
I am sorry, but I do not have the time.
I shall not go on by adding more to the strictures about the Attorney General—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”]. The Attorney General was obviously giving the right advice. I am sitting alongside someone who was a very tough Attorney General—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve)—who would not give the advice that eager Prime Ministers sometimes want, and neither would Michael Havers or quite a few others I recall being in government with. As has been said, that is what the Attorney General is for. I know Lord Goldsmith and he is perfectly all right. He must have felt so exposed in the end that he gave into the temptation to say, “Well, it’s just about lawful; it is just about satisfactorily proved.”
I am sorry to have taken a little longer than I intended, but let me conclude with my main point. The big thing that matters—and it matters very much as we are having a change of Government today—is how the Cabinet and Government processes come into the equation. What about accountability to Parliament? It was obvious at the time, obvious if anyone listened to what the Foreign Secretary said publicly, obvious in what half the Labour party said and obvious from listening to officials that Cabinet Government was not working properly in Tony Blair’s Government. He went in for sofa government. Margaret Thatcher got keener and keener on sofa government towards the end of her time, but Tony Blair had taken it to an art form by the time he got into issues such as Iraq. It was the same with Parliament. There was a reluctance to come to Parliament. Both were essentially seen as hurdles to be surmounted. Once you had your policy, how were you going to get it through the Cabinet and how were you going to get it past Parliament?
My suggestion for the future is that we should all agree that that is not the mindset that people should have. They should set the proposition, and, of course, advocate it to the Cabinet, and then, with the benefit of proper information, they should listen to it being debated and examined by those who have time to do so. Similarly, Parliament should be consulted when it can be, and given proper information. One should not rely on clever timing of the debate and the work of the Whips to get it through and afterwards say that there is a democratic endorsement. I have no time to apply all my strong strictures to the circumstances of the time, but I think that, if read with my arguments in mind, the Chilcot report feeds the impression that I had then, as someone who participated in debates.
Military action is difficult. There is no point in politicians being lightheartedly irresponsible and saying, “We have got to be involved in every decision.” There will be occasions when that is not possible. There will be occasions when someone has just attacked a British interest, and we have to fight back. You can tell the Cabinet and you can tell Parliament afterwards, and any sensible Cabinet and any sensible Parliament will of course endorse it. But this was not an emergency. For two years our allies had told us that they were going to invade Iraq. It had been planned. It had been worked on. It had been discussed. The reason there was not full Cabinet discussion, and the reason there was not timely parliamentary debate, was that someone who did that might not get it by them. We did not start debating the issue until Parliament until February 2003, and the final, key vote took place when the troops were in the field. That put a lot of Conservatives off the idea of voting against it, when they might otherwise have done so. Our boys were about to go into action, the next day—which is what occurred.
Some of those matters have been addressed. The National Security Council is a hugely beneficial innovation introduced by my right hon. Friend the outgoing Prime Minister, who is probably already the ex-Prime Minister. Now is not the time to debate it, but it still needs to be improved. It has not covered everything, although it is a lot better than it was. As for Cabinet government, I think that my right hon. Friends should ask themselves— if they are still in office under the next Prime Minister—whether they can ensure that adequate time is given to discuss things, and adequate information is given in advance. Cabinet government does not mean moving quickly from item to item; people must have some papers beforehand so that they can consider the issues properly.
The National Security Council is very valuable, because it contains defence and intelligence people alongside the politicians. I genuinely congratulate the outgoing Prime Minister: some of the best discussions in which I participated took place in the National Security Council, with my total approval. However, although I may be too sensitive, I think that it could be improved sometimes. There are occasions when a fait accompli is brought there and explained to you, and the defence and intelligence people explain why you should agree, and off you go.
I think it right to look into why we might have avoided what happened in Libya. The whole history of the middle east and north Africa involves our removing fascist dictatorships of the most poisonous kind from country after country, and then being surprised when they have been replaced by a situation that is, in some instances, even worse than the one that we have removed. A continuing answer to that problem needs to be sought, although at present we may have to confront even bigger problems.
I began by saying that this was the biggest foreign policy disaster of my time. We all have to ask why the institutions of the United Kingdom failed even to develop a hint of that. It was not particularly courageous for the House to vote in favour. Opinion polls showed that 70% of the British public supported the invasion. For the first week or two it was extremely popular. Had we held a referendum, which is now the fashionable way of governing the country—compared with this old-fashioned parliamentary democracy—it would have sailed through with an enormous majority. The danger of following opinion polls is shown by the fact that a year later I could not find a member of the public who had ever met anybody who agreed with the invasion of Iraq, because in the light of better information people suddenly realised it had been a terrible error.
There are Members sitting here now who were here at that time. I remember the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) organising some of the opposition on the day I spoke in February. We voted against it, and we spoke against it. Needless to say, I have looked at my speech, and I am very sad to say that I think I predicted quite a lot of the consequences and what would happen. We all agree that, “Never again if we can avoid it,” but this is a big subject and it is no good reading the report and just saying we should have a look at the intelligence arrangements; we should have a look at other arrangements as well, such as the way our Government are run, the way this Parliament organises itself, and how we get sensible accountability to the House of Commons the next time the Government have to engage in such difficult decisions.
The parliamentary wounds of the Iraq war are still pertinent in today’s debate, but we should remember that they are as nothing compared with the wounds of the 179 families who lost servicepeople, the 23 British civilian staff who were killed, the 200,000 Iraqis and the thousands of American soldiers. The carnage in the middle east is still with us today—these wounds are still raw and open.
Like the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), I looked back at the debate on 18 March 2003, and I was struck by a number of things that we do not always remember. We all remember Robin Cook’s brilliant resignation speech of the day before, but we do not necessarily remember John Denham’s distinguished and measured contribution on the day of the debate.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman reminded us that public opinion at that stage was in favour of war, and those of us who spoke against it from the SNP, Plaid Cymru or Liberal Benches were not given a particularly easy time. I looked at the contribution that day of Charles Kennedy, who was barracked throughout his speech against war. “Chamberlain Charlie” was one of the more printable epithets, and the “toast of Baghdad” was flung at some of us who opposed the war.
I say that not just to make the point that Members such as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe and others who argued against the war have been vindicated, but also to remind people of the nature and context of the debate we were engaged in. There are only 179 Members in this Parliament who were Members of Parliament on 18 March 2003; a little over a quarter of Members of this Parliament were present and voting in that debate. It is as well that people remember and understand the context if we are to understand the failings of parliamentary democracy—not of referendums, but of parliamentary democracy—that the votes on Iraq that day illustrated.
I have been checking the record, and I think I can honestly say that I do not think I have ever quoted The Times in 30 years in this place, off and on, but I will quote it today, because I thought its headline and first paragraph on the Chilcot report last Thursday absolutely hit the mark. Under the headline “Blair’s private war”, it wrote:
“Britain fought an unnecessary, disastrous and potentially illegal war in Iraq because of Tony Blair’s misguided and personal commitment to George W Bush, the Chilcot report concluded yesterday.”
It would be impossible to read the Chilcot report without looking at that personal level of accountability as well as the wider context of the legality.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe started his speech by saying that this was not all about Tony Blair, but the rest of his speech illustrated why it is in fact very largely about Tony Blair. I want to quote from the executive summary of the Chilcot report, but these points are backed up enormously in the full report. On pages 58 and 59, Chilcot goes through the sequence of decision making between December 2001 and the immediate onset of the war. It would appear that if those decisions were the product of sofa government, it was a very small sofa indeed. Crucial decisions about the strategies and alliances involved were made by the Prime Minister and only a very few of his advisers. Chilcot finds that not even a Cabinet Committee discussed the crucial decisions listed on pages 58 and 59. The list starts with:
“The decision at the beginning of December 2001 to offer to work with President Bush on a strategy to deal with Iraq as part of Phase 2 of the ‘War on Terror’, despite the fact that there was no evidence of any Iraqi involvement with the attacks on the United States or active links to Al Qaida.”
It goes right through to:
“A review of UK policy at the end of February 2003 when the inspectors had found no evidence of WMD and there was only limited support for the second resolution in the Security Council.”
All those crucial decisions were made without reference even to a Cabinet Sub-Committee and without a range of colleagues in the Cabinet being consulted.
When the former Deputy Prime Minister concluded last weekend—in a way that Chilcot was not allowed to do, either because of his remit or because of the lack of specialisms on the inquiry—that the war was illegal and apologised for it, he should actually have been apologising for the fact that all this was allowed to happen through a sequence of decisions taken over 15 months by one individual, the Prime Minister, and his advisers without any account being taken of any kind of collective responsibility.
Does Chilcot not also say that that form of government should be described as a “professional forum”, and that it should not be regarded as just advisers and cronies? Was not that the specific point of the evidence that Lord Turnbull gave to Chilcot?
I am dealing with the findings of Chilcot—
So am I.
The report states:
“The Inquiry considers that there should have been a collective discussion by a Cabinet Committee or small group of Ministers on the basis of inter-departmental advice agreed at a senior level between officials on a number of decision points”.
That is in paragraph 409 on page 58, if that helps the hon. Gentleman.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question. If he will let me continue, perhaps I will give way again later—
In paragraph 402—
Order. We cannot conduct debate with people yelling from a sedentary position in a disorderly manner, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) must not do that. If the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) wants to give way later, he will, and if he does not, he will not. We will see how things go.
If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) had been able to give evidence to Chilcot, no doubt the report would have concluded otherwise. However, we now have the report as it has been concluded. I am not talking about individual pieces of evidence; I am talking about the conclusion of the Chilcot inquiry itself. This is why The Times was undoubtedly right to describe the events as “Blair’s private war”.
On the question of collective responsibility in this place, I fundamentally disagree with the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe on one point. If Parliament is to hold future Executives to account, it will not just be a question of changing the process of decision making, although I accept that some changes have been made. I do not accept the Foreign Secretary’s confidence that the mistakes could never be repeated, and I do not believe that his distinction between a land campaign in Iraq and an aerial bombardment in Libya fully explains why this country—never mind its allies—spent 13 times as much on bombing Libya as we spent on the budget for reconstruction in Libya. That might be a lesson that has not been carried forward. The changes that must be made relate not only to the process of government but to parliamentary accountability, the most fundamental aspect of which is Parliament deciding whether it has been misled.
The fact is that Libya was already in a brutal civil war before western air forces prevented Gaddafi from slaughtering innocent people—women and children—in Benghazi. That was what was happening. The question that the right hon. Gentleman has to answer is what he would have done to help those women and children in Benghazi. [Interruption.]
As the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) says from a sedentary position, I probably would not have supplied arms to people like that over a period of time. Not doing oil deals in a tent with Colonel Gaddafi might have been another thing.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make my speech.
My point was about the lesson of reconstruction, not the argument for the conflict. It is fair to point out that this country spent 13 times as much bombing Libya as we did on the budget for the reconstruction of Libya. That might provide a lesson about the priority given to the aftermath of conflict, and I am unsure whether the Foreign Secretary has taken it fully on board.
This is about not just the process of government but parliamentary accountability—that is the most fundamental point of all. Parliament has held people to account in the relatively recent past—there was Profumo and the sex scandal, and if I remember correctly, Stephen Byers was accused of misleading Parliament because he nationalised a railway company. Those things were no doubt important, and that line of accountability is crucial, but how much more important is the line of accountability on peace or war, when hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives as a result of decisions made by the Executive?
My contention is that Chilcot provides a huge array of evidence for a lack of parliamentary truthfulness, in that one thing was being said to the President of the United States and quite a different thing was being said to Parliament and the people. That did not happen in just a single speech or parliamentary statement, although the immediate run-up to the war provides ample and detailed examples. For example, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to the total misrepresentation of the situation in the United Nations. How do we know that it was a misrepresentation? Because Chilcot has published what was being said within Government, and we can compare that directly with the explanation that Parliament was being offered. The process of Parliament being told one thing while George W. Bush was being assured of something else took place not over a few weeks but over 15 months—that is amply demonstrated in the evidence presented to Chilcot. We know now why Chilcot fought so strongly to have the private memos as part of the report.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe rightly pointed to the motivation of regime change and the difficulty that regime change could not make the war legal in generally understood international terms. That is amply demonstrated in a private memo from Tony Blair to George Bush in December 2001, which states that
“any link to 11 September and AQ”—
“is at best very tenuous; and at present international opinion would be reluctant, outside the US/UK, to support immediate military action though, for sure, people want to be rid of Saddam.
So we need a strategy for regime change that builds over time.”
At the same time, however, when pursuing the Prime Minister in the House, Charles Kennedy was being told that the “two phases” of war included the war in Afghanistan and the pursuit of
“international terrorism in all its different forms. That is a matter of investigating its financing, how terrorists move across frontiers”.—[Official Report, 14 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 867-868.]
The House was being told that stage 2 of the war on terror was not an assault on Iraq—far less regime change in Iraq—but the pursuit of international terrorism. The two things are totally incompatible. One thing was being said to George Bush in private and another thing was being said to this Parliament and the people of the country.
Moving into 2002, there was something that was amply picked up by the press after Chilcot reported—the memo of 28 July to George Bush, stating:
“I will be with you, whatever.”
I heard the former Prime Minister explain that to John Humphrys on the “Today” programme by saying that of “whatever” meant somehow “wherever”, and that the memo did not give an unconditional commitment to stand with the United States in a war. I am not sure I fully understood that explanation, and crucially, nor did John Chilcot or Jack Straw, a crucial member of the Administration.
Jack Straw’s memos to Tony Blair have also been published. The report shows that on 11 March 2003 Straw wrote to Blair:
“When Bush graciously accepted your offer to be with him all the way, he wanted you alive, not dead!”
That referred not to the mortal danger to troops or civilians that would ensue from a war, but to whether the then Prime Minister would be alive or dead politically. Jack Straw was under no illusions whatever about the commitment that had been given to George Bush. Nor were Tony Blair’s own advisers, who advised him to take it out of the memo, or George Bush and his advisers, or Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Sir John Chilcot concludes, on the meaning of the memo:
“Mr Blair’s Note, which had not been discussed or agreed with his colleagues, set the UK on a path leading to diplomatic activity in the UN and the possibility of participation in military action in a way that would make it very difficult for the UK subsequently to withdraw its support for the US.”
But that was not what Parliament was being told at the same time. Parliament was not told of assurances to George W. Bush on military action. Parliament was told that the Prime Minister was striving for peace and trying to find any way to avoid a conflict, and that it was all up to Saddam to choose peace or conflict. That deliberate misrepresentation, in what was said to Parliament, of what was being said to the Americans continued into the very onset of war itself.
I want to refer to the memo that my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) quoted earlier. When Blair was telling Parliament, even in his speech in the war-or-peace debate, that
“I have never put the justification for action as regime change”,—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 772.]
he was telling George Bush only a few days later:
“That’s why, though Iraq’s WMD is the immediate justification for action, ridding Iraq of Saddam is the real prize.”
We heard earlier that this was not a matter of one man. But that one man was the Prime Minister. We were told earlier that it was really about process of government, but it was the Prime Minister who dictated the process of government and indeed prevented government processes, meaning that checks and balances did not work. Above all, it was the Prime Minister who prevented this House from having the information it required to make a reasonable judgment.
Last week, I heard that one of the defences of intervention in Iraq was a counterfactual argument: what if Saddam Hussein had stayed in power? What would he have done? For example, what damage would he have done during the Arab spring? I have had another counterfactual argument in mind: what if the massive international coalition that was built to deal with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan had been held together? What if the hundreds of billions of dollars that were then to be wasted in the Iraqi desert had been applied to making a real success of the rebuilding of Afghanistan? What if the justification for a totally legal international intervention, which this country took part in, had resulted in a genuine benefit? What if that massive coalition, which extended even to approval from the Palestine Liberation Organisation, had been able to demonstrate that a legal war, correctly applied, could result in construction, reconstruction and allowing a country the investment required to be a shining light of a genuine international intervention?
The United States of America was, in a way, never stronger than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It was never more respected, because it had suffered a terrorist atrocity. What would have happened if an ever broader coalition had brought to fruition the situation that I have described, instead of this meandering into Iraq on a private vendetta of the President of the United States with his closet of neo-con advisers, aided and abetted by a British Prime Minister who subverted collective responsibility and prevented this Parliament from having the information that it required to hold the Government to account?
I once told the former Prime Minister that he would answer to a higher law than this Parliament, and I believe that to be absolutely true. In the meantime, this Parliament should hold him accountable at this stage, not because it is a matter of pursuing him but because it will demonstrate and illustrate that, even retrospectively, if a Parliament is systematically misled, it will say that up with it we shall not put. That is part of the changes that we should make not just in the processes of government, to impose collective responsibility, and not just in, I hope, learning the lessons of how to reconstruct a country, but, essentially, in parliamentary accountability. If we make those changes, we will be able to say legitimately that an Iraq could never happen again.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). There is no doubt that they have two very clear advantages over me in this debate, in that both of them opposed the motion in the House in 2003, which initiated our military action in Iraq. I, on the other hand, supported it—something that I have come very much to regret. I supported it at the time because I was persuaded by the arguments eloquently put forward by the Prime Minister, Mr Blair. He said that, in his view, Saddam Hussein was a real and present danger in the immediate context and that that justified taking military action against him, even without going back for a further resolution of the United Nations Security Council, but relying on the previous resolutions, which, as considerable evidence showed, had been serially breached by Saddam Hussein, certainly in his non co-operation. On that basis, I voted for the motion, as did many others who are still Members and present in this House today.
Sir John Chilcot’s report highlights how the decision-making processes of government can become distorted under pressure of events. I should like to think that I am always a bit wary of that. The distortions highlighted in the report are so considerable that it highlights a dysfunctionality at the heart of Mr Blair’s Government that I hope may have been exceptional to him. For all that, there are plenty of cautionary tales for us in this House today that we can look at in the current context just as much as they would have been considered at the time.
This point seems to have been rather well made already that, and I will not repeat it, because Mr Blair had formed in his view a very strong resolution that we should support the United States, including in removing Saddam Hussein and effecting regime change, the entirety of the processes of government and of Whitehall were then skewed in order to achieve that aim and had the mischief of disregarding all the evidence that might be available to contradict the belief that that was the right course of action to take—whether it was intelligence information or the thorny problem of legality, both of which I wish to touch on briefly this afternoon.
On the question of the intelligence, those of us who have been in government, or who have served on the National Security Council as I have—indeed it is also true of my current role as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee—know perfectly well that intelligence, often obtained at great risk and which is with difficulty, can only be what it is, a tool in decision making. The intelligence may be mistaken. One cannot prevent that in a human society, and one cannot guarantee that its interpretation will be correct. My impression during my time in government was that the intelligence agencies and the Joint Intelligence Committee now go to very considerable lengths to point out the limits of the use to which intelligence can properly be put—a lesson which, I suspect, they derived from this experience.
Reading Sir John Chilcot’s report, one can only conclude that the way in which intelligence was handled during the run-up to the Iraq war is, in some cases, truly breathtaking. It makes very troublesome reading. I hope very much—I am not going to say anything more about this—that those within the agencies who now do the work will read and reread Sir John’s report in order to remind themselves of how perfectly reasonable intelligence was skewed and, I have to say, misused for the purposes of justifying a theory, and then, I am afraid, misused by Mr Blair when he came to address this House in the defining moment before the war was sanctioned by this Parliament.
The certainties that were engendered were never present. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) made a very good intervention about this last week when he said that if we had taken the time and trouble to read some of the background information available, we might have doubted some of the certainties that were being expressed. I think he was absolutely right about that, and that is another burden that Members of this House who participated in that debate will have to bear.
So much for the intelligence. What about the process of legal advice? I was at the heart of trying to provide legal advice to Government when I was a Law Officer. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General is on the Front Bench and he, too, has been involved in those processes. As Law Officers know, legal advice is often advice which cannot in any way be certain. Legal advice is exactly what it says it is. In some cases, particularly when one is dealing with international law, the question whether one is on the right side or the wrong side of international law is an intensely grey area, precisely because there is no ultimate tribunal to determine those issues. Yet at the heart of the British Government’s doctrine and ethics is the principle that we have to act lawfully at all times. It is for the Law Officers to try to steer that course.
What shines through to me, reading the Chilcot inquiry report, is not, as some critics have said, that Lord Goldsmith as Attorney General abandoned legal objectivity. Now that I have read the Chilcot inquiry report and looked at these passages very carefully, it seems to me that he fulfilled those criteria as best he possibly could, but that he was drawn into a process which in itself was utterly flawed, because it cherry-picked whatever bit of the advice that he provided suited those who wanted to present it, and then sold it in that way both to the Cabinet, who never properly inquired or scrutinised it at all, and ultimately to the public.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend really think that the Attorney General met all his duties? The report refers to the final question to Tony Blair, which it says was answered perfunctorily, about whether the conditions had been met. Surely he should have been a little more pressing, rather than accepting a perfunctory reply before changing his view.
I simply quote from paragraph 810 of the executive summary:
“It is an essential part of the legal basis for military action”—
this was written by an official in the Attorney General’s Department—
“without a further resolution of the Security Council that there is strong evidence that Iraq has failed to comply with and co-operate fully in the implementation of resolution 1441 and has thus failed to take the final opportunity offered by the Security Council in that resolution. The Attorney General understands that it is unequivocally the Prime Minister’s view that Iraq has committed further material breaches as specified in [operative] paragraph 4 of resolution 1441, but as this is a judgment for the Prime Minister, the Attorney would be grateful for confirmation that this is the case.”
It is important to understand one of the big changes that has probably taken place between 2003 and today in the way in which a Law Officer’s advice is secured. My impression from reading Chilcot—I hope I have got this right—is that, in practice, the Attorney General was provided with only sketched backgrounds of the factual analysis on which his legal opinion was being sought. The big difference now, and I can tell the House this without giving away state secrets, is that if Law Officers are asked to advise on a factual basis that involves a serious or complex problem of international law, they will receive briefing that is as good as, and—if they demand it—potentially better than, that which would be provided to the Prime Minister himself as to the intelligence and factual base that justifies it, so they have to make their own independent assessment. However, it is quite clear that, in 2003, and, I suspect, even before then—I do not think this was peculiar to 2003—that was not the practice that was adopted; it was not how Government worked. In practice, the Law Officer, Lord Goldsmith, was placed in a position where he had, reasonably, to take on trust the factual assessments made by others, and particularly the Prime Minister.
I want to make it clear that I cannot make a judgment on whether Lord Goldsmith’s advice of 7 March was right or not, but he set out—correctly, in my view—the alternative interpretations available for resolution 1441. I simply make the point, as I did in my intervention, that there are areas of international law that raise massive difficulties of interpretation. If, for example, we stuck, as some jurists would argue, to the principle that no military intervention can take place without UN Security Council authorisation, the well-established United Kingdom doctrine of intervening on the basis of humanitarian necessity, which is what led us to be able to take action in Kosovo, would never have come about. I simply chuck that into the pool of the debate the House has had in trying to understand some of the complexities.
Of course, none of that gets away from the fact that the debate would likely have been very different in Cabinet if Lord Goldsmith’s advice in its original form had been properly presented, circulated and discussed. As any of us who have been in government know, the process by which we moderate each other’s opinions is by challenging them. If we do not have a process of challenge, we should not be surprised that, at the end of the day, people simply end up rubber-stamping decisions because it appears convenient to do so. One of the interesting features, I might add, of being in coalition was that one quickly realised that because some members of, for example, the National Security Council or the Cabinet were not beholden to the Prime Minister, the level of challenge was raised in a manner that one might not necessarily have found in a single-party Government, which is an interesting reflection on some of the problems that flow from it. Of course, when one has a Prime Minister who is utterly dominant after four or five years in government and receiving a triumphant second mandate, these things become even harder.
Those, then, are my thoughts on those two principal issues. There are lots of other issues in the report, which is one of the most compelling reads I have had. I am not sure I am going to be able to get through the whole lot, but I will certainly try to read much more of it.
Let me just make two final points. First, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) expressed the desire that accountability should lead to somebody being held at least in contempt of this House if Mr Blair did act improperly. I simply say to him that, just as some people were talking about impeachment, which was last used in 1806, contempt proceedings in Parliament—unless they are based on findings made in an external tribunal that meets article 6 compliance —will, in practice, be very difficult. I would strongly argue that, tempting as such a route might suggest itself to be, the practical difficulties are likely to make it impossible to follow. I say that in all sincerity.
I would like to explore this with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am not quite clear in what way he considers that the former Prime Minister’s civil rights and obligations would be determined in a contempt motion. As I understand it, as a novice in parliamentary procedure, it is a breach of privilege. It is not a determination of the former PM’s civil rights or obligations, and it is clearly not a criminal charge—a contempt of court. Could the right hon. and learned Gentleman elucidate on what basis he thinks that article 6 would be engaged?
It depends, I suppose, on what sanction this House wishes to follow. However, there is a second issue. We may have examples where somebody says one thing to this House and, in front of a tribunal or court of record, when giving evidence on oath, says something different. The House can then look at those two things juxtaposed and conclude, for example, that the House was misled in evidence that it was given. That might well give rise to a finding of breach of privilege for contempt, although that still leaves unanswered the question of sanctions.
I do understand the hon. and learned Lady’s point. However, I am not, in this case, making some definitive statement; I am simply describing what, to my mind, appear to be the difficulties that are likely to come from trying to pursue this particular course of action. As, on the whole, I would like the reputation of this House to stand enhanced by the way in which we approach the Chilcot inquiry report and its aftermath, I am always wary of suggesting, counselling or recommending a course of action that might lead to the very opposite of what is intended.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that I hold his legal expertise in the highest regard. He says that it is important that the reputation of this House is enhanced by the way in which it deals with the outcome of this report. Surely the reputation of this House will not be enhanced if there is no attempt to hold the former Prime Minister to account.
I have listened to the hon. and learned Lady, and this matter can be debated or discussed at greater length, but, as I say, I counsel caution. The truth is that the then Prime Minister, Mr Blair, has been examined at the court of public opinion and, I suspect, of history, and I think it is likely that that judgment is going to be pretty unkind to the way in which this process was carried out. Whether the House feels that it wants to do more immediately is a matter that we can debate another time.
The point has been made that the outcome of this process in the middle east has been, on the evidence, lamentable. Of course, the middle east is a place of massive dysfunctionality. It may be that even if we had not intervened in 2003, we would find that another pattern of war and bloody conflict would have occurred, based on a whole series of disintegrations of the social fabric of that area that has been going on for some time, and that we can see manifested in the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria. That is not, I think, entirely due to our intervention in 2003, but has elements inherent within those societies themselves. I worry very much—indeed, this has coloured my view as a politician ever since—that this has also had a terrible effect on public trust in us and our institutions in this country that carries itself all the way into the Brexit referendum and its aftermath. On that, I rather agreed, for once, with an article in the New Statesman.
We have much to learn from this very sorry episode. The nugget I derive from it is that we must have open debate and that we must avoid simply treating politics as presentational gimmicks. That has become a habit in modern western society because of the development of social media, the press and the way in which we communicate ideas, but if we continue to do it we will ruthlessly undermine sensible decision making and the ability to come to the right conclusions by debate, which is absolutely the heart of what this House should be about.
I want to begin where the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who has just spoken very eloquently, ended. I entirely agree that there is much to learn from the Chilcot report. One of the things that I am most concerned about—I know that it is very early to say this—is that it is far from clear to me that we are actually going to learn the things that we should.
On the morning of the publication of the Chilcot report, I listened to the radio and heard a number of commentators and, indeed, Members of this House, including, I think the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), saying one after another, “Of course, we all know what happened.” The script was simple and familiar: “Tony Blair knew there were no weapons of mass destruction. He deliberately lied to the House of Commons about whether there was intelligence to suggest that there were such weapons. He made a secret pact with George Bush long before the war, committing us to it in all circumstances, so everything that happened in between was irrelevant, and the war itself was illegal because there was no second United Nations resolution.”
It seems to me that this is the right moment to point out that this is, I think, the fifth inquiry into what happened in 2003 and before and after the invasion, and, as far as I recall, none of them has verified that incredibly simply script. Nor does it seem to me that the Chilcot report confirms it.
The inquiry team accepts, as have the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, that when the Prime Minister told this House that he believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he believed it implicitly to be true. He was not making up the intelligence or telling this House anything other than what he believed to be true, let alone inventing a lie, which seems to be being implied. Indeed, the report points out that the basic case that Saddam Hussein had retained weapons of mass destruction and that he had the intent to develop more, given the opportunity, was what the Joint Intelligence Committee itself believed.
It seems to me that one of the most important things that comes out of Chilcot—the former Attorney General touched on this—is the degree to which whole swathes of people whose professional judgment was involved were mistaken, and that continued to be the case right up to and, indeed, beyond the invasion. Chilcot makes it clear that that is what the Joint Intelligence Committee had continually reported both to the then Prime Minister and to the Cabinet. The report states:
“There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No. 10 improperly influenced the text…The Inquiry is not questioning Mr Blair’s belief, which he consistently reiterated…or his legitimate role in advocating Government policy.”
It is really important to bear that in mind, especially as one listens to some of the detailed and very determined attempts to create a different impression.
Sir John Chilcot also pointed out that, along with the dangers that the intelligence community believed that Saddam Hussein presented, it believed that,
“Saddam Hussein could not be removed without an invasion.”
That was also thought to be relevant.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight we all know that the intelligence community and the then Prime Minister were wrong, but we did not know it then. What is more, what our intelligence services believed was believed by almost every other intelligence service in the world, including the French and the Russians, and there is no doubt that that is why Security Council resolution 1441 was carried unanimously.
The right hon. Lady said that we did not know at the time. However, on 15 March 2002, the JIC said that the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes was sporadic and patchy. Three weeks later, in Texas, Tony Blair said:
“We know he has been developing these weapons. We know that those weapons constitute a threat”.
How did we not know at the time, and how is that consistent?
I am familiar with the insistence that, in some way, this is hugely important. That is not the impression that the public are being given or, if I may say so, that the right hon. Gentleman, among others, is striving every day to give them. The public are being given the impression, not that the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was sporadic and patchy but that it was there, but that the intelligence services and the then Prime Minister knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction and deliberately misled the House. That is not true and was never true. No attempt—
Will the right hon. Member give way?
No attempt to read that into the record can possibly be justified. We did not know it then—no one knew it then—and most people very firmly believed in Saddam Hussein’s intentions.
The third allegation is about the secret commitment. I was not the slightest bit surprised to hear the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) quoting the single sentence that is included in the background notification. I agree with him entirely if his assertion is that it was a profound mistake for the former Prime Minister to use that phraseology. However, I do not read into it the sinister feeling that the right hon. Gentleman does, nor indeed did the Chilcot inquiry. To my mind, if this had been a conversation, rather than a written memorandum, it would have been something along the lines of, “I am on your side, but”—but—“if we are to take action, all these things have to be addressed; we have to go the United Nations and so on.” Chilcot acknowledges that it was Mr Blair’s intent to get President Bush to go through the United Nations route, and that—against the advice of the President’s own allies—he pursued that with determination and had success in doing so.
The right hon. Lady will find, as she peruses the report, that Chilcot found it much more significant than that. That is why he said that it would make it very difficult for the UK to subsequently withdraw its support for the US. In a memo to Tony Blair, her colleague Jack Straw said:
“When Bush graciously accepted your offer to be with him all the way”.
Can the right hon. Lady give us an explanation for that?
It would be better to ask my former colleague. However, having been the recipient of Jack Straw’s notes, I would suggest that he was ironically quoting back to the Prime Minister words he did not think the Prime Minister should have used; and he was right about that, as no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will agree.
Then there is the question of legality. It has been said here before, and no doubt will be said again, that Chilcot does not pronounce on the legality of the proceeding. He criticises the processes but he does not say that a second resolution was needed, although I accept that he does not go into that territory. There is an enormous amount of dispute about this matter, and the former Attorney General touched on it a moment ago. It has led to the query, which he raised, as to why there were so few questions from the Cabinet to the Attorney General when he gave us his advice.
One of the things I am pretty sure I have said before, but I do not suppose anybody has paid any attention and they probably will not now, is that it is quite simply the case that the issue of whether we needed a second resolution had been gone over ad nauseam. It had been discussed at length. The Cabinet had had extensive verbal reports from the then Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister about the progress of discussions in the Security Council, about the desire to have a second resolution, about how things were going, who was objecting, and the detail of how that process of negotiation was taking place.
The views of the then Foreign Office legal adviser in London have been much quoted. Evidence was given to the Chilcot inquiry about that, and it is absolutely right and wholly understandable that all the focus has been on the advice of the Foreign Office legal people in London. Although I was interested in the remarks of the Former Attorney General about how unclear international law is and how interpreting it is not always an easy matter, that is certainly not the impression that the public have been given.
However, I have rarely seen any reference made to the fact that someone else gave evidence to the inquiry about the legality of resolution 1441 and whether a second resolution was required. That person was the head of the Foreign Office legal team at the United Nations—the team whose day-to-day dealings are with the Security Council; the team who advised the then Government, and who presumably advise equivalent people in the Government today, on the handling of negotiations; and who give the Government legal advice about the detail of what resolutions mean—what their import will be.
That legal adviser confirmed what the former Foreign Secretary had consistently told the Cabinet, day after day—that the Russians and the French, in particular, had tried to get an explicit reference into resolution 1441 to the need for a second resolution before any military action could be undertaken, even though resolution 1441, as drafted, stated that it was a “final opportunity” to comply with UN resolutions and talked about “serious consequences” if Saddam did not comply. The legal adviser told the Chilcot inquiry that those discussions in the Security Council were exhaustive; that a very strong attempt was made to insist that a second resolution was carried; but that, in the end, the Russians and the French accepted that a second resolution was not referred to, and the resolution was carried unanimously—including, if I recall correctly, with the vote of the Syrian Government, which is a remarkable thought in today’s circumstances.
The accusation has also been made in all these discussions that the attempt to get Saddam Hussein to conform with UN resolutions was in some way false—that there was no wish for Saddam Hussein to conform, and that the intention from the beginning was military action. As I said in an intervention on the Foreign Secretary, the then Prime Minister repeatedly warned the Cabinet that if Saddam Hussein did, indeed, choose to comply with the UN resolutions, he stayed; and he reminded us that that would be an outcome that many—not least the many in this House who campaigned on behalf of the Kurds—would deplore and regret. It was repeatedly pointed out to us, “If Saddam complies, there will be no military action. He stays in power.”
I thank the right hon. Lady for so graciously giving way. The Chilcot report contains a quote from Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 at the time, telling Tony Blair that the US was deliberately setting the bar
“so high that Saddam Hussein would be unable to comply”.
So the idea that when Tony Blair was standing in the House of Commons on the day of the vote, there was still time for Saddam to comply, is simply wrong. Tony Blair has already been told by Sir Richard Dearlove that the bar has been set deliberately high for the weapons inspectors, so that Saddam cannot comply.
I know about the quote from Sir Richard Dearlove and I know that he expressed that view, as I recall, quite some time before, because I do not think he was in post at the time we are speaking of. I accept that it was serious and difficult, but if Saddam had shown any intention of complying or made any move to readmit inspectors—for example, a series of tests was proposed that Saddam could meet to show whether he was complying, but all that was rejected—by the French, by the way, and also by Saddam. So that is where we are. There was, indeed, a warning that if Saddam complied, military action would not occur.
That is the original four-point series of accusations. To that story, three further accusations have now been added. The first, from the Chilcot report, is that action was taken when it was not a matter of the last resort. The second is that we could have held back longer and the whole matter could have been addressed by further inspections. The third was that the events that have since taken place in the middle east are all a result of the Iraq invasion, and that that too should lie on the consciences of all of us who voted for it.
The point about whether the intervention was a last resort was also raised by my late right hon. Friend Robin Cook, and those who make that case rest their argument on the continued effectiveness of containment backed by sanctions. What nobody seems to mention any more is that at that time, it was widely and seriously believed that containment was weakening and ceasing to be effective. Anyone who was around can cast their mind back and recall that there was an enormous and growing campaign against the sanctions that were helping to keep in place the hoped-for containment. Many right hon. and hon. Members will recall the protests that took place continually, across the road in Parliament Square, but nearly everybody has forgotten that that was not at first a protest against the war; it was a protest against the maintenance of sanctions against Saddam Hussein. To be fair to those who undertook that protest, it was done on a perfectly legitimate and understandable basis, because Saddam was stealing money that was being given to feed the Iraqi people and using it for his own purposes, and consequently there was growing poverty and hardship in Iraq. It was understandable that people should have been against sanctions on that basis, and they were, and the campaign against those sanctions was growing.
Does the right hon. Lady fully understand the significance of chapter 20 in the executive summary, which states clearly that this action was not a last resort? That is important because it is fundamental to the definition of a just war. If we accept Chilcot’s assertion, its corollary is that this was not a just war, with all the consequences that follow from that. In all these volumes of stuff, that simple sentence in the executive summary bangs the whole lot to rights.
I realised that that was what it meant. I was under the impression—I may be mistaken; unlike many others here, I am not a lawyer—that a just war was a religious rather than a military or legal concept, although I do understand it in those terms. Apart from the question of whether the war was just because it was not a last resort, on containment, evidence was found after the invasion that Saddam Hussein had been further in breach of UN resolutions than we understood at the time. Robin Cook was unaware of that when he made his statement in this House, and the impression was created that containment was working—for example, missile development had been forbidden, but people were not aware that, as the Butler report stated, Iraq was developing ballistic missiles with a longer range than permitted under the relevant Security Council resolutions. Saddam Hussein clearly intended to reconstitute long-range delivery systems that were potentially for use with weapons of mass destruction. As we discovered after the invasion, it was not a simple matter of containment working and there being no breaches, or that Saddam Hussein was not trying to develop weapons.
There is also the argument that we could have held on, and I must accept Chilcot’s verdict that such action was not impossible. However, no one now touches on the circumstances in which people found themselves by then. We had troops in theatre in difficult, unpleasant, and incredibly dangerous circumstances. Indeed, those troops were expecting hourly, daily, the potential attacks involving chemical or biological weapons that everyone believed Saddam Hussein possessed, and that one hoped our troops were equipped to resist. So it was not a simple matter of saying there was no need.
If you are going to take action, you have to start military preparations. By that point, military preparations had advanced to such an extent that our troops were in theatre. Ultimately, one could argue—no doubt people will—that those troops could have been withdrawn, but what kind of signal would that have sent to Saddam Hussein or to the rest of the world? It seems to me that it would have given Saddam Hussein the signal that he was perfectly free to resume the kind of operations he had undertaken in the past, whether against the Kurds or Iran. These issues are not as simple as is sometimes assumed. I completely accept, however, the argument made in Chilcot that one of the lessons we should learn is that we should be wary of letting military concerns drive political decisions. That brings me back to my principal thesis, which is that there is much in Chilcot from which we can learn, but only if we do not divert ourselves on to things that Chilcot does not say.
The final issue or accusation I wish to address is that everything that has happened in Iraq, Syria and across the middle east since has all flowed from the invasion of Iraq, that it is all down to a dreadful miscalculation. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) called it the worst foreign policy mistake. Let us say that it was. I do not myself quite take that view, but let us accept his premise. But I do not think he argues, and I certainly do not for one second accept, that everything terrible that is happening now or has happened since in the middle east is as a result of that invasion.
It is grossly irresponsible, in order for people to satisfy the clear, very real anger and passion they feel against the then Government, the then Prime Minister and the current civil war in Iraq, to say to the evil men of ISIL, Daesh and al-Qaeda that they are off the hook for the blame for any of the terrible things they do because it is all down to our fault. [Interruption.] It is no good people making noises off, because we all know that that is exactly the kind of assertion that very many people make: that all of this stuff is down to the mistakes of the west; it is all down to the evildoing of the west and everyone else is absolved.
No one should be absolved from responsibility for the things they themselves advocate or they themselves do. I do not seek to resile from the responsibility that I exercised when I voted in Cabinet and I voted in this House for the Iraq war. I regret bitterly the events that have occurred since, as any sensible person would, but I do not pretend that the decision I made was not my decision and that it was somehow all somebody else’s fault.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am sorry to have to announce this to the House, but on account of the number of would-be contributors there will now be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches with immediate effect. That limit may have to be reviewed, but it is 10 minutes for now. I call Mr David Davis.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), although I felt that at the end she destroyed her own argument by attributing to other people views that nobody holds: that somehow IS is allowed off the hook of blame because of the weaknesses and failures of the British Government.
Let us be clear what those failures are: 150,000 deaths by violence, a large majority of them innocent civilians; over 1 million deaths, on medical estimates, as a result of this war; and a destroyed country. Iraq was a nasty dictatorship, but containment—sanctions, inspections when they were allowed, and no-fly zones—was broadly working. There was damage to the stability of the middle east. Of course it is not the entire story, but let us not forget that IS started in an American prisoner-of-war camp in Iraq. That is where its high command comes from, so let us not put that to one side either. There has been a significantly increased terrorist threat worldwide, something that was known and warned about before we took this action. That is what we are talking about. That is what the worst foreign policy mistake in our modern history means for many, many innocent people in the world.
In the 1990s, before that happened, I had responsibility for counter-proliferation in the Conservative Government of the time. I accept that the behaviour of the Saddam Hussein regime was peculiar to say the least. As far as we could tell from inspections and our intelligence, it did not have WMD or a workable WMD programme but was deliberately trying to create confusion about that, by not co-operating from time to time, by moving trucks from one site to another before inspectors arrived, and so on. It was probably doing that to keep Iran convinced that it had a WMD programme. That was what it was worried about—not us, but its next-door neighbour against which it had fought a massive war shortly before. That explains some of the strange behaviour of the regime.
At that time and—I guess—up until just before 2001, the general belief was that this was a moderate and controllable threat. Indeed, Carne Ross, the middle east specialist among our delegation to the UN, said that when he first took the job he was briefed:
“Basically we don’t think there’s anything there. We are justifying sanctions on the basis that Iraq has not answered questions about its past stocks”.
Since then, all the JIC, SIS and GCHQ reports have corroborated that. It was considered a moderate and controllable threat at that point.
Then what happened? We had 9/11, which, quite properly, shocked the world: 3,000 deaths in a hideous terrorist spectacular. Of course, Tony Blair justifies his actions on that basis, but I have to say to him that this was a reason for getting it right, not an excuse for getting it wrong. There was understandable paranoia that something like it might happen again, either here or somewhere else, but then there came a dangerous and simplistic conflation of the real, present and continuing threat from al-Qaeda and Iraq—the axis of evil nonsense that President Bush generated at the time. This fiction was reinforced in February 2002, when the Americans rendered to Egypt somebody called Sheikh al-Libi, who was tortured on the question of whether there was a chemical and biological weapons relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Essentially, he was tortured until he said yes, and that was the evidence that Colin Powell cited at the United Nations—the House might remember—when he talked about having “substantial evidence”. Of course, it was a fiction obtained under torture.
I am quite sure that that intelligence was shared with Mr Blair, who, not knowing the source, would have found it persuasive, as something told to the Americans by an al-Qaeda commander. It seems from the Chilcot report that, at some point between December 2001 and possibly March 2002 but certainly by July 2002, Mr Blair effectively signed Britain up to the American military effort. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said, the issue was not our soldiers but our reputation. It was our involvement that legitimised the American action.
This, however, produced a problem for our Prime Minister. Under American law, to go to war on the basis of regime change is entirely legal. They do not recognise the international laws that render it otherwise, so for them regime change is a perfectly legitimate casus belli. From comments made and the items to which the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) referred, it seems that Tony Blair agreed, but he had a problem, because our law and international law did not allow it. He therefore saw his role as building a coalition to support the Americans.
There was nothing dishonourable in that, if Tony Blair believed the aim, but to do it he had to achieve a number of things. He had to create a casus belli under international law, and for that he needed proof of weapons of mass destruction and of a terrorist threat, and a UN resolution and thereby proof of legality. The result was UN resolution 1441, the thrust of which was that it was the final opportunity for Iraq to comply with its disarmament obligations. The vote was 15:0 in favour. As the right hon. Member for Derby South said, it did not include a deliberate trigger to war; it required a further resolution. The UN inspectorate went in and did 700 inspections of over 500 sites. Interestingly, it went to three dozen sites given to it by the CIA and MI6, who thought that was where the weapons were located. The inspectorate found not a thing—over three and a half months, it found nothing whatsoever.
Then the American President set a timetable, creating a real problem over and above the United Nations—war by March. That is why Chilcot said that going to war was not the last resort. It was not. It gave Mr Blair a problem. What should he do? Many other countries, including France and Russia, viewed the inspection process as incomplete—and, of course, it was. The UN vote was then lost by 11 to four, so when Blair returned to the UK, he had to win a debate and vote in the House of Commons. He made what some people think was the greatest speech of his life, but in order to persuade us, he had to say five things that were a clear misrepresentation.
Mr Blair accused France of saying that it would never vote for war. That was simply not true, and he knew it was not true. I refer to an interview given on Radio 4 in the last year by Sir Stephen Wall. As a Foreign Office adviser in No. 10, he was privy to what was going on and clarified what was really said, which was that, effectively, “As of now, France will vote against”. When he was asked whether Downing Street deliberately lied about Chirac’s statement, he said yes, it deliberately lied.
The next two misrepresentations were quotations from the UN inspectors’ reports. Time is short, so let me read briefly what was said by Hans Blix, the head of the inspectorate. Speaking of the British Government, he said:
“If they had gone to the British Parliament in 2003 and said that we have a lot of things unaccounted for here, and we suspect there may be something, and we think it is safer to invade them, would the British Parliament have dreamt of saying yes to such a thing? I don’t think so. I think in order to go ahead they needed to make the allegations which they made and which were not sustainable…In substance yes they misrepresented what we did and they did so in order to get the authorisation they shouldn’t have had.”
That was Hans Blix’s view of what Tony Blair did in the House of Commons. Mr Blair also misrepresented what Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, had told the allies about the WMD programme.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I do not have time. Oh, I will give way.
I had it in mind that my right hon. Friend would get a bit more time.
Does my right hon. Friend think, with hindsight, that given that Hans Blix was perfectly willing to carry on with inspections, if the Americans could have been persuaded to delay for another month, all this could have been avoided? The Americans dismissed Blix, however, and regarded him as a waste of time; they were trying to get him out of the way.
That is exactly right. That should have been the stance that Mr Blair took, but he did not. He chose instead to come to Parliament to misrepresent the case.
Mr Blair also misrepresented the line put forward by Mr Hussein Kamel, who was later killed by Saddam Hussein, to claim that the WMD programme was continuing. What was, in fact, said in an interview with the inspectorate, was that the WMD had all been destroyed by 1991.
Finally, Mr Blair was asked by Tam Dalyell about the risks of terrorism arising from the war, but the Prime Minister did not give him an answer—despite having been told by the JIC and by MI5 that it would increase both the international and domestic risk of terrorism and would destabilise the states in the area.
On five counts, then, Mr Blair misrepresented to this House the substantive aspects of the argument for the war. If this House is to contribute to decisions on war in the future, it must be able to rely on being told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth by our Prime Minister.
For those of us who took that fateful decision on 18 March 2003, the Chilcot report makes difficult and uncomfortable reading. Our thoughts today should, above all, be with the families, Iraqi and British, who lost loved ones in the conflict; but Members who voted for war—and I was one—did so in good faith.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett); I do not think that we were misled or lied to. Nor, more importantly, does the Chilcot report reach such a conclusion. However, we must all take our full share of the responsibility for that decision. As we now know, the intelligence was wrong, although, as my right hon. Friend said, many countries and many people—including Iraq’s neighbours, some of its own military, and the United Nations—thought that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Had we known the truth at the time, the House would never have voted for war, and nor would I. For that we should apologise, and I certainly do, but at the time we could decide only on the basis of what we thought we knew. Let me also say this, however. If I am asked whether I regret the fact that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, my reply is “No, I do not”, because he was a brutal dictator who had killed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, and had used chemical weapons against them.
I want to reflect, very briefly, on three issues: the task of reconstruction that we faced, why Iraq was as it was, and some of the wider lessons. The problem faced by the Department for International Development in Basra and the surrounding provinces in 2003 was not the humanitarian crisis that we had anticipated, but a different set of circumstances altogether. There was the dysfunctional nature of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. There were the problems of the coalition provisional authority, caused by a failure to plan. There was the legacy of Saddam’s dictatorship—when we tried to persuade the authorities in the south to talk to Baghdad, that was the last thing that they wanted to do, because they remembered what dealing with Baghdad had been like in the past. There was the legacy of the repression of the Shi’a, there was the malign neglect of infrastructure, and there was the absence of the United Nations, which no one has mentioned so far this afternoon. The bomb that killed Sérgio Vieira de Mello and 23 of his staff in August 2003 in the Canal Hotel was, in truth, the beginning of an insurgency that grew stronger with each passing month.
The problem facing reconstruction was not money. The Chilcot report itself concludes:
“There are no indications that DFID’s activities in Iraq were constrained by a lack of resources.”
Iraq was, and is still, a middle-income country with oil. In fact, the problem was spending money, including money from the World Bank, because of rapidly deteriorating security. No sooner did we manage to fix something—we made a real contribution to improving the water and electricity supply in the south of the country—than people would try to blow it up.
I want to place on record my thanks for the huge contribution that was made by many courageous individuals with whom I had the privilege of working—people from DFID and other Departments, British and Iraqi, military and civilian, non-governmental organisation staff and humanitarian staff—who tried to help the people of Iraq in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. They all acted in the best traditions of public service, and we should thank them for what they did.
I endorse 100% the thanks and the tribute that the right hon. Gentleman has just paid to DFID officials, but he has passed rather rapidly over the subsequent months during which there appeared to be no planning for reconstruction at all.
I freely acknowledge that one of the failures, which is set out clearly in the report, was the failure to plan in advance of the decision taken on 18 March 2003. Indeed, there are lessons that we must learn from that. The truth is, however, that Iraq was a suppressed, repressed and brutalised society in which Saddam was the lid on the pressure cooker, and when he left, the lid came off. We have seen that in other countries, too—Libya has already been mentioned.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South rightly said that those who seek to blame the decision to invade for all the subsequent events miss the responsibility that others have for what has gone on. We must take our share of the responsibility, and disbanding the Iraqi army—which meant that thousands of men had no salary and no income, but had a gun and a grievance—was a profound mistake. But Iraqi politicians also have to bear a responsibility for the sectarian policies they have pursued, and those who still engage in suicide bombing cannot turn to us and say, “Look what you made me do”. They must bear responsibility for what they themselves have chosen to do to their fellow citizens.
The best evidence for the difference that good politics and good governance can make in Iraq is shown by the Kurdish region, which, let us not forget, was as it was partly because of the support we had given it through the no-fly zone. As a result, it is now the most stable and relatively prosperous part of Iraq. I pay tribute, as others have, to the peshmerga for the role that they have played, and still play, in trying to defeat Daesh.
The Kurds regard the 2003 invasion as a liberation. Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan Regional Government representative to the UK, wrote this week about the Chilcot report that
“there was an Iraq before the 2003 invasion, an Iraq that, for millions, was a concentration camp on the surface and a mass grave beneath.”
We only have to read the reports of Human Rights Watch to see what it had to say at the time about the mass executions, the mass disappearances, the use of chemical weapons, the suppression of the Shi’a majority, particularly after the 1991 uprising, and the attempt by Saddam to eradicate the population and culture of the Marsh Arabs, who had resided continuously in the marshlands for more than 5,000 years. That was what life was like, and we should not forget it.
At least today Iraq has a fragile democracy, and whatever our views on the decision 13 years ago, we have a continuing responsibility to assist, especially when the democratically elected Government ask for our help. That is why this House was right in 2014 to provide support in helping them defeat Daesh, and we have seen the benefit of that support in the progress made in the months since. We have also discovered more about what Daesh does as towns have been liberated. That is why this House was right to vote unanimously to describe what is being done to the Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria as
“genocide at the hands of Daesh.”
I wish the Government would do what the House asked and take that to the UN Security Council so that it can be passed on to the International Criminal Court.
Finally, I turn to the wider lessons. For too long in foreign affairs, Governments have argued, “Better the strong man we know than the chaos we fear”, even when that strong man is a brutal murdering dictator. Yet look at what happens when the strong man falls in Libya, in Egypt and, indeed, in Iraq.
Three years after the end of the second world war, the UN General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the universal declaration of human rights. Article 3 states:
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
Article 28 states:
“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised.”
Yet for millions of people in the world those rights, so nobly expressed, have remained just words on paper, and they were certainly just words on paper during Saddam’s rule. Surely that will not do. Having created the UN, why do we not have the responsibility to ensure that the principles of the universal declaration of human rights are given universal expression internationally, exactly as we have managed to achieve, for example, in our own country over many years? It is the responsibility of the UN Security Council to do that. That was why we created the UN, which has a moral responsibility and a legitimacy to act, and it is why I am a strong supporter of the Responsibility to Protect. That principle says that state sovereignty is not absolute and the international community has a responsibility to act in certain circumstances.
Finally, even though this is unspoken in the report, I think Chilcot forces us to consider that while there are consequences to taking action—we meet here today to discuss them and their legacy—there are also always consequences of not doing so. For me, that is the most important lesson of Iraq, both before and after 2003.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I am going to bring my remarks to a conclusion, because so many others wish to speak.
As a world, we have a responsibility to be much more effective and determined in dealing with countries and conflicts in circumstances such as these before they turn into brutal and bloody civil wars. I believe that the best way to do that is to demonstrate that multilateralism—countries working together—can provide the answer to the uncomfortable question: what is to be done? The more we do that, the stronger will be our argument against those who would act unilaterally—at times we have to act unilaterally, and we were right to do so in Kosovo and in Sierra Leone—that there is another, better way. For that to happen, however, the United Nations has to do the job for which it was created.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am trying to accommodate as many colleagues as possible, and after the next speaker it will be necessary to reduce the time limit to six minutes. I am sorry, but this is inevitable.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), whom I used to follow regularly when we were both on our respective parties’ Front Benches.
The aim of this debate on Chilcot should be to heal wounds and learn lessons, but I very much fear that it will be characterised by a discussion of whether Mr Blair is guilty or very guilty. Such a discussion would betray the interests of all those whose loved ones were placed in harm’s way and who paid the ultimate price in Iraq, as well as of the many thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives. It is the whole system of governance that we need to hold to account, not just the Prime Minister, if we are to achieve resolution and benefit.
In 2003, I sat over there on the Opposition Benches and heard what the Prime Minister said. I supported his judgment. That judgment could not have been reached and acted on by the Prime Minister without the active support, or at least the passive acquiescence, of the machinery of government. Before we come to the lessons for the future, however, let me observe that the central allegations boil down to two. The first is that the intelligence was wrong. The second is that a culture of sofa government—a lack of accountable structures for decision making—and inadequate procedures prevailed.
Having used the product of the three intelligence agencies while I was on the National Security Council and in Cabinet, I yield to no one in my admiration and respect for those who carry out what is often difficult and dangerous work. There are people working at GCHQ who could deploy their talents in the commercial world for 10 times what they are paid by the taxpayer, yet they choose to serve their country instead. We should honour and respect them for that. I have no hesitation in saying, from my own experience, that if those who work in the intelligence agencies were asked to do something improper by their political masters, they would simply refuse to do it. Intelligence is, by its very nature, difficult to hold to account. The normal rules of transparency and openness simply do not apply. The sourcing of intelligence is by definition complex and we cannot talk about it in any detail. In one instance, while I was Secretary of State for International Development, intelligence that we received on a particular situation in Africa turned out to be wrong, but the fault for the error did not lie with Britain or British intelligence.
On the issue of sofa government and informality, it is clear that there was a lack of Cabinet structure and accountability, as well as a quite extraordinary informality and, let us say, flexibility in the use of the Attorney General and his legal opinions. However, critical lessons have been learned and, crucially, they have resulted in the setting up of the National Security Council.
My brother served in both Gulf wars. The right hon. Gentleman has talked about sofa government and the lessons to be learned from poor Government structures. Pages 121 and 122 of the executive summary give details of the delay in allowing the military to prepare and of the resulting lack of equipment and preparedness for our armed forces going into Iraq. Does he believe, as I and others do, that that unnecessarily cost some members of our armed forces their lives?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the absolute importance of having proper accountable structures, not informal machineries of government, as I was saying.
Moving on to the Libya campaign, there was a proper process by which legal advice was given to the Cabinet. Britain’s humanitarian responsibilities in the conflict were made clear at the first Cabinet meeting that authorised military action. The National Security Council met on numerous occasions, as did an inner, sub-committee of the NSC on which I sat. In addition to the conduct of the campaign, we discussed the humanitarian situation and the preparations for stabilisation on a daily basis. There was of course no invasion as such, but the Defence Secretary took personal responsibility for targeting to ensure that collateral damage was minimised, and the loss of civilian life was mercifully extremely limited.
On discharging our humanitarian responsibility, lessons were carefully learned and, as the Foreign Secretary emphasised, Britain did a good job indeed. We organised the planes and ships that successfully transported thousands of migrant workers home or to places of safety as far afield as the Philippines and Baghdad to remove them from harm’s way. The evacuation of 5,000 migrants from the quayside at Misrata was a feat greatly assisted by Britain and for which the international community deserves the highest praise. When Tripoli was in danger of running out of water, it was DFID and the United Nations that successfully implemented our plan to prevent an emergency. The provision of food and medicines to conflict areas of Libya without either was also successfully accomplished.
My point is that specific lessons from the failures in Iraq were understood and implemented in respect of our humanitarian responsibilities. However, it is post-conflict stabilisation that attracts strong criticism regarding Iraq and Libya, where it is clear today that stabilisation is currently a failure. I want to make it clear that lessons were learned and that our focus on post-conflict stabilisation was absolute immediately after military action started. Britain set up an international stabilisation unit and worked closely with the UN, which was to have lead responsibility for stabilisation when the conflict ended. Britain supplied expertise, officials and funding, drawing on the lessons of Iraq. During the war, we gave technical support to the central bank and to such organs of the state that existed. Indeed, in contrast with Iraq, where the police and security services were simply abolished, we took specific significant steps to ensure that the police in Libya, who had not been engaged in human rights abuses, could be reassured by text message, for example, that they still had a job and should report for duty when the fighting diminished.
We prepared extensively, particularly through the support that we gave to UN institutions, to help stabilise Libya’s future, but we faced the simple problem that there was no peace to stabilise when the war was over and that in a country with limited structures outside the Gaddafi family the different factions were fractured and splintered. You can make all the plans you like for post-conflict stabilisation, but if there is no peace to stabilise, the international community’s non-military options are severely limited.
Lessons learned from Iraq and then applied in Libya have continued in respect of the British efforts in Syria. We have already made a huge funding commitment to stabilise the country when peace finally comes. We have played a more comprehensive role in humanitarian relief in and around Syria than the whole of the rest of the European Union put together. We were also the first country to put significant sums of taxpayers’ money into the Zaatari refugee camp in 2012, because we understood the approaching calamity.
The lessons we learn from the Chilcot report will shape our understanding of our place in the world. Will we continue to support the cause of liberal interventionism, as we successfully did in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, or will the House turn its back on discretionary intervention, even under UN auspices, and be prepared to stand idly by if—God forbid—another Rwandan genocide takes place? The post-Chilcot era will, I hope, see the right lessons learned and ensure that Britain remains a key international influence for good, willing to take military action, certainly as a last resort, when the situation requires it.
The decision to go to war is undoubtedly the most difficult one that any Prime Minister, leader or Member of this House will ever have to take. The Liberal Democrats are not pacifists—I am not a pacifist—but we believe that military action should be used only as a last resort, following the failure of diplomacy, and only in accordance with law. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not meet those tests, which is why, led by Charles Kennedy 13 years ago, the Liberal Democrats opposed the war. That reasoned opposition was met with vile derision by both the Government and the Conservative Opposition at the time. Thirteen years and 2 million words later, those voices have been silenced and Charles Kennedy is vindicated. It is a tragedy that he is not here to experience that vindication, and it is equally a tragedy that neither is Robin Cook. Chilcot’s conclusion is exactly what so many of us have known for more than 13 years: there was no legal or strategic case for the invasion of Iraq; it was “unnecessary”; and military action was “not a last resort”. Instead of improving our security, it in fact made our country, their country and the world we share less safe.
In the case of Iraq, Mr Blair appeared to be more concerned with supporting American President George Bush than he was in pursuing British interests and the interests of the Iraqi people. The most infamous quote—
“I will be with you, whatever”—
was not written to the Iraqi people, suffering under the undeniably cruel regime of such a brutal dictator, nor was it written to the British public as a clear display of the priorities of our elected leader. Instead, it was written to a neo-conservative US President intent on proving American superiority by waging war against an abstract noun. This was a President who was failing to make dramatic advances in Afghanistan, so instead he settled his sights on Iraq, despite the fact that, as Chilcot stresses on a number of occasions, the overall threat from Iraq was viewed as less serious than those from other countries of concern—Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Mr Blair was clearly determined to follow the US into war, no matter the consequences, and he effectively committed us to the Americans, no matter the evidence. We had, we have and I hope we will continue to have an intimate and rewarding relationship with the US, but we cannot allow our foreign policy to be defined by that relationship alone; “my ally right or wrong” is not a sustainable independent foreign policy. The strength of that unwavering commitment gave rise to the error of making the evidence fit the judgment, rather than the judgment fit the evidence. Nowhere is that clearer than when it came to the legal basis of war.
The Attorney General’s final view was little more than lukewarm, being that this was,
“on balance, the better view”.
I believe that if we are to commit thousands of our young men and women to circumstances where their lives will be put at risk, we need something a little bit better and more certain than “on balance”. Going forward, we must ensure that there is no ambiguity in the legal advice provided to the Government or Parliament on matters of military action.
We must also be clear on what the end goal or exit plan is for any intervention. Despite its being clear very quickly that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the UK found itself assuming leadership of a military area of responsibility. Not only that, but it is evident that, despite being a joint occupying power, the UK had little or no influence on the overall strategy of the Americans, leaving us blindly following their flawed lead. The US strategy included the policy of de-Ba’athification, which collapsed the Iraqi state and disbanded the army, creating a disfranchised and angry group of well-trained military leaders, many of whom went on to fight the occupation and, ultimately, to form Daesh. That appalling error directly contributed to the following six years of chaotic destruction, which saw so many of our armed forces put on the frontline without a proper strategy.
I hope that the Iraq inquiry—the Chilcot inquiry—will bring some comfort to the families of the 179 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, but there can be no justification for their being deployed to fight on a battlefield for which the proper preparation was not done. There is no doubt that the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 have directly contributed to the threats that the world now faces from Daesh and instability in the middle east.
As I stood shoulder to shoulder with Iraqis at the vigil held in London last week to remember the lives of those lost in the most recent attacks in Baghdad, it was clear to me what legacy has been left. Just last week, more than 300 people died in suicide attacks in Baghdad on top of the tragedies that we have seen in Istanbul, Paris and elsewhere. Terrorists are responsible for those horrific events, but the Iraq war is responsible for creating the vacuum in which terrorism and Daesh were formed, and through which anti-western sentiment has thrived, and that has happened despite our being advised at the time that that was a risk.
Liberal Democrats are outward-facing internationalists. We believe that Britain should engage in the world, not turn its back on it, and that our country has a strong role to play in promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law across the globe. Sometimes—rarely—that will mean taking military action, but the Iraq war has tarnished our reputation, ignored international law and undermined international institutions such as the United Nations, which we worked so hard at building in the aftermath of two world wars. It destroyed public confidence in our leaders and in Parliament, and it made it infinitely more difficult for a Government to make the case for war by making the prospect of humanitarian intervention all the more unpalatable to many.
On 18 March 2003, Mr Blair told the House of Commons that he judged the possibility of terrorist groups in possession of weapons of mass destruction as,
“a real and present danger to Britain and its national security.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 768.]
When Sir John Chilcot presented his report to the families of some of those killed in the Iraq war—those families included the parents of Lieutenant Marc Lawrence, a young naval aviator and one of my constituents, who was killed in a Sea King helicopter—he was rather more robust than he was in the conclusions of the report. He said:
“The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMDs were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”
On the eve of the vote on the Iraq war, a number of us on the Opposition Benches had grave concerns about what we were about to undertake and what we were going to ask of our young men and women in our armed services. We were called into an office by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who was then Leader of the Opposition, and by the shadow Foreign Minister, then the Member for Devizes, Michael Ancram. We were told by my right hon. Friend that he had been informed, on Privy Council terms, that there were weapons of mass destruction, that the United Kingdom, or the interests of the United Kingdom, faced a 45-minute threat from those weapons, and that it was imperative, in the interests of our national security, that we should support the motion that was to be put before the House. I think I am right in saying that, on that basis, all but one of us concurred.
I do not doubt the information that was given to me by my right hon. Friend, but I believe that he was misled on Privy Council terms. The House has heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) of the five items on which Mr Blair misled the House. Yes, we do have to learn from this. I must take responsibility, because I voted that way, for the death of my young constituent and, by implication, for the deaths of hundreds of armed personnel and many, many civilians.
Mr Speaker, if a motion for contempt is brought before you, you should look favourably on a hearing for it, because I believe that we owe that to the families of those who have lost their loved ones in this conflict.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). I echo the comments made by the Foreign Secretary when he opened this debate—indeed, others have made them since—about the heavy price that has been paid by those who lost their lives or who were seriously injured, and all of their families who have suffered the consequences.
As somebody who was a Member of this House in March 2003, I welcome the Chilcot report. I shall focus my remarks on two specific issues—first, my own motive for supporting the motion authorising force, and secondly, post-conflict planning. Chilcot offers an interesting and detailed analysis of the processes within the Government at the time and the status of the intelligence that was used to justify the action that followed. Given the exhaustive detail examined and the time invested in arriving at the conclusions in the report, I do not intend to criticise what it has to say.
Up until the time of the vote, my own position had been that although I accepted that UN Security Council resolution 1441 provided sufficient authority for any action, it would have been better to have secured a second Security Council resolution. I say that even though there had been 14 previous Security Council resolutions, which had been passed on the widely held assumption that Saddam Hussein did have the capacity to use weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to do so. Indeed, it was well documented that he had in the past used such weapons against the Iraqi people. However, when President Chirac effectively vetoed any further UN Security Council resolution, it seemed to me—
I will not give way to the hon. Lady because I have very limited time.
It seemed to me that resolution 1441 and all the previous resolutions had to be upheld; otherwise, international collective will would have been meaningless.
There was, however, another important humanitarian reason why I felt compelled to support the proposed action. Having spoken to many Iraqis who were on the receiving end of vicious attacks and repression by Saddam Hussein’s regime, particularly Iraqi Kurds, I felt strongly that the course of non-action would be an abdication of humanitarian responsibility. That viewpoint was very much influenced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who had unrivalled knowledge about what was actually happening in Iraq at the time and the appalling abuse of human rights that by then was beyond question.
Following the action in Iraq in 2003, I visited both Baghdad and Basra in March 2005, together with the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) who, at the time, was the Member for Henley. The purpose of that visit was to attend the inauguration of the Transitional National Assembly. In an article in The Spectator of 19 March 2005, following the visit, he concluded:
“It could all still just about work, and if it does, I think it will still be possible to draw a positive balance on this venture.”
In an interview in the North Wales edition of the Daily Post on 18 March 2005, another member of the delegation, Elfyn Llwyd, the then Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, said that although he had opposed the action in Iraq,
“Politicians across the spectrum do not want us to withdraw immediately.”
The then hon. Member for Henley concluded his Spectator article with the words of an Iraqi Minister:
“‘Thank you, people of Britain, for what you have done! We give you our thanks and our praise and our love. You built this country eight decades ago, and it didn’t work. Now you are rebuilding it and it has to work.’”
The point of those two quotes is that although there were still massive problems of sectarian violence and the challenge of restoring vital public services, the political outlook at that time was moderately hopeful. It was clear from talking to people from different parties, different religions and different backgrounds that that hope existed.
During the following two years I visited Iraq on a further two occasions—first, as the Chair of the Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill, and on another occasion with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. Two things became apparent during those visits. The first was that progress towards stability was painfully slow and the optimism that there had been in 2005 was ebbing away. The second was that the post-conflict planning had not been successful. The Foreign Secretary referred to the failure of the de-Ba’athification programme. Condoleezza Rice, who was then the National Security Adviser, has said that neither she nor the Secretary of State at the time, Colin Powell, were even consulted about that decision. That was another failure of process.
Those of us who voted for action are often asked, legitimately, whether we regret it. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), I cannot regret the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. What I do regret is the fact that the post-conflict planning was not successful.
It is always a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth).
I listened with great interest to the account given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who described the read before us as compelling. I have to say that I did not find it as much of a page-turner as he evidently did, but I did get as far as volume 12, which deals with the welfare of those who participated in the Iraq war. That volume brings out a number of key findings, and that is particularly important today, with the publication of the Public Accounts Committee report on service family accommodation, which is less than obliging.
The key findings raise a number of issues that are of importance to my constituents, particularly in relation to inquests involving those who, sadly, died during the conflict. The report points to the huge backlog in inquests, which was evident at the time. If we are to honour the military covenant, we really have to understand the implications of these things for the welfare of families.
However, I am pleased to find in volume 12 that there is also some good news in all of this, and that is to do with the way in which our medical services configured and prepared themselves in the run-up to the conflict. I say that because I was—I have to declare an interest—a member of the Defence Medical Services, and I served in Iraq in late 2003 in a medical capacity. Volume 12 is therefore very much a mixed blessing in terms of the account it gives of the way we prepared for and executed our duties under the military covenant.
I voted against the Iraq war in 2003—it seemed to me at the time that the case had not been made. However, I understand full well that Members on both sides of the House voted in good conscience, one way or the other. In truth, few of us were in full possession of the facts at the time, and most of us made a judgment call. However, of all the many Divisions I have participated in over the past 15 years, that is the one I feel best and most comfortable about.
The situation in 2003 stemmed from the strategic defence review in 1998 and the new chapter added to it two years later, after the 9/11 attack. In that review, we saw the reconfiguration of our armed forces into what was called a “force for good”. In other words, our armed forces would be there not simply for national defence and security, but for something much beyond that—expeditionary things of the sort we saw subsequently to good effect in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The problem is that that was then extrapolated to Iraq—a much bigger deal—and came up against the sofa government, conspiracy of optimism and group-think that have been referred to, together with the ingrained idea that Saddam must have had weapons of mass destruction and the intent to use them, despite evidence to the contrary and despite wise counsel at the time from a number of sources. Crucially for me, the null hypothesis—the idea that weapons of mass destruction did not exist—was never constructed or tested. That was a huge failing, which I hope the structural changes that have been put in place subsequently—particularly around the National Security Council—will now make unlikely in the future.
The right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), who is not in her place, suggested that the concept of a just war, which is familiar to anybody who has been to staff college, is some sort of religious thing, but it fundamentally is not, and it underpins much of our law in this area. It is vital to establish the idea of a just war and to discuss whether this was, in fact, a just war. Chilcot tells us absolutely clearly that military action was not seen as a last resort. Last resort is a fundamental, underpinning precept of a just war. One cannot have a just war if one could have achieved one’s objectives by other means falling short of out-and-out warfare.
For me, that means that the Iraq war was not a just war. That matters—it really matters—because we ask our men and women in uniform to do extraordinary things and authorise them to do remarkable things. They have no choice in the matter, but they have every right to expect that we should make sure that they are not being sent on a fool’s errand or, worse, one of questionable legality or legitimacy. Instead, in March 2003, my constituents and others were dispatched to an expeditionary war that Chilcot painstakingly takes apart as disastrous and unnecessary: a war that was waged despite intelligence and other evidence that was not clear; a war whose lack of planning and provisioning cost brave men their lives; a war that was, in short, sheer bloody chaos. It was the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez, the consequences of which we are living with today and will do for decades to come.
The author of our part in this believes he is responsible but not to blame. I do not believe that is good enough. We need to be accountable for our actions, and it is not clear to me that the right hon. Gentleman in question has yet been brought to account.
I was a Member of this House when we heard the former Prime Minister present his compelling case. I voted to go to war. I did so in the full knowledge that my brother, who was at that time serving with our armed forces, was poised in Kuwait to cross the border as part of one of the first units into Iraq. I want to quote the words of Colonel Tim Collins, then commander of 1 Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who were also poised to enter Iraq:
“We go to liberate, not to conquer…We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own…We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation.”
I think we can all agree on one thing in this House: that our armed forces did not bring shame on this nation—that they did their best in very difficult circumstances and achieved many of the objectives that had been set for them. We owe it to our armed forces to ask questions and to examine this report very carefully. Will we learn the lessons, not least on the lines of accountability in terms of decisions that we make, as politicians, when going to war?
I believe it is right that we examine the question of whether the former Prime Minister should be held to account for the advice that he gave Parliament. I am clear that I voted to go to war based on the advice— the information—that he laid before this House when we made that decision. It is therefore right that we examine the advice that he gave, or the information that he made available to us, and consider whether he potentially misled this House. We will listen carefully to what others have to say before we decide how to vote on this question, but we have an open mind on the matter. We pay tribute to our armed forces, especially to those who laid down their lives in Iraq, and to their families.
I have to say in defence of the former Prime Minister, whom I have heard called a number of things in recent weeks, that I worked very closely with him on the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the idea that he is a terrorist, or a supporter of terrorism, is wrong. No one did more to bring an end to terrorism in Northern Ireland, or at least as far as it goes at the present time, than the former Prime Minister. While sometimes I disagreed with the way that he went about things in Northern Ireland, and sometimes he acted with the best of intentions, I have to say that sometimes he blurred the lines, and this is part of the problem. Perhaps he was acting from the best of intentions with regard to Iraq, but I do not think he was wholly honest with this House in the information that he put before us. We need to address that.
The other issue that we are concerned about is the resources that were made available. I do not believe that the soldiers and armed forces on the frontline were properly equipped. We need to address that. It is not good enough for us to send our armed forces to war without equipping them properly. Nor is it good enough for us to send them to war without a clear exit strategy or plan, or to walk away, as we did in 2007, without having finished the job properly. It is not right to adopt such a cut-and-run policy. When we go into a country, we cannot walk away without fully considering the consequences and following through on that. We need to not only identify lessons from the report, but act on them, and to ensure in particular that our armed forces receive the support they require when we send them into combat. That is vital.
One of the things that flowed from the Iraq war was the need to support our veterans who have sustained injuries, to their physical and—as in many cases—their mental health. We are not doing enough. I fully support the armed forces covenant and welcome what this Government have endeavoured to do, but the reality is that too many of us are dealing with constituents who are not receiving the help that they need as a result of the consequences of their service to our country.
Yes, let us accept that we have a collective responsibility to learn the political lessons that flow from the report, and let us consider whether we need to hold to account those who guided this House to its decision to send our armed forces to war in Iraq; but let us also ensure that the men and women who served our country on the foot of that decision get the support that they need when they are in combat and when they are injured as a result of combat.
Weapons of mass destruction were held to be a vital part of the justification for war. The Chilcot report found that WMD development programmes were far more advanced in Iran, Libya and North Korea than in Iraq. The imminence of an Iraqi threat to the United Kingdom was simply non-existent. The report notes that a November 2001 Joint Intelligence Committee assessment found that Saddam Hussein
“refused to permit any Al Qaeda activity in Iraq”.
I believe that many of those who voted for war and are now seeking to justify their support for it should be held to account, particularly the former Prime Minister. The Chilcot report is absolutely clear—this is a message for all of us ordinary Back Benchers—that there were severe doubts at the time, even in published documents, that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction.
My hon. Friend may correct me if I am wrong, but I recall Hans Blix repeatedly saying that he needed more time because there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
That is correct. I want to read from Hansard what I said on 24 September 2002, not in any sense to say, “I told you so,” but to establish that we as Back Benchers do not necessarily always have to believe what we are told by Front Benchers, experts, Whips and the Government. We have a duty to look at our conscience. I said:
“I do not believe that it is the job of the UN—or, even more problematically, of the US backed by the UK—to change a regime in the middle east. Leaving aside questions of international law, what are the practicalities? There are nearly 30 Arab nations, and not one is a democracy. Trying to impose our ideas of democracy on Iraq may unleash democratic Kurdish and Shia movements that could lead to the dissolution of the country. It would be wrong to believe that, from the Arab point of view, our system is necessarily superior to theirs.”—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol. 390, c. 74.]
I believe that those messages are as right today as they were then. We have to distinguish between totalitarian movements such as ISIS, which are a real threat to us, and authoritarian regimes, however unpleasant. We should not necessarily seek to overthrow the latter.
On 24 September 2002, I went on to say:
“An attack, or the threat of an attack, may be justified on the basis of the breaking of UN resolutions, but I suspect that that will not be the real trigger—many countries are in breach of UN resolutions. Let us be serious. There are three sides of a triangle to justify a war: capability, means and intent. Does Saddam have the capability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction? We have the dossier, and I am prepared to accept that he does”—
but I was misled on that, as were many of us—
“but I would like to hear more about the weapons of mass destruction held by other countries in the region—Iran, Syria and Israel—and by other rogue states, notably North Korea.
Does Saddam have the means to deliver those weapons of mass destruction to the west? Nobody seriously suggests that he can do so militarily…The suggestion, then, is that Saddam will deliver the weapons not by conventional military means but by clandestine means. Where is the evidence of his links to al-Qaeda? What would he gain by such links? Are there terrorists already capable of inflicting devastating damage on our economy? Would not our acting alone make us a more likely target for Muslim fundamentalists? Are we not uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attacks, as an open society with no identification cards, and with the London underground, Heathrow and the channel tunnel? Means of delivery—the second side of the triangle—is problematical, not proven”.—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol.73, c. 75-76.]
Given the messages from Chilcot and from this debate, that message is as apposite today as it was then. In trying to change the middle east, we should not look to overthrow authoritarian regimes that we do not like. Rather, we should deal with what is a threat to our society and our people. ISIS is a threat to our society and our people, but regimes such as that of Assad are not necessarily such a threat.
I went on to say:
“The most difficult of the three factors is intent. What would Saddam gain by attacking the west, apart from his own immediate destruction? Has he not outlived all his foreign and domestic opponents by being at least rational and not suicidal? I do not think that anyone seriously suggests that he intends to attack the west. Would he attack Israel, which already has a nuclear deterrent?...Is the proposed attack really about a new concept of global thinking? That is the issue. Is the Truman doctrine—the concept of deterrence that has preserved peace and stability for more than 50 years—to be replaced by a new Bush doctrine of using a pre-emptive strike to overthrow dangerous regimes that could pose a threat?”.
I repeat that these messages are as true for us today as they were then. We should abide by the Truman doctrine of containment and deterrence, and not necessarily seek to impose our ideas on regimes that we dislike.
I went on to say:
“Where will the Bush doctrine take us? Where will it stop? What are the tests? A military junta is allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon in Pakistan but not in Iraq and, presumably, not in North Korea or Iran. Pakistan was only righting the balance with India, and Saddam would claim that he was righting the balance with Israel.
I do not believe that the case for attacking Iraq unilaterally, without the UN, has yet been made. That is not to say that it is wrong to threaten force—that is the only language that Saddam understands. No doubt there will be weeks of frustration. No doubt when the UN teams go in there will be more frustration and delays. However, the fact remains that after 1998, the UN contained Saddam and kept him on some sort of leash.
Finally, I remain of the belief that it is safe to contain rather than to threaten destruction of Saddam’s regime. If he is threatened with destruction, he could act irrationally, with incalculable consequences for the world community. Let us march in step with fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council and insist on weapons inspections, backed by the use of international force if they are not complied with. That is the right path to take”.—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol.73, c. 76.]
I believe that Chilcot is a powerful testimony for us all today. Never again must we be led astray along a path towards a dangerous war such as the one that has unleashed untold misery in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of decisions taken in this House. I say never again. As ordinary Members of Parliament, if this ever happens again, we must be prepared to question the Executive and, whatever the cost to our career, vote against that Executive and vote down war.
I start by paying tribute to all who served in the forces in Iraq, especially those, and the families of those, who were injured or lost their lives. It is absolutely clear from this debate and from last week’s statement that the Chilcot report will never settle arguments about whether the war was right or wrong, but it should lay to rest allegations about bad faith, lies or deceit.
First, the report finds that there was no falsification or misuse of intelligence by Tony Blair or No. 10. Secondly, it finds that there was no attempt to deceive Cabinet Ministers. Thirdly, it finds that there was no secret pact with the US to go to war. That means there is no justification for saying that evidence was “confected” or that the case for war was a “deception”, which is exactly what the Leader of the Opposition claimed in his response last week. He claimed that it created a colonial-style occupation, although the UN endorsed the west’s presence after the invasion, and the 2005 elections and referendum on a new constitution gave power to Iraqis.
To listen to Tony Blair’s critics, anyone would think that Iraq had been a peaceful haven of tranquillity before 2003, but nothing could be further from the truth. In Iraq, Saddam Hussain perpetrated the largest chemical weapons attack against civilians in history, killing thousands. He led a brutal reprisal against Iraq’s Shi’a majority, slaughtering up to 100,000 Iraqis in just one month—more than in any year since 2003. Abroad, he supported terrorism, offering al-Qaeda sanctuary, training and assistance in planning attacks.
The report does not say that Tony Blair ordered the falsification of intelligence that stated that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. UN resolutions required Saddam to demonstrate that weapons of mass destruction did not exist, but he acted as though they did, presumably because that helped him to subjugate his people. His refusal to co-operate with UN inspectors led intelligence services right around the world to believe that he did, in fact, possess those weapons. Even countries that were opposed to military action, such as France, Russia and Germany, believed that he had those weapons. The debate in 2003 was not about whether Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, but about how to deal with them.
Of course, we must learn the lessons of mistakes made after the invasion of Iraq, but we must also learn the lessons of not taking action. British intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone prevented people from being slaughtered. Libya was already in a brutal civil war before western air forces prevented Gaddafi from killing innocent people in Benghazi, but without support afterwards the country is a huge problem for the whole of north Africa and the wider region. Not intervening in Syria did not prevent the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, hundreds of thousands of deaths or millions of refugees, let alone terrorist attacks not just in Syria but in Tunisia and Europe.
I also want to deal with the claim that toppling Saddam led to ISIS or, as we are so often told, plunged the middle east into chaos. As Martin Chulov, The Guardian’s middle east editor and author of a definitive study of ISIS, says:
“The Syrian civil war was not driven by Isis. It fed directly out of the Arab awakenings and was a bid to oust a ruthless regime from power. Assad could not have prevailed against the will of the streets. So he tried to transform the uprising into something that was driven by internationally-backed global jihad. Isis grew out of the chaos. They flourished with Assad’s direct and indirect support until they became a monster no one could control.”
None of that will make the slightest bit of difference to Tony Blair’s critics, to the critics of the Government of the day who took those decisions or, especially, to those on the hard left. The facts make no difference at all to those people, because they are implacably opposed to the UK or other western countries ever taking military action.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s remarks very carefully. Does he accept that many of us here do not doubt that Tony Blair did not lie to the House, but that that is a pretty low test? The challenge is really whether he acted in a way that came anywhere close to competence. Chilcot clearly thinks that Tony Blair was incompetent, and that is the charge before him. The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that the Iraq war was in some way a success; manifestly, it was not.
I said earlier that, clearly, mistakes were made after the invasion. But let us be honest; the charge that is made against Tony Blair and the Government of the time is of falsification and misuse of intelligence, and of wilfully misleading this House and the rest of the country. That is what people are saying, and I think the Chilcot report proves beyond doubt that none of those charges is true.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not give way, because other people want to speak.
Tony Blair’s critics on the hard left opposed every attempt to use British forces, not just in Iraq or Syria, but even in Kosovo, where the UK intervened to prevent thousands of people from being slaughtered. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) described that at the time as “unpardonable folly”, even though Britain was intervening to prevent genocidal slaughter. I will take no lectures from the SNP on these issues.
The leader of the Labour party was a founder member and chair of the Stop the War coalition—an organisation that, under his leadership, praised what it said was the “internationalism and solidarity” of ISIS, and compared it to the international brigades. It supported what it called the Iraqi “struggle” against British troops “by any means necessary”, and among many other appalling things, it said that it stood with Saddam Hussein, compared Assad to Churchill, and promoted or provided a platform for Assad apologists. For the hard left, the world is a simple place: all the problems are caused by the west, and the solutions are easy.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not give way. Of course we must learn the lessons from Iraq, but let us make sure we learn the right ones. For me, the central lesson is that taking action can lead to terrible consequences, and military action anywhere in the world involves huge risks. However, there can also be terrible consequences from not intervening. If we learn the wrong lessons, we might have fewer Iraqs but we could easily have more Syrias. Perhaps we ought to consider a Chilcot-style inquiry into the consequences of not intervening in Syria, where people have been slaughtered or displaced in their millions.
I declare an interest in this report because I served in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and along with many colleagues from all parties in the House—some of whom are not here today—I was proud to serve my country and to stand with many enormously honourable men and women who did their best in very difficult circumstances.
I will not fight over and again the battles being fought this afternoon about Tony Blair and his guilt or otherwise, because I would rather move forward and speak about the United Kingdom’s strategy and how on earth we got ourselves into a position that meant we were so clearly acting against our own national interests. We seem to have got into a position where the only answer was to be as close as possible to the United States, and to use force at a time when other options were available. The only answer seemed to be to follow the wishes of a Prime Minister who, although he sounded powerful at the time, was clearly too weak to invite challenge, even in his own private Cabinet. For me, those are the real worries—how could we have got to that stage? There are, of course, many reasons for that, and Chilcot lists them. Today, the question is how we get out of that.
The National Security Council, introduced by the previous Prime Minister, was an excellent invention, and I look forward to our current Prime Minister taking it forward, and introducing to the various Departments that contribute to the NSC the elements that feed into it. In my former Department—I mean that as an employee rather than as a Minister, although the Prime Minister may yet call; the evening is young—the Chiefs of Staff Committee established an impressive group by going back to an old idea.
In the period between the two wars, the Chiefs of Staff Committee invented a group constantly to challenge the Treasury, the Foreign Office, and other Departments, so that they could be prepared should the worst happen. That meant that, although those Departments were not as ready as we would have liked, at least in 1939 the 10-year rule that the Treasury had imposed was no longer in force, and we were re-arming and able to defend ourselves against Nazi aggression. That Committee was reformed in the Ministry of Defence under the former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Richards. That is great, but other Departments have done less well. I will not run through them, but it seems incumbent on those who have the authority to command embassies, aid work and armies, also to be responsible for ensuring that the strategies they prepare and advise Ministers to follow are right for the United Kingdom, and not just expedient for a quick relationship with the US.
I very much welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said about the Truman doctrine. He is right, but the Truman doctrine should not be simply a reassertion of Westphalian principles. It must today be updated with the concept of the Responsibility to Protect that the UN has made so clear over the past few years. It is right that we avoid Iraq, but it is also right that we avoid Rwanda or Srebrenica. The great error of Iraq is that it did exactly the reverse of the right to protect: it put people in greater danger. This did not happen everywhere. The Kurdish communities were often better defended because they were armed. The reality, however, was the spread of insurgency and trouble. It is hard to argue that we improved the situation, although it is very difficult to know whether we made it worse.
As we move on from that period, it is incumbent on us to consider the legal aspect. We have been talking today about the legality of the war and holding the leader in contempt, but I would like to look closely at how we hold soldiers to account. The spread of lawfare into combat zones has changed the nature of command dramatically in the past 50 to 60 years. The concept of combat immunity has been increasingly eroded. Young lieutenants and young corporals, junior leaders in the armed forces who took decisions at the age of 19, 20 or 21 in the heat of battle, are being tried today, five or 10 years later, in the cool of the courtroom. They are being tried by people who do not and cannot understand the pressures on them at that time and at that moment. They are being held to account in a way that is not only unfair but immoral. It is we here in this place who hold the responsibility for war, not the young men we send.
It is a pleasure to follow the very passionate speech by the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I pay tribute to him for his service in the Iraq war.
In 2003, The Sun ran a story under the headline “Open Fire on Traitors”. The piece, which has now been deleted from the newspaper’s website, called on readers to
“aim your own missiles at the cowards and traitors who opted to support Saddam Hussain”.
It meant “cowards and traitors” such as Robin Cook, Charles Kennedy and other Members from all parties of the House, all of whom stood up for their principles, spoke out against Tony Blair’s war and were vilified for it. Alongside these figures stood the 1 million people who marched on the streets of London to make their case and the 80,000 people who took to the streets of Glasgow. We were not traitors and it is not cowardly to promote a minority view. At that time, it was a minority view to champion peace over war, and we now know that war was not the last resort. It took courage and bravery, and we in this House must be courageous, brave and honest by calling out a predetermined commitment to war and a failure of government for what it was—just that.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not be giving way.
The publication of the Chilcot report last week was a vindication of all those in Parliament and across the country who were vilified for opposing this terrible, unnecessary and ultimately failed war. It exposed the sorry tale of misleading statements that preceded the House’s decision to support military action, and put our servicemen and servicewomen in harm’s way. We cannot allow that to happen again.
When I began reading the Chilcot report last week, my first thoughts were with the families of those servicemen and servicewomen, and those who have been saddled with the physical and mental scars of that war. Families such as that of Lance Corporal Andrew Craw from Tullibody in my constituency, who died in Iraq on 7 January 2004. How must they have been feeling when they read the report? They now know that we entered into a failed war, as Chilcot said, without adequate support for our own troops or proper thought for the aftermath and the millions of people in Iraq. To see these families’ bravery and dignity, as they publicly responded to the report last week, was humbling and inspiring. It is worthy of note that Blair’s team of spin doctors had 18 months to look at the sections of the report referring to him, whereas the families were given three hours. They must be reassured that Parliament takes its role seriously and acts truthfully at all times. They deserve no less.
The reports makes it clear that there was a complete absence of the Cabinet government essential to ensure the vital issue of national security. The evidence shows that Ministers around the Cabinet table did not effectively challenge the decision to take us to war or devote their energies to planning efficiently for the aftermath of the campaign of shock and awe at the outset of military operations. Most of all, it lays bare what took place in order that they might win the hearts and minds of the country and this House. As we have heard, Tony Blair said in his note to George Bush:
“I will be with you, whatever”—
whatever the facts, whatever the circumstances, whatever the consequences! What a damning indictment of a diminished figure!
As Tony Blair’s memos to President Bush demonstrate, he said one thing in this place and another behind closed doors. He stood here, in this place, and claimed that these acts were predicated on Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, but confirmed in writing to President Bush in private that regime change was their goal. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has articulated five falsehoods in the lead-up to the parliamentary decision in 2003 and in connection to the post-conflict plans. Paragraph 630 of the executive summary is indeed damning.
These actions have led to around 1 million Iraqi children under 18—about 5% of Iraqi children—losing one or both parents and resulted in 70% of children in Iraq suffering from trauma-related symptoms. This is not about binding the hands of Tony Blair’s successors but about showing that facts and evidence are central to everything we do. Lessons must be learned and the mistakes of the past must not be repeated. A modern Parliament needs a modern approach to transparency and accountability. If the public cannot trust what is said here, it places in peril our whole parliamentary system. Parliament must act now to protect its own integrity.
As I prepared for today’s debate, I reread the speech that my predecessor, Sir George Reid, made to the Scottish Parliament prior to war in 2003. He said:
“Above the doors of the Red Cross in Geneva, there is a phrase from Dostoevsky, which we should remember in time of war. It states that, in war,
‘Everyone is responsible to everyone for everything.’”
This House now has a responsibility to hold the former Prime Minister to account for his actions. This would be not a judicial process but a parliamentary one, for which there is precedent. This is our responsibility and we should rise to it.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I want to look at two elements: first, the legal recriminations against our soldiers, as touched on by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat); and secondly, the point raised by several Members about our preparedness for war. I would like briefly to comment on that, as a former soldier.
First, I pay tribute to the 179 members of our armed forces who lost their lives, the many others wounded and, of course, the tens of thousands of civilians who died as a consequence of the war. It was an appalling tragedy. I make no apology for returning to the subject of servicemen and women being persecuted for fighting a war in Iraq at the behest of their political masters and under the most difficult circumstances. During the now former Prime Minister’s response to the publication of the report of the Chilcot inquiry on 6 July, I asked for his assurance that, just as there would be no recriminations against those who sent our armed forces to war, so there would be none against our armed forces themselves. He replied:
“We are doing everything we can to get through and knock down these wholly unjustified inquiries, because by and large, as we would expect, British forces behaved entirely properly.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2016; Vol. 612, c. 907.]
The fact remains, however, that in an official statement to The Sunday Telegraph on 2 July, the International Criminal Court confirmed that it had already begun a preliminary examination of claims of torture and abuse by British soldiers after receiving a dossier from human rights lawyers acting for alleged Iraqi victims. The ICC prosecutors will comb through the 2.3 million words in the report for the evidence of war crimes committed by British troops. The ICC has added that the decision to go to war remains outside its remit. That, of course, exonerates former Prime Minister Blair, but I do not want to get deeply involved in that particular point in my short speech.
Many of us have already put on record how deeply disturbing we find the relentless pursuit of our servicemen and women by unscrupulous and opportunistic lawyers, actively inviting fabrications and fantasies. Although, regrettably, there is a need for the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, known as IHAT, its most recent report published on 31 March this year makes it clear that many of the claims are indeed fabrications and fantasies.
At that point, IHAT had received 3,281 allegations of potential criminal behaviour. Nearly 1,000 of them were screened out and did not progress to the investigations stage, while 742 remain at the initial assessment stage. IHAT is therefore currently investigating allegations relating to 1,558 potential victims, of which 288 are alleged unlawful killings and 1,270 are alleged ill treatment, ranging from common assault to serious sexual and violent assault. IHAT has closed, or is in the process of closing, investigations into 59 allegations of unlawful killing. In 56 of those cases—95%—the allegation of criminal behaviour was found to be not sustainable, meaning that there was no truth in it. Let me make the point that if we in this place send our brave men and women to war, we have got to protect them from this sort of activity when they come back. In my view, it is a disgrace.
Let me finish by briefly touching on several points raised by several hon. Members of all parties about whether we are prepared for war. Chilcot touches on this and criticises the Government of the day because the armed forces were not as prepared as they could have been. Speaking as someone who served in the military for nine years and as an avid reader of military history—my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling would agree with me on this—I cannot think of a time at any point in our history when our armed forces have been 100% ready for a specific operation. In the second world war, our tanks could not outgun the German tanks for at least two or three years into the war. I wonder what we would say now if that circumstance were repeated—it would be interesting, would it not? Of course our armed forces should have the best kit. The point I am trying to make is that when we send our brave men and women to war in future—regrettably, we will—we have got to think very hard whether they have the right kit for the particular type of warfare required for the particular conflict zone.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but does he accept that what was then a politically expedient decision of the Prime Minister to delay the military in preparing, and the subsequent lack of equipment, could have cost some of my brother’s colleagues and some of the colleagues of the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) their lives? That is the fundamental point.
Because of the delay and the realisation that this was going to be a major conflict—an invasion of a country—one could sensibly argue that there was not sufficient kit to back the invasion. I absolutely concur with that. The first thing that goes into chaos—the first thing that goes wrong—the moment troops are sent into battle, is at the point of contact. It all goes haywire because that is what war is about. We in this place must learn that if we send troops into a conflict zone—a desert environment, for example, as it was in Iraq—we must make sure that they have the right kit for that environment. If they are going to fight in a jungle, we will need to make sure that there are plenty of helicopters to support them.
Look at the Falklands war. I was serving at that time, and many of my friends went there. We were desperately short of all kinds of kit. In fact, had the Argentinians dug in and fought harder, it is questionable whether the number of brave men and women we had down there would have actually won that war. We were literally at the point of running out of ammunition, helicopters and all the things we needed to execute the war.
My point is this. When we send those men and women to war again—as sadly we will—we must think very seriously indeed in this place, “Have they got the kit to do the job we are asking them to do?” There is no point, months down the line, bleating, “Oh dear, they haven’t got enough helicopters”—or ships, or whatever it is.
Let me end by saying exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said. If we are going to send our brave men and women to war again—and they are incredibly brave—we must look at the Chilcot report and learn the lessons. I am not in the blame game; I was not here at the time so I did not vote, but for heaven’s sake, let us think very carefully next time.
I remember the events that we are discussing very well. They took place during my second Parliament as an MP, and they were not really the sort of stuff that I thought I had come here for. I remember how seriously people in and around the House discussed the issues in the run-up to the vote. I recall intense debates with colleagues and friends both inside and outside Parliament and, of course, I recall friends coming to different conclusions. According to my recollection, no one treated the issue lightly, and I do not think there is anyone who does not regret the loss of life. However, as one of those who were here at the time, and as someone who voted for the war, I take the view that we must all take some of the responsibility. We must bear some collective responsibility.
The only Cabinet resignation that I recall was that of the late Robin Cook. All the others stood firm and stayed on board, so they had a collective responsibility as well. While I understand that some folk are desperate to pin all this on one man, it is hard to see how that stands up in those circumstances. Of course there are legitimate criticisms and lessons to be learned, and I certainly accept the point about “sofa” versus Cabinet government, but Lord Turnbull actually said that he was talking about a style of government, and he also said in evidence that it was a “professional forum” and he was not talking about a bunch of advisers and cronies getting together. He was very clear about that, but it was not the impression that was given earlier.
Obviously one of the big lessons is about intelligence. I acknowledge that the Government have taken a significant step forward in that regard, but it is appalling to think that M16 knew that one of its principal sources of intelligence was a fraud, and chose not to share that with the Government before the vote. We should never let that sort of thing happen again. As for war planning and post-invasion planning, and what we have just heard about equipment, there are clear lessons to be learned, but they are not just lessons for politicians. They are lessons for intelligence officers, for the Ministry of Defence, and for senior military figures.
Part of the purpose of the Chilcot report is to enable us all to learn lessons. The tragedy is that if it is reduced simply to an attempt to pin it all on one man, we will not learn many lessons. If, after 13 years, the best outcome is a contempt motion, where will we end up? Will we end up back here saying, “What about the late Baroness Thatcher? We have found out some more details about the Belgrano”—or the Gibraltar assassinations—“so let us table a motion on that”? Will we end up saying that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) should be hauled back because of some new revelation, or apparent revelation, about Libya? I do not think that that is what we should be trying to do.
I recognise that Tony Blair is a Marmite figure, but we did have a parliamentary vote to go to war. It was not all down to him. Nowhere in the report does Chilcot accuse him of misleading Parliament, and I really do not think that we should use this House to try to settle old scores or enmities. We should be better than that. We need to recognise the risk that will be posed in the future, when there are difficult choices to be made, if we get this wrong. Real political leadership is not about settling scores, scoring points or addressing rallies; it is about taking really tough and difficult decisions. We should be very careful in our response to Chilcot, because if we get this wrong, we could put ourselves in a situation where the new Prime Minister, and any future Prime Minister, will be frightened to make a brave decision.
It is possible to make a brave choice and make the wrong choice, and we all know with the benefit of hindsight that there are elements of the Iraq situation that we would deal with differently, but if we turn this into a simple exercise of trying to pin the blame on one man in order to settle longstanding scores, we will do nothing to advance our ability to deal with difficult conflict situations in the future. This House needs to be bigger than that.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), a colleague on the Work and Pensions Committee.
In six minutes I will not be able to do justice to 2.6 million words delivered just seven days ago, but I want to draw three reflections from what I have read over the last week and what I have studied over the last several years.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak spoke about a brave choice but the wrong choice. I do not want the substance of my remarks to be what the former Prime Minister did; I want to focus on what Government must do differently next time. The lessons of Chilcot need to be absorbed across the whole of Government. There are massive issues in terms of the deference to the US and the assumptions made about what was happening when in fact it was not. There was a misunderstanding about the reality on the ground and an abuse of process in the way the decision was made.
We have got to get this right. I acknowledge what the outgoing Prime Minister has said on the establishment of the National Security Council, the national security adviser, and the creation of a conflict, stability and security fund. Those are sensible measures to try and mitigate the risks around a decision being made at the behest of our largest and most powerful ally. But what actually happened back in 2002 and 2003 was the abuse by a Prime Minister of the processes of government, by moving the decision more quickly without presenting the evidence clearly. As Members of Parliament, we want to be able to say that we make decisions in the knowledge of all the information that we should reasonably have at our disposal. It is imperative that we make decisions in that way in the future.
We need to resist making decisions before the evaluation of the implications has been completed. I do not say I could have known exactly what was going to happen and therefore would have made a different decision from that the House collectively made in 2003. The media will always focus on atrocities and the risks associated with not acting, and there will always be a short-term risk to lives, but the danger is that if we do not commission officials to systematically evaluate the different options, incorporating a detailed analysis, as Chilcot’s summary says, and look at the capabilities we have before making a decision, we are not putting ourselves in the best place to make the decision in the right way. It seems to me that the collective view is likely to be optimistic. We can always be persuaded in the face of the authority of Government to move forward at their urgings, and unless we have that evidence presented to us, we will not be in the position to do so.
The most striking conclusion of the Chilcot report for me is the lack of preparation for what came after. In 2014-15, I had the privilege of doing the Royal College of Defence Studies senior course, alongside senior officers. When I spoke to them privately, they confirmed there had been no expectation that Saddam would be toppled as quickly as he was, and no understanding of what would be required afterwards. The Chilcot summary states:
“UK officials recognised that occupying forces would not remain welcome for long”.
It also states that
“the best possible appreciation of the theatre of operations, including the political, cultural and ethnic background”
was a “fundamental element” of “vital importance” which was “lacking”.
There seems to have been a complete failure on the part of the Government, as well as a complete lack of collective analysis by our military, our intelligence services and our politicians, in not asking really searching questions, given the obvious challenges relating to culture and religious history and the social problems that would inevitably be unlocked as a consequence of the lack of government following the fall of Saddam. The failure to carry out that analysis or to establish a credible plan was the real failing, and that must never be allowed to happen again. Having had a week to reflect on this, I believe that Governments must behave differently. I welcome the changes that have taken place, including the fact that Ministries now work more closely together, but we cannot allow a Prime Minister to wield such authority again without a degree of scrutiny of the detail. Information must be made available more widely to the House.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) said earlier, Sir John Chilcot’s extensive report provides a comprehensive and detailed analysis of one of the most shameful and disgraceful failures of British foreign policy. Sir John quite rightly points a finger squarely at the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who he says led the United Kingdom into a war in Iraq
“before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.”
There cannot be a more damning set of words than that among the 2.5 million words of Sir John’s report. Tony Blair stands accused: while peace was still an option, he as the British Prime Minister chose war. And why? Because he had promised his friend George Bush that he would. The revelation of the memo saying
“I will be with you, whatever”
exposes Mr. Blair’s desire to help President Bush to achieve regime change in Iraq as the primary motivating force behind the invasion—an invasion, as we have heard oft times this afternoon, that cost the lives of 179 British service personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
In his report, Sir John makes it clear that there were the makings of a dirty deal to pursue regime change in Iraq as far back as 2001. So from the very outset of this calamitous misadventure, it appears that Tony Blair was more concerned with presentation, and with having and maintaining influence in the White House, than with doing what he should have been doing—that is, meticulously preparing and planning to ensure that UK service personnel would have the best equipment and the best possible intelligence ahead of an invasion. He singularly failed to do that, and today Tony Blair stands accused of overseeing a complete failure in military planning that left our armed forces vulnerable and with insufficient equipment, once the invasion was under way. Despite his knowing since December 2001 that war was an almost inevitable consequence of his deal with President Bush, there were still serious equipment shortfalls when war came in early 2003. Exactly one week before the invasion took place, it transpired that the new desert kit would not be ready in time, and our troops left for Iraq with insufficient body armour and ammunition. The shortfall of desert equipment amounted to 18,300 suits and 12,500 pairs of boots. That is absolutely shocking.
Even before a shot had been fired in Iraq, our service personnel had been badly let down by their Government’s abject failure to plan properly for a conflict they had long known was going to occur. Worse—much worse—was to come once the immediate invasion was over. The lack of a post-invasion strategy once Saddam Hussein’s army had been defeated meant that British troops were woefully unprepared to operate in a country that was descending into chaos and anarchy. That was to have disastrous consequences for many, including the soldiers of the Black Watch.
The Chilcot report reveals that on 21 October 2004 Tony Blair misled his own Cabinet on the risk of deploying the regiment to north Babil—an area known as the “triangle of death”. Cabinet minutes show that Blair told his Cabinet that
“the danger to which they”—
the Black Watch—
“would be exposed was not qualitatively different from that which they had experienced to date in their current tour.”
However, we now know that Mr Blair had received intelligence that very same day warning that north Babil would be
“more hostile to a UK presence than the population in Southern Iraq”
“the presence of UK forces will attract insurgent attacks.”
Sir Kevin Tebbit, the then permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence, had already warned that
“there would be a casualty issue”
for the Black Watch. How sadly prophetic those words were. On 5 November 2004, three Black Watch soldiers—Sergeant Stuart Gray, aged 31 from Dunfermline, Private Paul Lowe, aged 19 from Fife, and Private Scott McArdle, aged 22 from Glenrothes—were killed and eight of their colleagues injured.
It is abundantly clear from the report that there was absolutely no proper plan to win the war or to secure the peace. One of the report’s key findings is that although it appears that Mr Blair understood the importance of securing peace, he did not seek assurances from the US President and did not make such a plan a condition of our involvement. Sir John makes it clear that as Iraq descended into absolute chaos neither DFID nor the Foreign Office was willing, prepared or equipped to accept responsibility for reconstruction. Had there been a plan, the future would have been markedly different. The humanitarian crisis we have seen since could have been avoided and a fertile recruiting ground for extremists would not have emerged from the chaos. It was the failure to plan that put the lives of many of our servicemen and women in such grave danger. The country remains a hotbed of extremism to this day. Lessons have to be learned from the shambles that was the Iraq war. People have to be called to account for their actions and we can never allow this to happen again.
No one doubts that Saddam was a brutal tyrant, but few would now dispute that the Iraq invasion was the biggest foreign policy failure of recent times. The Chilcot report provides detailed confirmation that military intervention was by no means a last resort, that all other avenues were not exhausted, that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the UK and, crucially, that hindsight was not necessary to see those things.
There has been talk in the House that a contempt motion may come forward next week. If one does, I will support it, because I believe that Tony Blair was responsible for fixing evidence around a policy while telling us that he was doing the opposite. In so doing, he was treating his office, the Cabinet, this House and our constitutional checks and balances with disrespect amounting to contempt.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who is no longer in his place, said that this process should not be about settling old scores, and I want to assure him that it is not; it is about Parliament doing its job properly. It is not about making a future Prime Minister afraid of taking difficult decisions; it is about ensuring that any future decisions are taken without misleading this House and with a full debate and Cabinet discussion. It is right to hold the former Prime Minister to account, but we must not lose sight of the fact that our political system allowed him to behave as he did. Chilcot reveals failures both systemic and parliamentary that allowed the former Prime Minister to act like a President.
Let me give just one example of those failures. Chilcot found that Parliament endorsed
“a decision to invade and occupy a sovereign nation”
without UN authority, and that it happened despite the fact that FCO legal advisers were clear in their view that the war was not legal. Lord Goldsmith, who as Attorney General constitutionally had the last word and had raised concerns in 2002, was, in Chilcot’s word, “prevented” from actively advising on the key UN resolution 1441. The Attorney General’s advice 11 days before the vote remained that it was not safe to say that the war was legal, yet a week later he had changed his mind, because the Prime Minister had assured him that Iraq had committed further “material breaches” of resolution 1441. Despite seven years of forensic investigation, Sir John Chilcot tells us that he cannot find the grounds that Tony Blair relied upon when he made that assurance. What is recorded is that Blair did not request, nor did he receive, considered advice on his view. That in itself is an appalling disregard for due process and must never be allowed to happen again. We must amend our system so that the Attorney General is an independent legal expert and not a political appointee of the Prime Minister.
Let us also reflect on Parliament’s role. How did Members of Parliament come to vote for this terrible folly? We had a chronic and abject failure of the official Opposition. The Tories, with a few very honourable exceptions, simply abandoned the job. The job of opposition was left to the smaller parties and the 139 Labour Back Benchers who opposed the motion to go to war. Time and again we have heard in this House the defence that MPs voted for the war “in good faith”, but MPs are not elected to show good faith; they are elected to show good judgment, based on the evidence. One way to help to guard against this happening in the future would be to replace the royal prerogative on war with a new constitutional convention that includes the idea that votes on war are not subject to party whipping. If that had been the case, more Members might have engaged their own judgment rather than allowing themselves to be taken along on trust.
Although Chilcot does not judge the former Prime Minister’s guilt or innocence, he does bring out themes that I believe support a charge of contempt of Parliament. Let me focus on just one of those. Chilcot shows that a key example of the former Prime Minister fixing evidence around policy was a phone call with George Bush on 12 March 2003. In that call, Blair and Bush agreed to publicly pretend to continue to seek a second UN resolution, knowing that it would not happen, and then to blame France for preventing it. Chilcot reveals that Tony Blair then did two misleading things. He told his Cabinet the next day that work continued in the UN to obtain a second resolution and that the outcome remained open, even though that was not the case. He also went on to repeat a deliberate misrepresentation of the French position, both at Prime Minister’s questions on 12 March and in his key parliamentary statement on 18 March—he even included it in the war motion before the House.
In short, the French position was for more time for the weapons inspectors, but with war as an explicit possibility. The former Prime Minister kept taking out of context phrases from an interview by President Chirac given on 10 March, saying that they showed that France would veto a resolution in any circumstances. That was clearly not true, and Chilcot shows that it was not true. The French kept correcting Blair, but Blair instructed Jack Straw, in Chilcot’s words, to “concede nothing”. Clearly that was because he needed to continue the misrepresentation of France to provide cover for his failure to get UN support for the war.
Then we come to the gross misrepresentation of Iraq as a growing threat to the region and the country. Tony Blair said that Saddam’s weapons programme was “active, detailed and growing”, and that the intelligence showing that was extensive, detailed and authoritative. Yet the Joint Intelligence Committee had said just six months earlier:
“Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction…and…missile programmes is sporadic and patchy.”
Even just two months before that, Jack Straw had written to Blair warning of “weak intelligence”, and the Butler report tells us that the intelligence between July and September was “unproven”. Over and over again, Tony Blair misled this House, and it is our right to hold him to account.
I have visited Iraq recently, and I visited a country in economic meltdown because of the ongoing conflict in both Iraq and Syria. Iraq is still riven by religious sectarianism, led by what has been described to me as a corrupt and patriarchal family looting the country of its assets and getting rich on its hard-won natural resources. It is a country that has fought and is still losing against al-Qaeda, and that is now in the thrall of Daesh, which has crossed the border into Syria. It is a country where more than 200 people died in a car bomb two weeks ago with barely a mention in this place. Where are the half-mast flags? Where is the Iraqi anthem at football games?
Order. My apologies to the hon. Lady, but I should have done her the courtesy of telling her what I think she knows, which is that the time limit is now four minutes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am going through my speech quickly.
Where is the collective grief? Are we so inured to Iraqi deaths? Iraq is a country that cannot control its own borders; a country where its own people—the Yazidis—were, by most accounts, abandoned by Iraqi Government forces and left to Daesh; a country where men and boys were murdered and women and girls raped and passed into sexual slavery. That is the reality of modern, post-invasion Iraq. Is it better or worse than the Saddam regime? It would be entirely careless to speculate, as both are too horrendous to contemplate, and we should not have had to.
When the US and the UK planned for war—and they did indeed plan—peace should have been their objective, but damningly, Chilcot shows that it was the only objective that they did not plan for. I have heard many Members use the attacks against the Kurds as justification for the war on Iraq in 2003. The appalling attack on Halabja and Saddam’s use of chemical weapons on about 5,000 Kurds took place in 1988. The UK is alleged, with strong evidence—and the US too—to have continued to trade weapons to Iraq up to 1991. Then there was the first Gulf war. If enforcing regime change was ever appropriate or legal, that was the opportunity to do so with international support, yet the UK and the US allowed the brutal regime and dictatorship of Saddam Hussain to continue.
This House recently supported airstrikes on Syria, on flimsy evidence at best of 70,000 moderate ground forces actively opposing Daesh forces—the most active of them being the Kurdish YPJ and the YPG—yet it consistently fails to support my calls and those of others that the PYD of Rojava, the Kurds, should be given a place at peace talks on the future of Syria. Where is the support for the Kurds who are at the frontline of the battle against Daesh? It is hypocrisy.
The decision to go to war should be the most seriously contended proposition in this place. It should be the most rigorously tested, with every facet and every piece of intelligence investigated and every ramification explored. Chilcot has eventually exposed the myth about what happened, but a close look at the facts would have revealed the evidence to be flawed.
When this place sends men and women to war without adequate resources, sending some of them into perilous danger ill equipped and improperly attired, there is collective guilt. When the result of that decision is the death of soldiers serving their country and the indiscriminate deaths of innocent civilians—directly or indirectly caused by our military actions—the responsibility for that lies here, in this place, which should have more rigorously challenged the then Prime Minister and the intelligence that was presented.
The cost of the Iraq war is far greater than the £9 billion that the UK Government spent on the conflict. It is the 179 dead British service personnel, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, the 1 million people displaced and the destabilisation of the middle east, the consequences of which we can see to this day.
We can all profess to regret what happened—indeed, I am sure that everyone does—but if lessons are not learned and we do not correct the collective arrogance that has meant thumbing our nose at the UN and at international partners, mocking them, deriding them and ignoring them, we will repeat the mistakes of the past and the loss of those lives will be even more in vain.
I rise today to speak on behalf of the family of Sapper Robert Thompson. He was a 22-year-old Royal Engineer from West Lothian and the 58th British soldier killed in the Iraq war. Robert was a member not only of my constituency, but of my extended family. Like so many families of injured or killed soldiers, his mother, Margaret Valentine, and the rest of his family have had to endure a horrific ordeal: the death of Robert; a six-year civil litigation against the Ministry of Defence to clear his name of fault; and now the publication of this report, which they advise me leaves them feeling that Robert died in a war that should never have been started. In all the machinations, reportage and criticism, we must remember those who were injured or killed in the Iraq war and the impact that the timescale of this report and its coverage will be having on them.
Margaret described her son as always being at the heart of jokes, keeping his comrades in high spirits and never one to complain. His uncle, Mark, who is my cousin, told me recently:
“He took the Queen’s shilling, knew he had a job to do and absolutely loved his work.”
The family had regular phone calls from Robert when he was deployed. Although he was always upbeat, Mark and his wife Lis, who played a significant role in his upbringing, told me how often he complained about inadequate equipment and exposure to unnecessary danger. In particular, Robert worried that his body armour was too short. “Always long in the back” was how his mum Margaret described him, and the fact that his armour regularly bruised his ribs and did not cover his kidneys was a major concern for her.
Robert’s death in 2004 was initially declared by the Ministry of Defence to be an accident, and the MOD claimed that it was his own fault. On Robert’s fourth tour of duty in Iraq, he suffocated at the bottom of a collapsed trench while trying to replace a floating pontoon. The court reported that the Ministry of Defence had performed no risk assessment in relation to the work that he was tasked with. To get to the truth, Margaret endured six years in court against the Ministry of Defence. It was finally confirmed in 2010 that Sapper Thompson had fallen into an unguarded trench with walls that lacked supports. Lord Bonomy apportioned 80% of the blame for the accident to the MOD and 20% to Robert. Margaret commented at the time:
“It has taken six years and it was never, ever about the money. My laddie died a horrific death. He struggled to get out, but couldn’t. It was about getting here—a judge ruling that there was negligence. It was totally unsafe work and there was no regard for his safety. I always knew he never entered the trench of his own volition.”
Margaret’s solicitor, Patrick McGuire of Thompsons, said that he regarded the accident as “one of the worst examples of a complete disregard for health and safety” that he had seen in his career. A further point that I plan to take up with whoever is the next Defence Secretary is that, according to Robert’s mum, soldiers such as Robert have had their pension retained by the MOD because of a change in legislation, because they died before August 2004. The fact that those soldiers’ pensions are being retained by the MOD is a matter of shame, and I hope that it will look again at the issue.
Robert’s death and the MOD’s reaction reflect the Government’s unpreparedness, short-sightedness and lack of willingness to ensure that our soldiers had the equipment and direction necessary to undertake operations. Sir John Chilcot notes:
“It was not clear which person or department within the Ministry of Defence was responsible for…capability gaps”.
That leads Robert’s family and other families to wonder where the foresight, negotiation and planning were, not to mention the fact that those operations were guided by a foggy strategy to begin with.
My extended family have lost their son and nephew. They have undergone six years in court to understand the truth behind the circumstances. Now, like so many families, they relive his death once more with the release of the Chilcot report. Let us ensure that neither the families’ suffering nor the soldiers’ sacrifice is forgotten. Let us carry these lessons with us in the story of Sapper Robert Thompson.
On Remembrance Day 2007 I attended a ceremony in Glenrothes that none of us ever thought we would have to attend: the unveiling of a war memorial in a town that did not exist at the end of the second world war. The memorial has two names on it—those of Private Marc Ferns, aged 21, and Private Scott McArdle, 22. They were let down by their country. They were sent into an illegal war that was not an act of last resort, and they were sent in without the equipment that they were entitled to have to protect them from enemy attack.
I believe that the Chilcot report establishes those facts beyond doubt. It does not bring those two soldiers back—nothing can bring them back—but Chilcot finally establishes facts that some wanted to keep hidden. It starts to give answers to the families. We need to decide on our response, and part of our early response should be for this House of Commons to apologise for the dreadful error of judgment that our predecessors in this place made, which cost so many young lives.
There must also be a proper holding to account of those who were responsible, whose conduct has been brought into the full glare of the Chilcot report. It is not about one person; it is about 179 people. It is not about witch hunts or settling old scores, as was ridiculously suggested earlier. It is about applying the principle that nobody, but nobody, is above the law, and that if those in positions of responsibility betray that responsibility, there will be no hiding place from justice.
I do not have time to highlight the specific parts of the executive summary that I believe point unerringly to the conclusion that former Prime Minister Tony Blair deliberately and persistently misled his Cabinet, misled his Government, misled this House and misled the people of these islands, not about whether he believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but about whether he cared that those weapons of mass destruction existed. He was never interested in a war to disarm; he was only ever interested in a war to achieve regime change. He was acting in support of the policies and interests of a foreign power, even when those were incompatible with the stated policies and objectives of Her Majesty’s Government.
It is not correct to talk about the previous Prime Minister committing war crimes, but there is an argument for saying he was in contempt of this House. However, his conduct, had it been carried out by a diplomat, would have led to a trial for treason. It is unthinkable that, simply because he was Prime Minister, he should somehow be immune to any further investigation. It is simply not good enough that he should be allowed to walk away with nothing more than a half-hearted apology and expression of regret.
Even the motion that the House of Commons approved on 18 March 2003 said nothing about regime change. Even at that point, the former Prime Minister was keeping up the pretence; he was arguing about weapons of mass destruction when what he was interested in was overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. The only conclusion I can form is that Tony Blair’s actions were dishonest and misleading from the beginning. As a result, these islands went to a war they should never have taken part in.
Marc Ferns, Scott McArdle and 177 others went to that war and will never come home. We owe it to their memory—we owe it to their families—to make sure that those responsible have the case against them tested in a court of law.
I, too, want to confine my observations to the lack of military planning and the lack of equipment provided to our service personnel in Iraq.
Page 127 of the executive summary of the Iraq inquiry says:
“The MOD was slow in responding to the developing threat in Iraq from Improvised Explosive Devices…The range of protected mobility options available to commanders…was limited. Although work had begun before 2002 to source an additional PPV”—
protected patrol vehicle—
“it was only ordered in July 2006 following Ministerial intervention.”
Royal Highland Fusilier Gordon Gentle, who was 19 years old, died in a Snatch Land Rover that was destroyed by a roadside bomb, or IED. He volunteered for the position of top cover—looking out from the top of that vulnerable vehicle. The vehicle travelled from Basra towards the Kuwaiti border—a route dubbed “IED alley” by some soldiers. If the vehicle had been fitted with an electronic jammer—known as an Element B —that device would have blocked the radio signals controlling insurgents’ roadside bombs. Gordon Gentle could still be alive today if that had happened.
Those vehicles were inferior to the replacement Mastiffs, which arrived in the conflict zone two and a half years later. The Snatch Land Rover was not the vehicle that should have been used, when people were constantly trying to blow them up. When Gordon Gentle was killed, the lessons were not learned. Why it took so long for those vehicles to be replaced should be investigated.
Gordon’s mother is Rose Gentle, who has campaigned vigorously to get answers from this inquiry. She wrote to me last night, and she asked me to read this out:
“As a mother that lost her son in the Iraq war I am disgusted and shocked at the way Tony Blair took us into Iraq. He misled Parliament and he misled the whole country. He should be held in contempt. Let the people of the country who vote know that their feelings and their voice matter. Mr Blair cannot be allowed to walk away while military families suffer.”
I concur with those remarks. Rose Gentle has done tremendous work for charities such as Soldiers Off The Street. As I said earlier, she was in London last week to hear the results of the Iraq inquiry.
I support the calls by my right hon. and hon. Friends for Tony Blair to be held to account. However, in addition, it is important that the state issue a formal apology to those who lost loved ones for failing to equip them and for failing to enable them to defend themselves.
We now know that the decision to go to war in Iraq was wrong—not just flawed but utterly wrong. This place was misled; not everyone was fooled, but sufficient to sway the vote. Meanwhile, across the UK, 1.5 million people marched in protest against the war. Their cumulative voice was drowned out by a single voice and its abuse of power. Tony Blair said that those who marched against the war would have “blood on their hands.” I do not know one single person who marched against this war who regrets their action, while apparently Mr Blair now regrets his. One hundred and seventy-nine British servicemen and women, along with 24 British civilians, were killed; and let us never forget the tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands—of civilians in Iraq who were killed, the 1.25 million orphans this war created, and the destruction of buildings and decimation of communities. The outcome was to radicalise a generation of angry, grieving Iraqis whose lives we turned upside down.
All based on what? There was no evidence of WMD. There was no evidence of Iraq having links to al-Qaeda. Evidence of contact between Iraq and Osama bin Laden was “fragmentary and uncorroborated”. However, Tony Blair still felt fine telling his pal, George W. Bush,
“I will be with you, whatever.”
How did we wage this war? We did as we always do—we sent in our troops with “wholly inadequate military equipment”. This was not new. We had known for years that we had poor vehicles and a lack of body armour. Equipment was identified in 2001 to
“not work well in hot and dusty conditions…The MoD had insufficient desert combat suits and desert boots for all personnel…Standard issue boots were unsuitable for the task; 4 Armoured Brigade’s post-exercise report cited melting boots and foot rot as ‘a major issue’.”
What do we do for those who lost loved ones? We make them wait 13 years for answers. How well do we look after the welfare of those who returned? Appallingly.
On Monday, we will vote to spend hundreds of billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction while campaign veterans are sleeping rough in towns and cities across the UK. Many more are physically or psychologically damaged, left by us without the support network they require. When will we put in place a package for our service personnel that looks after their long-term welfare? When will we ensure that everyone leaving the armed forces does so with a qualification or skill that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives?
In truth, so many mistakes were made that 2.6 million words are probably not enough. I will finish with a quote from a father who lost a son—a quote that is intelligent, informed, and dignified. Roger Bacon, whose 34-year-old son Matthew was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in 2005, said:
“Never again must so many mistakes be allowed to sacrifice British lives and lead to the destruction of a country for no positive end.
We were proud when our husbands, sons and daughters signed up to serve our country. But we cannot be proud of the way our government has treated them.
We must use this report to make sure that all parts of the Iraq War fiasco are never repeated again. Neither in a theatre of war, nor in the theatre of Whitehall.
We call on the British Government immediately to follow up Sir John's findings to ensure that the political process by which our country decides to go to war is never again twisted and confused with no liability for such actions.”
Order. Before I put the Question, I thank colleagues for their stoicism and their succinctness. I would like particularly to thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his typical understanding and good grace. He was not heard today, by way of a speech, but he will be heard tomorrow, and of that he can rest assured.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(George Hollingbery.)
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.