[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.]
Debate resumed (Order, 13 July).
Question again proposed,
That this House has considered the Report of the Iraq Inquiry.
Before I call the first speaker—from the Back Benches, as this is a continuation of the debate that began yesterday—I should say to the House that at this stage I have not imposed a time limit on speeches. The House will be aware that there will have to be wind-up speeches from the Opposition Front Bench and the Government Front Bench tonight, for which I have to allow, but beyond that, I will wait to see how things go. My best advice to colleagues is that if each feels able to contribute for 10 minutes, but not much more than that, it may not be necessary to have any formal limit. There is therefore a burden on the shoulders of distinguished colleagues as they commence their contributions. That burden, I am sure, will be keenly felt by the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
Thank you very much for calling me, Mr Speaker. I shall endeavour to follow your injunction to be brief. There is a very good reason to be brief at this stage of consideration of the Chilcot report, and that is that we have had very little time to consider a very large mass of detailed information.
I generally find, when trying to unravel what has happened historically, that it is sensible to look back at some of the original sources. In the very short time available, I have picked out a few original documents that have been included in the mass of published material. One of them is the Joint Intelligence Committee assessment dated 29 January 2003 and entitled, “Iraq: the emerging view from Baghdad”. I shall refer to two quotations. At paragraph 10, the JIC says:
“We are unlikely to receive any advance warning of a pre-emptive attack on the Kurds. We judge that a pre-emptive limited artillery strike on Kuwait using CBW could be launched in as little as two hours.”
At another point in the report, a list of things that might be the result of an attack on Saddam Hussein is given. One of these possibilities is described in the following terms:
“to inflict high enough casualties on any coalition ground forces, perhaps in Kuwait, including through the use of CBW, to halt a coalition attack and to swing public opinion in the West against hostilities.”
Another note, entitled, “Saddam: The Beginning of the End”, which was prepared by the assessment staff following a discussion at the JIC on 19 March 2003, states:
“We judge Iraq has a useable CBW capability, deliverable using artillery, missiles and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles. We judge Iraq possesses up to 20 al-Hussein missiles with a range of up to 650km and 100s of shorter range missiles, mostly with a range of 150km or less. These missiles may be able to deliver CBW, although intelligence suggests that Iraq may lack warheads capable of effective dispersal of such agents.”
The reason I quote those two documents is that they were top secret documents that were never intended for publication until the archives eventually came to be released many years later. They show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the advice received by the Labour Government at that time was that Saddam Hussein did possess, in the assessment of our intelligence agencies, chemical and biological weapons. We now know that that was wrong, but we also know, as a result of the release of those documents, that the Labour Government of the day did not lie to Parliament over the question of their belief that chemical and biological weapons were kept.
More contentious is the question of whether or not Tony Blair exaggerated. That is a matter of harder judgment, but I sometimes wonder what the reaction of Parliament would have been if he had come to us and said, “We really don’t know for certain whether Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons. We know he has had them in the past and used them. Because we can’t be certain that he hasn’t got them now, because of the events that happened only a matter of months earlier, which put al-Qaeda and its suicide brand of terrorism on the world stage, and because we cannot be sure that, for reasons of his own, he might not seek to supply such weapons to suicidal terrorist groups, we judge that we can’t take the chance.”
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s useful approach in going back to the primary sources. Does not the information to which he refers, though, highlight just how dangerous it is to go to war on the basis of intelligence alone, which is essentially what marked the Iraq war out from every other one? Does he agree that the process of making intelligence available for assessment by this House has to be improved, or we could risk doing it again?
That is very tricky, because there are two scenarios where we can go to war. One is quite straightforward: somebody attacks us and we get on with it, because we are given no choice. The other is a situation such as that under discussion, where we have reason to believe that something horrible could happen and the question arises of whether we should intervene.
One of the most problematic aspects of the Chilcot report is its statement that military action was “not a last resort” and that the peace process could have been given longer. The reality is that, unless an attack is launched on us, we can always go on talking for longer. I cannot think of any point at which it would be possible to say, “We have to launch an attack now because there is no prospect of continuing to try to find out without taking military action.”
The right hon. Gentleman talks about this House having to assess the intelligence, but I am not sure that that helps us too much. We can never be certain that what we are assessing is the whole picture, because sometimes, as those of us who have served on bodies such as the Intelligence and Security Committee will know, there are sources of intelligence that cannot be revealed. Therefore, to present raw intelligence to the House, without being able to say that there is other intelligence not being presented to the House, leaves the House in an anomalous position.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in 2003, the House voted not just, or even mainly, on the intelligence? If you look at the debate, Mr Speaker, you will see that the House voted on Saddam Hussein’s repeated and unprecedented non-compliance with mandatory United Nations resolutions and on his record. Does the right hon. Gentleman think from his reading of the report that Saddam Hussein executed a massive bluff on the international community and his own people by pretending that he still had the weapons we know he had, or does he agree with the current Iraqi Government that Saddam sent them across the border to Syria?
I agree with a great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. Although it is not a matter of primary concern to us now, the fact is that Saddam Hussein was the author of his own misfortune. We must remember that, apart from being a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein had invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990. He chose to try to convince his own people that he had not given up these weapons, when either he had given them up or, as the right hon. Gentleman said and as rumours persist to this day, he had spirited them away, possibly to Syria. However, although I see a degree of agreement with me from those on the Labour Benches over this issue, they may find it a little harder to accept the next point that I wish to make.
I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, as he will know. However, I suggest that, on this issue, it was not just about intelligence sourcing from here. The United Nations inspectors at the time were pleading for more time because they could not find the WMDs upon which premise we were going to war. We should have listened to them as well. Ultimately, the reason they could not find the WMDs is that they did not exist.
Yes, but the problem that the inspectors and we would always have faced was summed up by something that was said at the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. I was going to quote this later, but I shall do so now. On 21 August 2003, I attended the Hutton inquiry. In the course of giving evidence, Nicolas Rufford, a journalist, made a statement about a telephone conversation that he had had with Dr David Kelly in June 2003. Dr Kelly was, of course, a weapons expert, and knew all about the difficulties of detecting weapons stockpiles if they were hidden. In the course of that telephone conversation, Dr Kelly said to Mr Rufford that
“it was very easy to hide weapons of mass destruction because you simply had to dig a hole in the desert, put them inside, cover them with a tarpaulin, cover them with sand and then they would be almost impossible to discover”.
So the question that we come back to once again is: if Tony Blair had come to this House and more honestly highlighted the question marks against the reliability of the intelligence, would he be as excoriated today as he has been? Let me be counterfactual for a moment. Let us suppose that some stocks of anthrax had been discovered and there had been a secret cache. Would we still be saying that the people who took the decision in 2003, on the basis of what clearly was an honest belief that Saddam Hussein might have deadly stocks of anthrax, were wrong? I have no hesitation in saying that although the Government may have exaggerated—and probably did exaggerate—the strength of the evidence they had, I believe that they genuinely expected to find stocks of these weapons.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Yes, but I am taking a lot of interventions, and I am keen not to abuse the fact that I do not have a time limit.
Given the right hon. Gentleman’s wisdom and expertise, he is a focal point in this discussion. Does he accept that there are some on these Benches who think—and who feel that this is justified by the Chilcot findings—that the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction was an artificial casus belli that was used to effect regime change? If weapons of mass destruction were an issue, why wait 13 years to invade? Why not go in at the time of the first Iraq war?
The answer to the second question is easy. What happened during those 13 years was the appearance on the international stage, in September 2001, of a group that had been around for a long time but had not previously succeeded in killing 3,000 people in the heart of New York and Washington DC. [Interruption.] Therefore, the issue at question, as we often hear quite rightly said in debates about international terrorism, was that the traditional policy—the technique of containment, which is usually the best technique to deal with rogue regimes that have weapons stocks—could no longer apply under the circumstances. It was feared that if an international terrorist organisation was, for any reason, supplied with a substance such as anthrax, rational deterrence would be ineffective in preventing the organisation from using it, no matter how suicidally.
Given the role that my right hon. Friend plays as Chairman of the Defence Committee, I wonder whether he could qualify the statement that he has just made, which caused a reaction in the House. He suggested that somehow the events of 9/11 created a different scenario in Iraq. Does he not agree with me that in 2003, al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq, and therefore the relationship between 9/11 and Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, cannot be made?
I do agree that al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq at the time, but that is not the point that I was making. The point that I was making was that the west was in a major stand-off with Saddam Hussein, and people use other groups and organisations for their own ends. The danger was—the then Prime Minister said this at the time, and it is what convinced me to support him—that Saddam Hussein might, for reasons of his own, decide to make some of these weapons available to certain groups, not because he was allied to such groups but because he and al-Qaeda shared a common enemy in the west.
I want to move on. Some Members will agree with what I have said, and others will not. Let me continue with the second branch of my remarks, and then it will be for other Members to put their own perspective on the matter. I hasten to add that although my chairmanship of the Defence Committee has been referred to a number of times, I am, of course, speaking entirely on my own behalf as someone who was here at the time and took part in the debate and the vote.
When I look back at those circumstances, I say to myself that the primary reason why I supported and spoke in favour of military action was that I believed what I was told by the then Labour Government about the possession of anthrax and other weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein. But here is where I have to make a major admission. At the back of my mind, and at the back, I believe, of many other hon. Members’ minds, was a second belief. It was the belief that if Saddam Hussein were removed, we might see the emergence of some form of democracy in Iraq. I was profoundly mistaken in that belief. From looking at the scenario as it developed, it is quite clear that what emerged was not any form of democracy; instead, there re-emerged the mutual hatreds between different branches of fundamentalist Islam that has led to bitter conflict for more than 1,000 years.
That was the lesson I drew from the Iraq war. It is also why, when it subsequently became clear that the same scenario would be played out in other theatres for the same sort of reasons—in particular, in relation to Syria in August 2013—I was determined not to make the same mistake again. Along with 29 other right hon. and hon. Members of the Conservative party and nine Liberal Democrats, I therefore voted not to take the same sort of action against President Assad as we had taken against Saddam Hussein. I remember hearing exactly the same sort of arguments in favour of removing Assad as everyone now accepts had been inadequate arguments for removing Saddam Hussein.
Members who feel strongly that it was the wrong thing to do in 2003 ought to check what the consequences have been of not taking the same sort of step in 2013. Since 2013 huge bloodletting has continued in Syria, but many of us still argue that if the choice is between an authoritarian dictatorship and totalitarian civil conflict engaged in by people who believe that suicide terrorism is the answer to the world’s problems and the fastest route to paradise, we should appreciate that very often there are no simple or easy answers in such dilemmas.
I have great respect for the Chairman of the Defence Committee—in fact, I believe I voted for him. Is he saying that if he had his time again he would vote against the Iraq war in 2003 and for the Syrian conflict in 2013?
I am saying that I was absolutely right not to vote to remove Assad in 2013 and absolutely wrong to vote as I did in 2003, but that I did so because I believed what I was told about weapons of mass destruction and also believed—wrongly—that there was a chance for Iraqi society to advance along more democratic lines. That was my terrible error.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I shall make a little more progress first.
My last point leads me to a second question. I hope that I have, in effect, shown that when the Labour Government of the day said to the House that they believed there were weapons of mass destruction they were not lying, and that there was a reasonable case to be made on those grounds for taking the action that was taken. However, the papers also show that the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, was not unaware of the possible consequences of removing Saddam Hussein. In his public statement, Sir John Chilcot said:
“We do not agree that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaida activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”
“Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.”
In a briefing note in January 2003 from Mr Blair to President Bush, the then Prime Minister wrote:
“The biggest risk we face is internecine fighting between all the rival groups, religions, tribes, etc, in Iraq, when the military strike destabilises the regime. They are perfectly capable, on previous form, of killing each other in large numbers.”
Let us remind ourselves that the vast total of deaths that have taken place in Iraq are not people who have been killed by westerners; they are Muslims who have been killed by other Muslims once the lid of authoritarian repression was removed.
I am nervous about opening up a new front for my right hon. Friend, but some of the deaths in Iraq were clearly of our soldiers, and Chilcot said that there were some
“serious equipment shortfalls when conflict began”.
Two of my constituents died in action in Iraq—Sergeant Roberts died because he did not have the right body armour, and Flight Lieutenant Stead died because his Hercules did not have the proper suppressant foam fitted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should never, ever, again send our armed forces into combat without properly equipping them for the task in hand?
Never, ever, again is a strong statement, and when a conflict arises, especially when it is the result of unforeseen events, it is seldom the case that the armed forces are fully equipped in every respect. The history of our engagement in many conflicts is of a disastrous start that is usually gradually rectified as the conflict goes on. The report clearly brings out that, for far too long while the conflict was going on, equipment deficiencies were not identified and remedied—I will leave it at that for the moment.
I have two points on which to conclude. First, we must now accept that societies are unready for western-style democracy while their politics remain indissolubly linked to totalitarian, religious supremacism. I am not saying anything racialist in making those remarks, because only a few hundred years ago, religious wars devastated Europe, and here in England heretics were treated just as barbarously as they are in the middle east today. If the democratic model is to work, it usually has to evolve. If it does not evolve, a country must be totally occupied for many years in order for such a model to be implanted and to take root.
Secondly, the then Foreign Secretary said yesterday that he believed that some of those decisions, which were mistaken at the time, would less likely be taken in future because of the creation and existence of the National Security Council, and that that council is a forum where such matters could be thrashed out more realistically. I am not sure that that forum is quite strong enough. In bygone years, the heads of each of the three services had a direct input into the policy debate. The Chiefs of Staff Committee was a body that had to be reckoned with, even by Prime Ministers as forceful as Winston Churchill. Our current arrangements, in which the Chiefs of Staff are supposed to funnel their views to politicians through the medium of just one person—the Chief of the Defence Staff—are entirely inadequate.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is continuing in his post and I am pleased he is here to hear me say something that I hope he will be hearing more about from the Defence Committee, which is that there is too much of a disconnect between our top military advisers and the politicians. It is easier for a Prime Minister with a bee in his bonnet about overthrowing one regime or another to brush aside the words of one man, no matter how authoritative any given Chief of the Defence Staff may be, than it is to brush aside the contribution of the heads of the armed forces as a body.
The Defence Committee suggested, in one of its final reports under my predecessor as Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), that the Chiefs of Staff Committee needed to be constituted as the military sub-committee of the National Security Council. The recommendation was ignored in the reply to that report, but I reiterate it today. We must have authoritative and expert people who are in a position to stand up to a Prime Minister on a mission, whether to remove Saddam Hussein or to remove Gaddafi while telling this House that we are just going to implement a no-fly zone to protect the citizens of Benghazi. It is very important that the strategic calculus should be properly presented to politicians, so we do not ever again have a situation, as we are told happened over Libya, where a Chief of the Defence Staff is told to do the fighting while the politicians do the planning.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who very helpfully gave the House the product of his lucubrations and interpreted my guidance loosely. He had to take lots of interventions—that is certainly true. There is no time limit. I am leaving the House to regulate itself, but Members will want to take account of the fact that people might try to intervene on them. I say in all sincerity that we want everybody to get in. I thank the right hon. Gentleman. The next contributor will be Ben Bradshaw. [Interruption.] No, the right hon. Gentleman does not now wish to contribute. I rather hope that Mr Pat McFadden does.
I am happy to be a substitute for my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), Mr Speaker.
The decision to go to war in Iraq was, certainly in foreign policy terms, the most controversial decision of the Blair premiership and, indeed, of the entire Labour period in government. One hundred and seventy nine British troops died, as did more than 4,000 American troops, and many thousands of Iraqi civilians in the chaos and destruction afterwards. Sir John’s inquiry was asked to look at how the decision was taken and what lessons can be learned.
First, there is the crucial question of whether the war was based on a lie. On this, the report concludes:
“there is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No 10 improperly influenced the text.”
Prior to the report’s publication, there had been years of accusations about fabricating intelligence. In the wake of its publication a different question has been raised, which is why the intelligence was not challenged more.
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) quoted from some Joint Intelligence Committee reports. I do not need to repeat those particular quotes, but in 2002 the reports say that the intelligence was “sporadic and patchy”. They also say:
“it is clear that Iraq continues to pursue a policy of acquiring WMD and their delivery means”,
“Iraq has an offensive chemical warfare programme”
“Iraq has a chemical and biological weapons capability and Saddam is prepared to use it”.
This view turned out to be wrong, but it was genuinely felt and reported to the Government time after time. It was shared by many intelligence services around the world, including in countries fiercely opposed to the war. Sir John makes important recommendations about how intelligence is to be assessed and challenged in the future, but they are not the same as accusations of fabrication, lying or using intelligence deliberately to mislead.
Sir John concludes that the war was “not a last resort”, that the inspection process should have been given more time, and that the decision to use military action “undermined the authority” of the UN Security Council. This finding raises a huge and fundamental question, particularly in view of the fact that Saddam Hussein had been in breach of a whole series of UN Security Council resolutions over a period of 12 years, and that he had in the past used chemical weapons against his own people. One therefore has to ask who was really undermining the UN. Was it the country in breach, or the countries trying to enforce the UN’s will?
What does this finding mean for the responsibility to protect? My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) raised that issue yesterday. Is one of the lessons that we should never engage in military action, no matter how multiple the breaches of previous UN Security Council resolutions, unless there is full support from the Security Council itself? If that is our conclusion, what does that mean for the authority of the UN? This was not the view that we took in Kosovo. That action, although it was opposed by some, is generally felt to have produced a positive outcome for the people and to have prevented a disaster in the Balkans.
Thirdly, I turn to the aftermath, and the chaos and destruction that ensued.
The question for the House is whether there is the weight of evidence to justify action, not if we should never act without express authority from the UN Security Council, which would be just one piece of evidence that the House should take into consideration. In the case of Kosovo, which is a good example, there were other reasons for acting as we did. I supported that action then and continue to support it now.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. My point is that the finding about undermining the authority of the UN raises huge questions. It is one of the most controversial findings in the report.
Colin Powell famously remarked:
“If you break it, you own it”.
It is undoubtedly the responsibility of countries that remove a brutal dictator to put in place security measures afterwards. On this point, Sir John’s report is understandably critical of the UK and the US. With intervention comes responsibility. Security is a key part of that responsibility, but we should be clear about two other points: first, the killing of innocent civilians in Iraq was carried out not by UK or US armed forces, but by terrorists and militias that blew up the UN headquarters, attacked mosques, destroyed already fragile infrastructure and bombed marketplaces; and, secondly, that sectarian violence and killings in Iraq did not begin in 2003. Prior to that, it was carried out by the Saddam regime itself: the Anfal campaign; the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the north; and the brutal suppression of the Shi’a uprising after the first Gulf war in 1991. It was a reign of terror. Decades on, mass graves are still being discovered. I pay tribute to the courage and determination of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who was campaigning for the victims of Saddam’s brutal regime long before the Iraq war in 2003.
Fourthly, what is the lesson for our own security? I believe that people supported the Iraq war for different reasons, and many opposed it for different reasons. They should not all be put in the one bracket. Not everyone has drawn a direct line between this intervention and all the security problems we face, but some have. Foreign interventions will anger jihadists, and may also be used as a recruiting sergeant for jihadists, but it would be a fundamental mistake to believe that the mass murder of innocent people is only a response to what we do, and that if we stopped doing it, they would leave us alone. We should remember that Islamist terrorism existed long before the Iraq war. The USS Cole was bombed in 2000. The World Trade Centre was first bombed in 1993 and then destroyed in 2001, with the loss of 3,000 innocent lives. In Bali in 2002, we saw the murder of hundreds of innocent tourists, and there have been many more attacks around the world since, including last year in Paris. That attack took place in the country in Europe that was the most opposed to the Iraq war.
Let me repeat something I have said here before. Understanding Islamist terrorism simply as a reaction to what we do infantilises terrorists, fails to confer responsibility on them for what they do, and fails to stand up for the pluralism, equality, diversity and religious freedom that we hold dear. Whatever lesson we learn from past interventions, it should not be to franchise out our foreign policy decisions for the approval or veto of the terrorists who oppose our way of life.
Finally, there is the lesson on intervention itself. Sir John makes a number of recommendations on this point—about how intelligence should be treated, ministerial oversight, the challenge of arguments and so forth. The recommendations look eminently sensible, and I am sure that any future Government will take them on board. The truth is, however, that this is not just a matter of process.
My right hon. Friend made a strong critique of one of Sir John’s findings about the undermining of the United Nations. Another finding that I consider problematic is the “last resort” suggestion, which was also criticised by the Chair of the Defence Committee. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at that time, it was clear that time was running out? Saddam had been given 90 days when the resolution specified 30 days, so saying that other avenues could somehow be explored was not realistic at the time.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. At some point, there is always the issue of deciding. Every debate about intervention since 2003 has taken place in the shadow of this decision. Iraq has already increased the threshold for military action and the Chilcot report will raise it further. There is an inescapable question, however. To put it bluntly, we can have all the committees and processes that we want, but we still have to decide. The decision can go wrong, and everything that will happen in the aftermath cannot be predicted.
Much has been said about the size of the report, with its 2.5 million words. If we stack the volumes on top of one another, the paper would stand about 2 feet high. The very sight of the report will be a warning to future Prime Ministers. Since 2003, Prime Ministers and Presidents have been very conscious about learning from Iraq, and this report will make them even more conscious in the future. The biggest question of all is this: in reflecting on what went wrong after the invasion and the findings of the report, and adding in the reduced size of our armed forces in recent years, what if the conclusion was, “Never intervene again”? What message would that send out to the oppressed of the world, to dictators or to terrorist groups?
I was not an MP in 2003, so I never had to face the responsibility of voting for the war in Iraq. The most significant vote on foreign policy since I was elected was over Syria in 2013, and that vote was heavily coloured by our experience in Iraq. I have a slightly different interpretation from that of the right hon. Member for New Forest East. I voted against military action in 2013, even after Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people. Yet Syria, where we did not intervene beyond the limited airstrikes we voted for last year, has been a humanitarian disaster even worse than Iraq. Hundreds of thousands are dead, millions have been displaced, and we have seen the greatest movement of refugees since the end of the second world war. It is not a vote to intervene that has troubled me most in my 11 years here; it is that vote not to intervene, as the international community, with the exception of Russia—where have the demonstrations outside its embassy been?—stood back and decided that it was all too difficult. There is no Chilcot report on Syria. We can tell ourselves that because we did not break it, we did not buy it, but that makes absolutely no difference to the human cost.
So let us learn, but let us not sign a blank cheque for despots and terrorist groups around the world, or delude ourselves that the security issues that we face stem only from our foreign policy decisions, rather than from an ideology that encourages the killing of innocent people in countries around the world. Yes, intervening has consequences—2.5 million words detailing those consequences are before us—but so does standing back, and leadership is about deciding the difference.
I suggest that Iraq 2003 ranks with Suez in a catalogue of British foreign policy disasters. It cost the lives of more than 200 British nationals and many tens of thousands of Iraqi nationals and citizens, and set in train a terrible sequence of events, including a vicious civil war and a fundamental alteration in the balance of power in the region. Thirteen years later, we are still living with many of those consequences.
Given that I resigned from the shadow Front Bench in 2003 to vote against the war, I suppose it could be said that it marked a pivotal point in defining my political career, such as it has been, so for me it has been of rather more than passing interest to observe the progress of the Chilcot report. I defended the time that Sir John Chilcot took, and I want to take this opportunity to thank him and his team for the thoroughness of the report.
As a former soldier, I believe that, whatever has been said previously, war should always be the measure of last resort, to be taken when all other possibilities have been exhausted. We should never lose sight of that simple fact. Of course there is such a thing as a just war, but at the same time we owe it to our citizens, to our Parliament and, above all, to the soldiers whom we are committing to battle to recognise that it must be the measure of last resort. In my view, the overriding, the most important and the most damning conclusion of Sir John’s report was that Iraq was not, in fact, that last resort and that other possibilities had not been exhausted.
The report made other points. It said that the premise on which we went to war—the existence of weapons of mass destruction—was oversold and that there was a discarding of caveats attached to the intelligence. It referred to a lack of preparedness in respect of our armed forces, to deficiencies in equipment and to an absence of post-war planning, all which have been touched on before. That litany of errors was compounded by an overestimation of our influence over the United States. We could not, at the time, believe that it could be in our interests not to be on the frontline. I think that one of the proudest and best moments for Prime Minister Wilson was when he said no to the Americans over Vietnam. That did not fracture the so-called special relationship, which, within 15 or 20 years, was on a very firm footing indeed.
I do not intend to look back at all the errors in that litany, but I suggest that there are two key lessons from this episode on which we would do well to reflect. First, Parliament should have done more to question the evidence put before it. That was a failure at almost every level. If the legislature does not examine the evidence and question the Executive at times like that, when is it going to do so? There was also the failure of those in the know—at all levels, in my view, but particularly in the Cabinet—to challenge what was being presented to the public. I think that the one figure who stands proud among that select group of people in the Cabinet is Robin Cook. Everything that he said during that eventful debate in 2003 has been proved right. I contributed to that debate as well, but his was one of the best speeches that I had heard for a very long time.
We should have questioned more. We should have examined the detail. I was told to stop asking awkward questions, but we, the official Opposition, were asking so few awkward questions that it was suggested to me from the other side that we were trying to play political games with the issue, perhaps hoping that, if it blew up in the Government’s face, we could take advantage of the fact. That is how bad it got during that debate in 2003. We were simply not asking enough questions, and we should have done so.
I was here in 2003, and I was one of those who rebelled against the leader of my party and voted against action in the Iraq war. I think that the hon. Gentleman is being disingenuous, because it was one of the biggest rebellions that there had been against a Government from that Government’s side.
I remember how difficult it was to make that judgment against the leader. When someone is being led by a party leader whose judgment they respect, it is a tough call to say, “I am going to disagree, and vote against action of that kind.” I had a difference of opinion, and I have had no cause to change my mind about the decision that I made, but can the hon. Gentleman not accept, as I do, that the people who made those decisions did so believing that they were doing the right thing?
I do not think that we are saying different things. I am not suggesting that there was intentional deceit. What I am suggesting is that many of us in this place did not question sufficiently the evidence that was before us. The report from the Joint Intelligence Committee was full of caveats and holes, yet we relied on the Prime Minister’s interpretation, which was given in his foreword to the report.
I fully respect Members’ views as expressed on that fateful evening itself. If one cannot trust the Prime Minister, standing at the Dispatch Box making the case for war and, perhaps, privy to intelligence that we have not seen, it is a sad turn of events. However, I must return to the fundamental point that we should have questioned more, because there was a firm lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and such evidence was the premise for war. We must not forget that central consideration.
The reason the United Nations inspectors were pleading for more time, by the way, was that they could not find any weapons of mass destruction, and they could not find them because they did not exist. We should remember that it was the UN that was asking us to give it more time. The problem was that, at that point, we were marching to a military timetable.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman and you, Mr Speaker, will indulge me for a second. My speaking time was reduced to four minutes yesterday, so I did not have an opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Robin Cook. Had it not been for his untimely death, I would not be in this place, and he was my Member of Parliament when I was growing up. I wanted to say that we might have disagreed on many things, but on Iraq we did agree. I know that he is missed very much by his family, his friends and his party.
I thank the hon. Lady for what she has said. I am sure that it will be taken on board by all concerned.
I am conscious that time is pressing on, Mr Speaker, so I shall try to wrap up my speech in the next few minutes; I know that many other Members want to speak.
The second important lesson that I think we should learn from Iraq is that we need a properly functioning, properly funded and well-sited foreign policy apparatus. There is no doubt that Iraq revealed clear deficiencies in that apparatus, and subsequent interventions suggest that, in large part, we have still not put them right. Helmand is one example. While most of us supported the initial invasion, or rather intervention, in Afghanistan to get rid of al-Qaeda, we made a massive mistake in allowing that mission—a mission that was wholly under-resourced—to morph into one of nation building. In Libya, we did not understand events on the ground: we could not believe that once we had knocked the door down, which was the easy part, we would lay open all the tribal rivalries.
As for Syria in 2013, there was a suggestion we would be arming the rebels, not realising that lurking in the shadows was ISIL-Daesh and how that would eventually play out. There was a clear deficit of strategic analysis, with a loss of expertise at all levels of the machinery of foreign policy. That is a problem particularly felt within the FCO. In this country, we have quite a narrow pyramid in foreign policy making. In the States, it is much more open and diverse; there are lobbyists and political analysts, and the politicians and experts can buy into and influence the system. In this country, it is much more narrowly defined; it is the preserve of the select few, and the FCO is part of the few, which is why it must be firing on all cylinders, but it has not been doing so.
That is why we need proper funding of the FCO. Its budget has been continually eroded, with a hollowing out of expertise and staff. Traditional skills like languages and knowledge of events on the ground and of peoples and places have all been downgraded, as illustrated by the closure of the in-house language school and the gutting of the venerable library.
How did we get to the point that when Russia intervened in Ukraine we did not have one Crimean expert in the FCO? How is it that when the Arab uprising took place we had so few Arabists that we were calling them out of retirement? How is it that we have a DFID budget 10 times the budget of the FCO? This does not serve us well. We need to increase the budget and have long-term investment to make sure we are as well-sighted as we can be, which is not the case at the moment. There is a continual pressure on the FCO budget, and we need to put that right.
It is no surprise that Parliament—the legislature—has raised the bar with regard to interventions. It expects to be consulted. That is one of the positive developments from the Iraq intervention. The rationale is straightforward: if we believe there is a loss of expertise at the heart of our foreign policy apparatus and if there is a lack of trust not just because of Iraq, but because of Helmand, Libya and Syria, the bar needs to be raised, but this is not a healthy position in the longer term. In this increasingly challenging international environment, we need a knowledgeable Executive to be firing on all cylinders. A well-informed and resourced FCO is essential to that, both to act as a better counterweight to the impulses of No. 10 and possibly to help us avoid costly errors and conflicts in the future. There must be within the system a readiness to speak truth to power, and I am not sure we are quite there yet, but that is one of the key lessons from Iraq.
The UK and the west face enormous geopolitical challenges. The world’s population will rise to 9 billion by 2050, with changing distribution—which is particularly of relevance to Africa—and urbanisation and the consequent strain on natural resources. Today, 1 billion people lack access to sufficient potable water, and by 2050 three-quarters of the world’s population could face water scarcity. A whole array of security and environmental challenges is caused by economic and political uncertainty. In today’s global information world, success will depend not only on who prevails by force but on who wins the story.
One of the lessons from the Iraq failure is that it is symptomatic of a wider malaise: the deficiency of strategic analysis at the core of our foreign policy apparatus. The greatest challenge for policy makers is to ensure we embrace flexibility and foresight. This is perhaps diplomacy’s greatest challenge. We must restore our foreign policy and defence capabilities, otherwise the country risks being left behind. This is happening at a time when the international community is failing to produce co-ordinated responses to many of the challenges facing mankind, including poverty, organised crime, conflict, disease, hunger and inequalities.
We must have a properly resourced and respected foreign policy apparatus and investment in soft power and old friendships and strong defence, because diplomacy and soft power cannot succeed by themselves. We must have this proper funding in place for our FCO, because if we are not well-sighted, the next intervention challenge— there will be more—might not be as local in its ramifications as these past errors have been. The costs of getting it wrong might be much greater next time.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and to follow the previous speakers, who have a great wealth and depth of information and knowledge to bring to it. If I wanted to sum up my comments I would say, “Mistakes made and lessons learned.”
British forces peaked at 46,000 during the invasion phase, but of course due to the way the tours system worked at the time, more actually served. I pay tribute to the 179 very brave and courageous servicemen and women who gave their lives during the campaign, and also to those gallant Members of this House and the other place who served.
The Chilcot inquiry and report have raised many questions, and the general public need answers. The lack of answers on key issues is the cause of much of the public’s rage. We followed the American lead without properly analysing intelligence. That is absolutely clear from the now public comment of Mr Blair to the then President of the United States:
“I will be with you, whatever”—
We need to be much more discerning about the way we interrogate intelligence material and information. It is imperative to note that the plan for success was absent. In 2003, there was outrageous and unexpected success, for which we had no plan. No one was able to foresee Hussein capitulating so early, and thus Iraq fell apart with no one to deliver the stable, successful programmes that existed, such as the oil for aid programme. We did not have a plan, a vision or an understanding of what would happen if we were successful in battle at that time. The vacuum that plunged the entire region into instability is felt strongly to this day, not only in the region but across the world.
We also did not understand the complex society of Iraq. There was no understanding of cultural sensitivities or local divisions, sectarianism or politics, which meant that our presence was further resented as time went on and things did not get better. There was also the unprecedented Shi’a majority uprising in Basra, where the Iran-Iraq war was most pronounced. All these things were unforeseen.
We cannot keep sending forces to places that they are unprepared to go to, in terms of equipment and understanding the reason. Estimates of the length of time a mission may take need to be more conservative and honest in future, not only to prepare our armed forces fully, but to regain the much-damaged public trust. I was not a Member of this House at the time of the Iraq war, but constituents have come to me who were sending socks, boots, food, body-warmers and, on one occasion I am aware of, body armour, to their people in Iraq. There is something wrong when our people serve overseas and we, their families, have to send them stuff the Army should give them when they first go out. There needs to be an honest conversation about that.
A lot of the things that went wrong can be explained by a lack of resources. We simply have not got the capacity to fight on so many fronts anymore. It is now clear that we greatly underestimated the capability of the enemy. What worked against rocket-propelled grenades in Ulster was not fit to take on 250-lb improvised explosive devices in Iraq. That is another important learning point that must be taken forward.
I want to talk about veterans, and the family support package when the soldiers were away. At that time, just two soldiers were left at headquarters to look after family affairs, and given the number of deaths and injuries, the situation became almost overpowering for them. I know things have changed, and I welcome those changes, but we have to build on this and make sure that the veterans are not forgotten, as some in the past have been. We need foresight, and we need to build on lessons learned and to continue learning, so that we only move forward in how we treat our armed forces.
I want to talk about the pension of a gentleman who served in uniform. His story will be well known to those who read The Sunday Times. His name is Chris Braithwaite, 41, a former major in the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who served in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq. He said:
“When we were in Basra, we were subjected to rocket and mortar attacks daily for seven months. This was a great worry for my wife, Laura, but we believed that the financial support which is provided by the army in recognition of long service would reflect that family sacrifice—until the rug was pulled from under us.
On the same day that I received the Queen’s diamond jubilee medal in recognition of my service, I was given the news that I would be made redundant just 87 days short of the 16 years’ service I needed to receive an immediate pension.”
We are talking about people who fought for Queen and country. They did their bit, but when they needed support back home, it fell short with a vengeance. We must take care of our veterans. We must make sure that they receive absolutely first-class service from the state. It is vital that they are offered, and get, the best.
I have asked this question before and I ask it again today: will we see the statistic some day that more Iraq veterans have committed suicide than were killed in the conflict? We must confront the issue of how we treat our veterans. The Chilcot report gives us the opportunity to do just that, and it must be fully assessed. More British soldiers and veterans took their life in 2012 than died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan over the same period. These are statistical facts. I do not like having to put them before the House, but we need to recognise them.
I want briefly to mention the reserves. This is another imperative issue, and there could be awful consequences if it is not addressed. We were using the highest number of reservists on record, and we have no method of tracking what happened to them when they came home, or of finding out whether they have fallen victim to any of the problems associated with veterans. Despite all this, the number of reservists was cut from 45,000 to 30,000 after the Iraq war. Clearly there needs to be a rethink.
Referring to the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Belfast-born commander Tim Collins, who led the Royal Irish Regiment into Iraq in March 2003, has said:
“It may well be he was actually drunk on his self-importance having had successes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and having brokered the Good Friday Agreement, he genuinely believed he could do no wrong”.
This is in keeping with the
“I will be with you, whatever”
memo that was sent to President Bush. It is increasingly clear that our soldiers were being sent to war by Tony Blair, no matter what. Tim Collins said at the time that people believed there had been a plan in place for the aftermath. Sadly, we all know now that this was not the case, and the results of the lack of planning were disastrous for too many. It is easy to point the finger at Tony Blair, but there were others involved. Alastair Campbell, Geoff Hoon and others in that circle of friends, or of decision makers, should take this on board as well.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “Tommy”, and I should like to read out two verses from it—the second and the fifth. Its theme is just as applicable today as it was in its time.
“I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ’adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-’alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an ‘Tommy, wait outside’;
But it’s ‘Special train for Atkins’ when the trooper’s on the tide
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s ‘Special train for Atkins’ when the trooper’s on the tide.”
“You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extra rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool—you bet that Tommy sees!”
We have a duty to look after our veterans, and to ensure that those who have served this country well are looked after.
The Iraqi vulnerable persons resettlement scheme was set up after the war, but it has not delivered the capacity that it should have. The current reflections on Iraq are important, but they will have no impact on the ongoing dire situation in that country. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made the point yesterday—I shall make it again today—that many Yazidis, Shi’as, Syriac Catholics, Protestants, Sabean-Mandaeans and Sunnis, as well as many others, continue to be targeted by Daesh on the basis of their identity. Around 3.3 million have been displaced due to the instability in Iraq, and many minority groups are on the verge of disappearance.
In June, the United Nations independent international commission of inquiry on Syria determined that Daesh had committed genocide against the Yazidis. Around 90% of Yazidis are Iraqi. Despite this evidence, the Gateway, Children at Risk and Mandate resettlement schemes, which are not nationality-specific, have taken in only a very low number of Iraqis—up to 300 in 2015. While some Iraqis might fit all the criteria under the current Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, they are not eligible for asylum in the UK because they are not Syrian nationals.
I want to call for a modest expansion of the SVPRS and the Iraqi vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to permit Iraqis who fit the SVPRS vulnerability criteria to qualify for asylum in the UK. A modest expansion is particularly pertinent, because Iraqis have suffered as much as their Syrian counterparts at the hands of Daesh, and the death toll in Iraq continues to rise. The UK cannot absolve itself from assisting Iraqis, and making them eligible for resettlement in the UK, with the UNHCR’s recommendation, is the least we can do.
We have heard about the mistakes, and we can learn from them and move forward. We can make the world a better place for our soldiers to serve in, with the uniform and equipment that they should have and with the support for veterans and their families that they need when they come home. Let us learn from the Chilcot report, and from those mistakes, and move forward.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this opportunity to speak in the debate. The Chilcot report, published last week, made sobering reading. Many things have been said already on the issue—I shall not repeat them—and the chief protagonists at the time have received, in my view, fair criticism. I am in the fortunate position of both having been in the Army at the time of the Iraq war and now being a Member of this place. I did not serve in combat in Iraq; my theatre was another unpopular war, in Afghanistan.
At the time of the Iraq invasion, the Army was a strange place to be, particularly if you were just beginning your career. It is difficult to be positive about a mission when over 1 million people march against your deployment just before you go. But it is testament to the character and professionalism of the UK armed forces that the initial operation was the success that it was, despite cruel losses—including from my own regiment on 23 March 2003, when Ian Seymour, Les Hehir and Welly Evans of 29 Commando were killed during the insertion into southern Iraq.
However, what happened following the initial operation in that country and for the following seven years—indeed, perhaps right up to today—has been a tragedy for Iraq. I visited the country last autumn and met the President. It remains a place of extreme violence, heavy corruption and deep division. It was a challenge to return from a visit to Baghdad with much of a sense of optimism, although recent changes in the Iraqi security forces, and the international coalition’s mammoth efforts in the fight against Daesh, give real cause for hope, and I want to pay tribute to all UK forces engaged in that fight today.
How did we get to this point? I absolutely understand the public rage. The actions of some of those at the top of Government at the time—and yes, at the top of the military—were negligent. I am concerned, however, that the public’s fixation on Tony Blair could make us miss some of the learning points that must be taken from Sir John’s comprehensive work. Those learning points are the whole point of this process. It was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister who left office yesterday say that it would be impossible for these events to happen again today because of the structures he and his team had put in place, and I commend him and the Secretary of State for Defence for that.
However, there is a deeper issue here—one of basic moral courage—that I have found most distressing. In the military, that moral courage can be a rarer and therefore more treasured commodity in an organisation configured to imbue and nurture physical courage in the face of the enemy. That ability to stand up for your men in the face of a seemingly unstoppable sequence of events, and to speak truth to power, is an integral part of the military’s duty to this nation. We drill it into our subordinates and we preach it to anyone who will listen. So where was that courage in the build-up to this disastrous war?
It is inconceivable to me to allow a political Administration in this country to hamper preparations for war because they did not politically want to be seen to be making those preparations. It is inconceivable to me to allow soldiers out of patrol bases and into contact with the enemy without body armour, not as a tactical decision or a result of enemy action against a supply route, but simply because of bad planning. It is inconceivable to me continually to allow patrolling in Snatch Land Rovers when they were known to provide no protection whatever to our men and women against a well known and obvious threat from improvised explosive devices. But those things happened, and they directly cost UK military lives. These lessons must not be missed amid the almost visceral fixation of hatred on Tony Blair, lest we do a further disservice to our men and women who serve.
The Prime Minster does not make tactical decisions. She does not plan logistics; she is advised by those who do. I cannot in all honesty conceive of a time when I, as a very junior and insignificant commander in another unpopular war in Afghanistan, would ever have sanctioned an operation knowing that it lacked the equipment required to protect my men from a threat that I clearly knew about, because I was not prepared to say no. I find it hard, as do many of my cohort, to understand why that was sanctioned, yet it was.
We as a military betrayed the individuals who lost their life in this conflict as a direct result of equipment shortages. That is the point that really sticks in the craw. The political arguments and the strategic comings and goings will be debated ad infinitum, as they must be, to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again, but the military and tactical lessons must also be learned. What happened in Iraq had a profound effect on my whole generation of junior commanders in the military. We grew up with a deep sense of distrust in our superiors as a result of their actions, or lack thereof, during the Iraq war. That affected many of us at a formative stage in our career.
Finally, I want to speak strongly against the idea that the lives of British servicemen and women were somehow wasted in this war, or that they died for nothing. I simply cannot reconcile it with my not insignificant personal experience of commanding men in combat that lives lost in the pursuit of protecting the freedoms and privileges that we enjoy in this country were lost in vain. For the families, many of whom I know intimately, nothing—no mission, no cause—can be worth losing a loved one. As a soldier, however, I feel that I must represent the intimate conversations we shared, and the deep motivations that we fell back on to get through yet another day in the sweat, heat, blood and dust of these recent wars. We soldiers are drawn from all backgrounds, races, religions, colours and creeds. We all have different views—usually much more informed than anyone gives us credit for, and no doubt crafted by our own personal experiences—but we wear one uniform, with one Union Jack on our sleeve. We sign up to the same core value of protecting this nation, in exactly the same tradition of immense sacrifices as our forefathers, who wore the same cap badges and were under the same flag.
The truth is that, when a soldier leaves his patrol base in the morning, he is not thinking about how his particular contribution that day will help to advance the cause of Iraq’s future prosperity or Afghanistan’s place in the world. He is not thinking about whether we should have believed the dossier about weapons of mass destruction or whether he is going to stumble upon Osama’s house in downtown Sangin. He is thinking of calling his wife later, of covering his arcs and of trying not to blink in case he misses something. He is making sure he has some spare batteries for his radio. He is more frightened of letting his mates down than he is of the enemy. He is more focused on doing his section, his platoon, or his battalion proud than whether he should be there in the first place. In those endeavours he is showing that courage, that fortitude, that resilience, that commitment, that discipline and that humanity that we all aspire to on the most revealing stage of all: warfare, where norms do not exist and brutality and raw human emotion are everywhere.
We aspire to those things because they are good, because they are noble, because they are to be desired, and young men and women made sacrifices demonstrating such qualities, which those of us who witnessed it and were lucky enough to return refuse to remember as futile. They did make a difference. They saved comrades’ lives through their bravery. They shielded civilians from a brutal enemy intent on showing the very worst of humanity. They improved individual communities and made them safer and better—perhaps not on an overall strategic level, but it was not all a waste. That courage, that resilience, that discipline, that commitment, they are what we must remember from these conflicts. They cannot and must never be forgotten, for that would be an even greater betrayal than the ones laid out in the report. The lives were not wasted; they were engaged in noble pursuits in the generational struggle of our lifetime.
In conclusion, let us learn these painful lessons. Let us not fixate on Tony Blair—he is yesterday’s man. Let us not commit to things that we cannot fulfil and pass the buck to the lower end of the command chains.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his powerful speech. One thing that has always worried me about the Iraq war debate is the idea of the military as victims who were forced to go to fight when they in fact were trained and wanted to do so. What they did not want, however, was bad equipment, and they do not want bad equipment today. Does it not behove this House and its Members to be much more interested on a daily basis in what we are providing service personnel with, rather than just focusing on past decisions?
Absolutely. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We have come an extraordinarily long way. The processes at the time were simply unacceptable. Under this Government and this and previous Defence Secretaries, we have made real progress, but she is right that we do not want sympathy. We want a little more empathy and understanding of what we are doing. There is sometimes too much sympathy. We sign up and are proud to do so, but we do not expect to be ill- equipped or to be part of a mission that is ultimately badly planned and resourced.
Let us never lose the courage to speak truth to power—no matter our rank or position in life. Let us remember with humility the courage and sacrifice of our servicemen and women in Iraq. Let us make sure that we learn the lessons for the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives on either side, civilian or military. The human race can only evolve if we learn, and I sincerely hope we do.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). He made such a powerful contribution—it is always right to make those points. The entire House should congratulate him on his speech and remember the people who went to war on our behalf.
I was here on the day the House voted to go to war, and the Chilcot report offers a bit of closure for some of us. There is a real sense of vindication for people such as me who resolutely opposed the conflict all the way through. I remember that day. It was a horrible, brutal, ugly day. It was a day that should be indelibly imprinted on this House’s collective consciousness. I had a look at the proceedings of that day to refresh my memory of the atmosphere and culture. It sounds a bit masochistic to watch YouTube recordings of Tony Blair and others making their speeches, but it was important to get a sense of what that day was like because it was such a long time ago. We had to listen to Tony Blair lay out that exaggerated, fabricated case and listen to those flights of fancy. Of course, we now know, because of the Chilcot report, that it was mainly nonsense and invention.
I was the Chief Whip of what was a small group of SNP MPs in 2003, and I remember observing the Government Whips rounding up the recalcitrant, the doubters and those who were trying to make up their minds. Let us never forget that that Labour Government imposed a harsh three-line Whip on their Members that day. Really good women and men were dragooned into the Aye Lobby to support that fabricated case and their flawed Prime Minister. The House passed the motion by 412 to 149. I was among the 149 and it is the proudest vote of my 15 years in this House.
It was a vote that more or less defined and characterised the previous Labour Government—just as the vote to leave Europe will characterise this Conservative Government. There are parallels if we look underneath what happened. Both were a reckless gamble. There was no planning for what transpired when it comes to Brexit and there was no planning, as we have learned from Chilcot, by the Labour Government and the rest of our allies for what transpired once they embarked upon that campaign. It is curious when big events characterise particular Governments and the previous Labour Government will forever be characterised by Iraq.
However, the war was all about one man. My apologies to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, but it is about Tony Blair. There is no escaping the personal association of the former Prime Minister with what transpired in Iraq. It will follow him to the grave and will be on his headstone. Such is his association with the Iraq conflict that he might as well have it tattooed on his forehead. It was about that man and about how he approached the war.
I have listened carefully to many of the speeches from honourable colleagues who were Members of this House on that day in 2003. I think we can group them into three categories, and I will try to help the House by defining what those are. I am in the first category, which is those who voted against the war, took a consistent line and did not accept for a minute the nonsensical case presented to us. Today, we feel in a pretty good place. I am looking around at some of my honourable colleagues who were in the House that day, particularly the Liberal Democrats. I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats, who had our place back in 2003, for the way they led the case against the war. [Interruption.] I also pay tribute to the Labour Members—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) can take it easy, as I acknowledge the Labour Members who opposed their Whip. As he said, it was the biggest rebellion during that Government. I pay tribute to those Members, too, because they saw through this and were prepared to reject the fabricated, nonsensical case from the Prime Minister. They did the right thing, and I congratulate them, too.
On a brief point of information, I should say that historically this was British political history’s biggest rebellion within a governing party. Some 122 Back-Bench colleagues in the Labour party voted on the motion that the case was not proven; only 119 voted with the Government—under immense pressure from the Whips and others, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of that, and he is right. This is why it is important to set out the context of what that day was like. It was a horrible, ugly, dreadful day, and we can never get around some of the things that went on.
Let me get on to the Conservatives, as the second category is mainly comprised of them. I have listened to several Conservative Members. I cannot recall which one made this case earlier, but there is a sense among Conservative Members that they were misled. They range from those who are angry and upset about the way they were duped by the former Prime Minister, to those like the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), who resigned as Prime Minister yesterday, who are a bit more morose and philosophical about it. They say, “A Prime Minister was giving us information. We had to go along with it because it was a Prime Minister and of course he will know all this.” What the Conservative party failed to do—it absolutely failed to do this on that day—was hold that Labour Government to account; it did not question and it was not inquisitive. It did not look at the case presented to it and say, “Hold on a minute, this is a lot of nonsense.” It should have known—the rest of the country knew this was wrong.
Some 100,000 people marched through Glasgow—I was at the front of that procession with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond)—and 1 million people in London marched against that war. More than that, there was an atmosphere in the nation among the public, who just knew profoundly that something was wrong with this case. They knew instinctively that what they were hearing night after night from Tony Blair and all his cronies was uncomfortable—there was something wrong. The Conservatives should have picked that up. Had they done their job, we would not have been presented with this utter failure and disaster.
Let me now deal with those in the third and last category, and I have listened to some of them today. They seem almost still to be making the case for war, as if that was somehow justified and right. They point to all sorts of things, saying, “The world’s a better place without Saddam.” Well, of course it is, but what a price we have paid. What world do these people live on? We have seen half a million people dead; a region destabilised; a generation radicalised; foreign policy discredited like never before—and it is unlikely that we will ever restore that faith in foreign policy again; and distrust in politics. That was a key point when the public fell out of trust with what we did in this House. And what about the place where Saddam was removed? Of course, we all welcome that, but no one, least of all the Iraqis who have to live with the consequences, would start to suggest that Iraq is a better place now than in 2002.
The hon. Gentleman just said that this decision led to the public losing faith in this House, but many of the accusations that were made against the Government are not found in the Chilcot report. Those led to people coming to that conclusion about this House. Does he not accept that that day was difficult for all of us? Even those who voted against were not certain that we were making the right decision. We cannot be so exact about our judgment call on that day. Surely he can accept that those who voted in favour did so believing that they were doing the right thing. At least he could be graceful about that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, as it brings me on to my next point, which is that we should look at the case for the war. I believe he was in the House in 2003—
The hon. Gentleman, like me, will therefore have been recalled to Parliament in September 2002. We would march to the Members’ Lobby and take out what has become known as “the dodgy dossier”. Did he, for a minute, believe the fabricated nonsense it contained? The case for war was appalling. As we find out from Chilcot now, most of it came from the post-doctoral thesis of a student called Ibrahim al-Marashi. I have just read a report from him, and he is now saying that his evidence and his post-doctoral work were doctored by the Government at the time. That was the case for war—the hon. Gentleman had to make a judgement on it, as did I—and it was nonsensical. It was fabricated and it was a flight of fancy, but it was what we were asked to go to war on. It was a disgrace. This was like a comedy sketch for a case to go to war on; it was more sexed up than some teenage starlet embarking on their first video. That is what I would say about the dodgy dossier. It was an appalling document and this House should never have been taken in for a minute with the rubbish included in it.
I listened to Tony Blair last week and I was appalled at what I heard in his response: the lack of contrition; the half-hearted apology, which will probably do nothing other than incense the victims; the flights of fancy still there, almost with an attempt to rewrite several sections of the Chilcot report; and the failure to acknowledge the enormity of what was unleashed. What happened was appalling, and so several things now have to happen.
My view is that we are not at the end of the process, despite having had 1 million-odd words; there is still a journey to go in this sorry saga in which this House has been involved. We are not at the conclusion in terms of what happened in Iraq. That is mainly because of a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) have raised: Chilcot was not able to judge on the legality of this conflict. We still have that extra mile to go to see whether this was an illegal war. Until we get that verdict, big issues will remain outstanding on the assessment of the conflict. There are further journeys to go on, which may disappoint hon. Members who have waited years and years for the Chilcot report.
The second thing that must happen is that those who are responsible for the biggest foreign policy disaster ever—this is bigger than Suez—must be held to account for the decisions they made, for the things they did in the course of the conflict and for how it was pursued. I overwhelmingly support the case that the chief architect—the designer—of the Iraq war, Mr Tony Blair, should be brought in front of this House to face the charges that have been suggested. I hope that the House gets that opportunity to discuss this, because the public expect us to do it. They do not want us, after all this time, to let it go. The only people who have lost their jobs in the course of the conflict are two BBC journalists. Is that not an appalling way to leave things? That has to be addressed and I believe that there is a real public desire to move to the next stage now, which is holding people to account. I hope we do that.
I hated every minute of the debate about the Iraq war—the build-up to it and the post-conflict resolution. It was dreadful; it was this House at its worst. We must never get there again. If there is one thing we can take from this, it is to learn lessons and never to do this again. We must hold the people responsible to account. We must apologise for that conflict and start to try to move on from all of this. Let us vow that we will never do something like the Iraq war ever again in this Parliament.
Many important lessons will emerge over the coming months and years, and of course deep sympathy must persist for the people of Iraq and the families of the members of our outstanding armed forces who fell in the line of duty. I shall focus on the Iraq inquiry’s immediate lessons for the leadership of our country, in which this House has such a vital role.
First, may I offer some historical perspective? It is worth noting some similarities between the times that we are living through now and the last period of our recent history that was similarly defined by what I would describe as political sclerosis. During the first half of the 20th century, we witnessed the collapse of empires—the Ottoman empire and our own; we saw the failure of an intergovernmental institution—the League of Nations; and we endured economic turbulence and depression. Such dramatic geopolitical change was fuelled by remarkable technological change, with the mass transit of people and advanced weapons of war, along with large armies, which resulted in appalling human cost in two world wars.
Today we are experiencing similar geopolitical change with an expansionist China, a resurgent Russia, and a socially unstable and perhaps more parochial United States of America. We have the mass transit of data rather than of people, and globalisation, which brings with it opportunities and costs. Drones have replaced tanks and the potential for space-based weaponry looms. Within the context of this dramatic change, the new Government must set their path. A crucial lesson from the Iraq inquiry’s report is that we have to be better prepared to provide great leadership at historic tipping points for our nation and for our world.
It was not wrong to wish to depose Saddam Hussein, but the way in which the US-led coalition went about it has had effects that were predicted by many experts. Those effects were perfectly foreseeable, and they were catastrophic for the Iraqi people and also for our own regional interests. Our own country’s leadership at every level, from the Prime Minister down, was far too weak to deliver a good outcome.
I note that we are again at a critical moment—this time in the history of our own nation and continent. Delivering a good long-term outcome once again depends on this House supplying the best possible leadership now. The ties that have bound our nation, our communities and our people at home and abroad are severely strained, and some are breaking. Our people mistrust those whom they have elected to represent their interests and lead our nation. As in 2003, decisions taken quickly today will have enormous ramifications over the coming decades, like the proverbial flap of the butterfly’s wings in one part of the world that creates a hurricane in another.
It is at such critical moments that we require great leadership: leadership with the experience and perspective to see our nation’s role clearly; leadership with the wisdom and understanding to realise what must be done; and leadership with the vision to set clear direction, the tenacity to deliver a plan, and the good sense to adapt when the context changes, as it always does. In other words, we must not be sclerotic. We need leadership with the selflessness and self-awareness to put the public interest and public service at its heart. We need leadership that will forge our future, not allow us to be carried off on the currents of history to an unknown and unwanted destination.
Our new Prime Minister has taken an important step in setting out her vision for a country that works for everyone. This Government and the previous one have made welcome changes. Notably, the National Security Council structures enable more strategic decision making in our national interests.
One of the lessons that I took from the Chilcot report was about a habit that we who have been to Sandhurst had beaten out of us: starting with our aim and retrofitting justifications to suit that. At this time of change in our national leadership, would my hon. Friend welcome any calls that might be made to the new Prime Minister to have a robust team of people to provide counter-narratives at times of key decision making, to test hypotheses and to make sure that when difficult decisions have to be made, that is done in the best possible way?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Yes, over the past 10 to 15 years, we have seen too much evidence of the absence of people speaking truth to power in the room that matters. I am hopeful that the elevation of our new Prime Minister will usher in a period in which we do listen to experts, and in which we are prepared to listen to those who might have a different view and a different approach to the world in which we live.
The changes to the National Security Council are nowhere near enough to guarantee good leadership, which means that we are running an unacceptable level of risk with the security of our people, our nation and our world. The referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is the latest example. I was no fan of our country’s previous relationship with the EU. It had to change, but holding a referendum on our membership was, I fear, a strategic blunder that will have an adverse impact on our country and our world over the coming years and decades.
We must avoid further such blunders in the future because we face existential threats, and those threats cross borders. They are by their very nature trans-national: international terrorism; radicalisation; a resurgent Russia and an expansionist China that do not respect current borders; cyber-security; organised crime; pandemics; and environmental degradation. Dealing with all these requires us to work with other nations.
We must now set out our geopolitical priorities. We must properly fund the objective to increase our influence around the world. We must revisit government and how it works. Wisdom and experience must be at the heart of our decision making. We must put people who know what they are doing in charge of delivering, and they must stay in their jobs long enough to see them through.
We must urgently overhaul how we identify and nurture future leaders. Our people must once again be able to trust the aims, intentions and abilities of those who lead our country. We have to provide leaders who are worthy of that trust. Earning it back will be painstaking work. This House must insist that we now go much further. Only then will Members be able, in all conscience, to reassure those whom we represent that our nation will have the leadership it needs, when it needs it.
I have had a very long involvement with Iraq. For Members who were not here in the 1980s, the 1990s and even the beginning of the 2000s, let me say that I spoke many times in this Chamber about the regime in Iraq. I chaired an organisation called CARDRI—the Committee against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq—which had many members in this country and overseas. We published several books by academics and people who lived in Iraq about the situation in the country. Somebody who is now the representative of Iraq in South Korea would come here almost every other week with a list of people who had been executed at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Sometimes the accounts of their executions and their torture were so dreadful that I would say to him, “Are you sure this is right?” He would then come back, perhaps a week later, and say, “Yes, it was right, and here’s another long list.” We therefore had no doubt what the situation was in Iraq, and CARDRI existed for a number of years.
When I came back from the European Parliament in 1984, I was asked to chair an organisation called Indict, which was set up with American and Kuwaiti backing. The Kuwaitis, of course, had a particular interest in finding those Kuwaitis who had been captured during Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. For many years we searched for those missing people—or their graves.
The organisation had a team of researchers and its aim was to collect evidence against Iraqi war criminals. In particular, we had a list of the 12 most wanted, and we collected detailed evidence about a great number of them because the idea was to bring them to court. By the mid-1990s, a body of law existed that allowed human rights abusers to be brought to court. The development of international law was slow; even though laws existed, their application depended on institutions and Governments that had their own political agendas. A new ruling by the International Court of Justice, for example, blocked indictments of ruling heads of state. Therefore, whatever evidence we had against Saddam Hussein, we could not use it in a court of law, unlike in the case of Slobodan Miloševic, who was brought before an international court.
That still left key members of the regime open to indictment, however. We had a great deal of evidence, for example, against Tariq Aziz, who was then the Foreign Minister in Iraq. We also had plenty of evidence against Ali Hassan al-Majid—Chemical Ali. I had meetings with the UN special rapporteur on torture, Max van der Stoel, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, and with Secretary-General Kofi Annan. I also addressed several international conferences and tried to spell out what we were doing.
We needed evidence that would stand up in court, so we dismissed a lot of the evidence that we felt would not. We had guidance from a top human rights barrister, Clare Montgomery, QC. Our researchers worked hard interviewing thousands of people over five or six years to collect testimonies. Once the evidence had been gathered and analysed by our legal team, the role of myself and Indict’s other board members was to persuade lawmakers in the relevant country that there was enough evidence to indict the people concerned. We came close to a prosecution in Belgium, but it changed its laws at the last minute because someone had tried to indict Israeli leader Ariel Sharon.
The right hon. Lady is trying to persuade us that Saddam Hussein was a vile dictator. We all accept that, but that was not the case for war. The case for war was based on weapons of mass destruction. She argued strongly in favour of the war. Has she changed her mind on the basis of the evidence?
When I come to the relevant section in my speech, the hon. Gentleman will get his answer.
We went to Switzerland, Norway and Belgium. We had a good case in Norway, and I travelled there several times to meet senior law officers. However, just as in Britain, there were lots of warm words, but there was no action. We were therefore trying hard to avoid a war; we thought there was an alternative. We tried to make the case—I made it in this Chamber over many years, and the hon. Gentleman would have heard it had he been here—that there were alternatives. Unfortunately, all the authorities prevaricated, and the issue dragged on without getting anywhere.
Meanwhile, our main funders, the Americans, were having a change of heart. The Clinton Administration had originally been enthusiastic, wanting us to campaign in the US as well as in Europe, but they suddenly changed their mind. They had moved to a policy of containment, not indictment, so our activities no longer really fitted in with their plans. However, the organisation had been set up in this country, so we continued collecting the evidence.
We turned our attention, in particular, to Tariq Aziz, because of his involvement in the taking of British hostages. People forget that British hostages were taken in Kuwait, and we never had proper answers about why they were there and why their plane landed there. Saddam Hussein had already taken Kuwait, and those people were taken as human shields.
I presented our evidence to the Attorney General, Lord Williams of Mostyn. I had several meetings with him and continually pressured members of his team to take action, because they were not moving fast enough. They kicked their heels for a number of years, and our top barrister could not understand why, given the evidence that we had presented. We had as much evidence as we could possibly need. Apart from getting a signed confession from Saddam Hussein in his own blood, there was nothing further, legally, we could have done.
I would occasionally spot Lord Williams at Westminster, and I would take off after him, chasing him down the corridors. He would frequently joke that he was having to duck into the gents to try to avoid me. One day he said, “I’ve got good news for Indict.” He said he was going to refer the case against Tariq Aziz to Scotland Yard. I looked at him and said, “You’re kicking it into the long grass,” but he denied that that was the case. The Indict team, which was obviously made up mainly of Iraqis, duly visited a Chief Superintendent Bunn in New Scotland Yard. We talked about the evidence we had and offered to help him by providing more, but we never heard a single word back. That is understandable in some ways; it was not Scotland Yard’s remit, and it had neither the resources nor the expertise, and certainly not the interest.
We came in for some ridicule from the British press —the typical tabloid fare, with cartoons of British bobbies apprehending Saddam Hussein—but a good opportunity was missed. I make that point because there were alternatives, but those alternatives, for whatever reasons, were not pursued in the way that I and many other Members would have wished.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), who was of great assistance when we were looking at many of these matters. He was a very wise counsel, and he assisted the Iraqis in many ways.
I became aware of human rights atrocities in Iraq before I was a politician, in the 1970s. I met Iraqi students in Cardiff, and I am sure some of my Scottish friends will have met Iraqi students in Scotland. Some of those students had been imprisoned. I met a couple from Basra. One of them—he was a student activist—had been in prison and gone through a mock execution. I came to learn later on that that was only the tip of the iceberg.
In 1991, when I was the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, I stood up in Parliament and described what I had seen in the mountains of Iraq and Iran when the Kurds fled from Saddam’s helicopter gunships. Those scenes were appalling and typical of the attacks made by the Iraqi regime on Iraqis. Sometime later, I met an Iraqi who made the point that Saddam had killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. He said, “The biggest weapon of mass destruction was Saddam. Why did it take so long for him to be removed?” Many Kurds were killed during the genocidal Anfal campaign, including as a result of the barbarous use of chemical weapons in Halabja.
In 1988, I took some women Members of all parties to a London hospital to see a number of the horribly burned victims. Many people were killed brutally, in cold blood, in a maze of prison and torture chambers all over the country. Repression, abuse, ethnic cleansing and extra-judicial killings continued right up until 2003.
Saddam, without doubt, was a serious threat to domestic, regional and global stability. I had hoped that the international community could remove or neutralise him without force, but sanctions failed, international indictment never took place and UN Security Council resolutions were ignored time after time. All had been tried; all had failed. So from 1997 to 2003, I worked to get Saddam and leading members of his regime prosecuted under international law for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, on the basis of rock-solid witness testimony. The evidence was finally used in the trials of Saddam, Tariq Aziz and others when they eventually stood trial in Baghdad. I was very pleased to be there to witness some of those trials. I knew that our evidence was being used; I saw it in the rooms behind the chamber where they were being tried.
In February 2003, the Kurds were terrified that chemical weapons would be used against them again. I saw the rockets in mountains on the Iraqi-Kurdish border. From 2003 onwards, more secrets of this evil and despotic regime were revealed. I stood on a huge mound in the open air, on several acres in al-Hillah, near Babylon, where about 10,000 bodies were being disinterred from a mass grave, mostly Shi’a Muslims.
On one of more than 20 visits to Iraq as special envoy on human rights, I opened the first genocide museum in Kurdistan. It was snowing, the sky was black and people crammed into the building, where their relatives had been tortured, many to death. There were photos of skulls and shreds of clothing. Former detainees had written messages on the cell walls. Sometimes, the writing was in blood; sometimes, there were just marks to cross off the days of the week. One very old woman came up to me with a bit of plastic in her hand. I unwrapped it and saw three photos. They were of her husband and two sons, who had been killed in that place.
Over the past few days, since the report of the Chilcot inquiry, to which I gave evidence for a whole afternoon, very few voices of Iraqis have been heard. I have here the words of Dr Latif Rashid, who is currently the senior adviser to the Iraqi President. In 2003, he was appointed as Water Minister in Baghdad, and he was very successful. He managed, over a few years, to re-flood the marshes where the Marsh Arabs had been so cruelly displaced. This is what he says:
“It must be remembered that at the time not only did Prime Minister Blair and President Bush wish to remove Saddam Hussain from power in Iraq, but so did most of the entire spectrum of the Iraqi opposition (including Kurds, Arabs, Shia, and all other minorities that make up the Iraq) and most of the international community.
The Iraqi opposition lobbied Governments throughout the world, and we, as representatives of the Iraqi opposition, believe that Prime Minister Blair and President Bush were acting in response to the Iraqi people and to protect them, on the basis of evidence available at that time.
There was concrete evidence that Saddam Hussain was complicit and had instructed organised campaigns of genocide, torture, war, ethnic cleansing and use of chemical/biological weapons against the Iraqi population as well as neighbouring countries. We are still finding the mass graves of the nearly one million Iraqis murdered as a result of his actions.
Although Iraq currently has its problems, I believe they are the result of Iraqis themselves. We will always remain grateful for the support shown by Tony Blair, and the British Government and British Parliament at that time.”
I have the utmost respect for the right hon. Lady for all the work she has done over the years to try to get evidence against this regime. It is incredible work, and I pay great tribute to her. I have one question. I have never really understood where the chemical weapons went—where did they go?
That is a very interesting question. I can only speculate, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has done. There is evidence that some of them went to Syria, but there are still unanswered questions. The Kurds, in particular, truly believed that there were weapons of mass destruction. I myself never used that argument for intervention, because I did not know the answers. However, I did use the humanitarian argument, because I thought it was important that the world should not turn its face away from the horrors that were going on in Iraq.
I want to make a plea for continuing engagement with Iraq. The needs of the Iraqis are great. I, personally, have continued my association with Iraqis and with the Kurds. I am very well aware of their problems at this time, particularly the continuing threat of ISIS and Daesh. It is not true to say that such people did not exist in Iraq before the war. They existed in Kurdistan, for example, under the name of Ansar al-Islam, and at that time the Americans managed to get them out. We still need to protect the minorities of Iraq—there are so many of them. We have a responsibility to continue to assist that country in any way we can.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. To try to accommodate all remaining colleagues, there will now be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, with immediate effect. [Interruption.] I hardly think that is a cause for the exhalation of air; 10 minutes is perfectly adequate. I know that what colleagues have to say is immensely important, but I dare say they can do it in 10 minutes each.
So we now have the Chilcot report. Seven long years we have waited for this report of 2.6 million words. It has cost a huge amount of money. After seven years, Sir John Chilcot comes up with this sentence:
“We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.”
It took seven years to come up with that conclusion. It took so long that one of the five members of the inquiry actually died during the proceedings. I pay tribute to the speeches that were made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), and to today’s speech by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).
I was absolutely sickened when I saw the interview with the former Labour Prime Minister on television. I thought that if anyone deserved an Oscar, it was him. After everything that we now know has happened, instead of apologising, like the noble Lord Prescott, the then Deputy Prime Minister, who has admitted that he got it wrong and made huge mistakes, the then Prime Minister told us that if he was presented with the same facts—what a joke!—he would do absolutely the same again.
I am delighted that we are having a two-day debate on the Chilcot report, but to be frank, the timing is not great, because both the major parties are distracted by the question of who will lead them. At least the Conservatives have come to a conclusion on that, but I have no doubt that Conservative Members are today distracted by the question of who will become a Minister. Given how distracted we have been over the past two days, the Chilcot report deserves better scrutiny, because it has affected the whole world, not just the future of the Labour and Conservative parties. I am very disappointed that the two Prime Ministers did not intervene and say to Sir John Chilcot, “Seven years is absolutely ridiculous. We should have had the report much more quickly.”
I want to draw on five elements of the report. The first centres on the misrepresentation of French declarations relating to their potential veto of any further UN resolution. Sir Stephen Wall, Mr Blair’s European Union adviser, told the Iraq inquiry that, following Chirac’s statement, he heard Mr Blair telling Alastair Campbell, the director of communications at No. 10, to play the anti-French card with The Sun and others. Well, that is nice, isn’t it?
Secondly, on statements relating to suspected Iraqi stockpiles of chemical weapons, Mr Blair gave a speech that gave the impression that the overwhelming evidence supported the view that Iraq had retained significant stocks of chemical weapons, in material breach of United Nations resolution 1441. In reality, the report did not claim that Iraq possessed banned weapons, merely that material was “unaccounted for”.
The third element I want to draw on centres on statements relating to suspected Iraqi stockpiles of biological weapons. Mr Blair confused the distinction between biological weapons existing and their being unaccounted for, and the evidence did not support his representations to the House that Iraq had significant stockpiles of viable biological weapons.
Fourthly, on statements relating to Hussein Kamel’s evidence regarding Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programme, by selectively quoting from General Kamel’s evidence and by omitting his claims that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme had been closed in 1991, Mr Blair misled this House of Commons as to the extent of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programme.
Finally, on statements relating to the consequences of the Iraq war on the threat of terrorism to the United Kingdom, Baroness Manningham-Buller—head of MI5, no less, at the time of the Iraq war—gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry regarding her department’s assessment of the effect of joining the war on the risk of terrorism. Responding to the question of whether United Kingdom participation in the Iraq war would increase the threat of terrorism in the UK, she said:
“I think you will see from our report in early 2003, which is reflected in the JIC reporting, that the threat from Al-Qaeda would increase”.
She went on to explain that she thought that the Iraq war
“is highly significant and the JIC assessments that I have reminded myself of say that…our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people, some British citizens—not a whole generation, a few among a generation—who were—saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.”
It is clear from the evidence provided to the Iraq inquiry that Mr Blair was made aware of the evidence that the war would increase the risk of terrorist activity in the United Kingdom, and that he misled the House about how the conflict would impact on terrorist activities.
How many times have we heard someone say today, “There are lessons to be learned from the Chilcot report”? Since I have been in the House, I have seen at first hand how most significant political careers end in tears, so I am not sure how those lessons will actually be learned. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet has said that he hopes that you would look favourably, Mr Speaker, on a request for a debate on the subject of contempt of this House. If we did nothing, that would be an insult to the families who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Those families will take their own action—I understand that—but this, for goodness’ sake, is the mother of all Parliaments. We cannot just sweep this under the table as if nothing had happened. What is the point of being a Member of Parliament and coming here if we do not admit that we got it wrong? We did get it wrong, and I am one of the people who got it wrong: I voted the wrong way, and I very much regret that.
Many current Members were not here in 2003, but we owe it to everyone to make sure that we put right the wrong for which we were responsible, and hold the former Prime Minister, the then leader of the Labour party, to account for the way in which he misled this Parliament.
I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). I was here in 2003 and I am one of the people who got it right. I sat on the Back Bench—I was not called to speak, but I heard the entire debate—and listened to the evidence presented to me by the then Prime Minister. I made my decision based on the evidence, and I believed then, as I believe now, that I made the right decision. I know that the report has taken an awful long time to arrive, but it is very good and valuable.
I want to talk about the context and where we found ourselves in 2003. It is very important that we remember what happened on 9/11 in 2001, because much of what we discussed in the period leading up to the war was seen through the prism of the attack on the World Trade Centre. As a new MP, I visited the United Nations in New York in November 2001. It was an extraordinary time and the visit was a moving experience, but we could also feel the entirely understandable strength of feeling in the United States about what had happened. That resulted in military intervention in Afghanistan, which was broadly supported, not just in this House, but right across the world.
One of the most extraordinary things that I saw at the UN in November 2001 was a committee chaired by UK Special Representative Sir Jeremy Greenstock taking evidence on and auditing terrorist activity in countries across the middle east. For a very short period before the Iraq war, there was a feeling and a sentiment that we could make some progress in dealing with international terrorism. Unfortunately, however, a linkage was very quickly developed between what happened in New York in September 2001 and the issue of Iraq. There were people who developed an agenda trying to draw together what happened at the World Trade Centre and the problem of Iraq. That was in the air, and was referred to in the various discussions that we had. So although there was no direct evidence of any links at all between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, there was usage of a broad description of international terrorism to justify the steps that were being taken.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it was risible to try to associate the secular Saddam Hussein with fundamentalist Islamists, given that the two had a mutual loathing for one another?
That is absolutely right. It would have been very convenient for those who wanted to take military action in Iraq if they could have made a linkage, but clearly there was none. In all the discussions we had in the lead-up to the war, no linkage was established.
Immediately after the vote in 2003, there was, for me, a terrible sense of inevitability about the military action in Iraq. I am reminded of the fact that the historian A. J. P. Taylor talked about the importance of railway timetables at the beginning of the first world war. When approaching the vote in March 2003, I had that idea in my mind. It seemed to me that we were on a road that was leading to an inevitable conclusion. Very interestingly, paragraph 830 of Sir John Chilcot’s report states:
“A military timetable should not be allowed to dictate a diplomatic timetable”.
I believe that, at the time of the vote, that is exactly what happened.
I recall very well the work of Hans Blix and the UN weapons inspectors. I watched Hans Blix very closely in the build-up to March 2003, when I was deciding how to vote. It seemed to me that he was doing his best to establish the position on weapons of mass destruction. On 18 March 2003, he was asking for more time. On the basis of the information that I heard in the debate, I thought it was right to give him more time. That is why I voted in the way that I did and why I supported the amendment.
Interestingly, a couple of years after the vote, I attended a meeting in the House of Commons at which Hans Blix spoke. I recall that he said that, in March 2003, he believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I had not known that on the day that I cast my vote, and it is extraordinary that he said it. It seems that he had a similar view to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair: he had a genuine, honest belief. The difference was that he wanted more time to investigate it further, and the Prime Minister did not allow us more time so to do. In March 2003, the drum beat to war quickened, and that is why military action happened. That is not a good reason for military action.
The then US Government, acting in the long shadow of 9/11, included people with an agenda to intervene in the middle east. They used that context to justify the intervention. In the immediate post-9/11 period, they made some really bad judgment calls. In Iran, moderate forces had been holding sway before 2003. George Bush then made his dreadful “axis of evil” speech, which was part of the process that shattered any chance of a unified response to 9/11. The alienation of Iran also had a massive negative impact on the post-war period in Iraq and undermined progress towards reconstruction. It was a massive mistake for the UK Government and Tony Blair to support the Bush and US agenda at that time.
I am quite certain that Tony Blair acted in good faith. In March 2003, I think he believed, like Hans Blix, that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. I believe that it was through UK insistence that the US agreed to involve the UN as much as it did. However, when the UN weapons inspectors asked for more time in March 2003, the allies should have given it to them. As Sir John Chilcot concludes at paragraph 339 of the report:
“At the time of the parliamentary vote of 18 March, diplomatic options had not been exhausted. The point had not been reached where military action was the last resort”.
On the information available to me, a Back Bencher, at the time, I voted against the Labour Whip for the first time, along with many of my Labour colleagues. The Liberal Democrats—the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) is sitting next to me—the nationalist parties and some Conservatives did the same. The official Conservative Opposition, however, supported military action in a largely unquestioning way.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend’s recollection is the same as mine. My recollection is that, prior to the debate and the statement by the Prime Minister, which was criticised by the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), the Conservatives had been calling for action earlier, before that evidence was presented. For them to turn up now and say that it was all because of what Tony Blair said on that day is a little disingenuous.
I would not go quite that far, because I am more kindly than my hon. Friend. My recollection is that the Leader of the Opposition got this completely and utterly wrong. The official Opposition failed in their constitutional duty to ask the difficult questions and hold the Government to account. It was left to other parties in the House and the Labour Back Benchers to hold the Government to account. The failure of the official Opposition to challenge the Prime Minister and the Government effectively made his wrong decision easier. This is a big lesson for the official Opposition today.
There were a number of things that the Government did right on the Iraq issue. For example, they did hold a vote. It should be remembered that that was, I think, the first time that that had happened.
I think the hon. Gentleman is being slightly disingenuous in this. There were only 165 Conservative Members of Parliament. It is not as though we were a huge Opposition. I think he is slightly misrepresenting things.
Order. Members should not use the word “disingenuous”. The hon. Member for Southend West thinks that there has been a misrepresentation, which I am sure he thinks is inadvertent. We will leave it there.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I took no offence and understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. It is difficult to be a small Opposition. None the less, it is important to ask the difficult questions. I am afraid that the Leader of the Opposition got this completely wrong.
As I mentioned, the Government did do some things right. They made statements on a regular basis and we asked a lot of questions. That changed the nature of the relationship between Government and Parliament on questions of military action. We have seen the consequences of that in the more recent decision on Libya and Syria. [Interruption.] I am sorry to interrupt the conversation happening at the other end of the Chamber.
On the main issue of taking military action in Iraq in March 2003, Tony Blair and the Labour Government made a huge, honest error. That is supported by the Chilcot report and is a conclusion with which I agree.
The decision to commit to the US neo-con agenda of an invasion of Iraq was, and remains, the biggest political misjudgement in foreign policy in my political lifetime. I gave evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. The inquiry was an opportunity that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair could have seized to say, “I made a serious misjudgement. I was wrong, but at the time I thought I was doing the right thing.” Instead, we had equivocal apologies that were really about the circumstances: “Sorry that people got injured and that some people died.” That was not enough. Had the former Prime Minister taken that opportunity, he would have healed not only himself, but a fault line in his party and the hurt that has been suffered, to some extent, by the nation and by people across the globe. I am sorry that he missed the opportunity to say that because these things will remain with us for as long as he fails to do so.
The two biggest rebellions within a governing party in British political history took place in February and March 2003. It will not surprise you, Mr Speaker, to hear that I want to talk about the parliamentary aspect. Parliament could have done better, even in those circumstances. It was used and abused by Executive power in the most blatant way, and I will mention some examples of that later.
I recall the hon. Gentleman’s role in formulating a cross-party amendment that was put to the House, and I expect to agree with most of what he will say about the role of Parliament. Before he continues, will he reflect on the fact that Parliament did one thing perfectly at that time? It is to the eternal credit of Michael Martin, the then Speaker, that he selected the hon. Gentleman’s amendment over that tabled by the official Opposition, which would have resulted in no material difference.
I have some things to say about the then Speaker—I will get on to that fairly quickly—but first I will set the context. There was growing unease, certainly from the time of the Crawford talks between Prime Minister Blair and the US President George W. Bush, that we were being set on an inevitable path. It was thought that this was not something that anyone was going to change; it was something that had been agreed and was going to happen, to coin a phrase, “whatever”. That was the thing that frustrated and annoyed parliamentarians. This was a preordained decision, and it was going to happen. That was why I and many, many others felt that, as Chilcot said, this was not hindsight; it was foresight. Anyone who had read in the history books about the religious and tribal composition of Iraq realised that action could set off an incendiary device in the middle east, which was already, even then, in some difficulties.
People talk about the debates and what a wonderful thing they were for Parliament, but we had to drag the Government kicking and screaming to a debate. I wrote to Speaker Martin and suggested the recall of the House. He said that of course we could put our suggestion to the House, when it returned. We therefore would have had to wait for the House to return in order to get the House recalled at an earlier point, and I felt that that was probably not the then Chair’s finest moment.
As there was such clarity among many of the parties in the House about the fact that the House had a role to play, we petitioned, we signed early-day motions and we wrote letters—we did everything humanly possible. In the end, because all that failed, we decided collectively to set up our own alternative Parliament. I hired Church House so that Back-Bench Members of Parliament could speak on the matter. I met the former Speaker, “Jack” Bernard Weatherill, who kindly agreed, putting his own reputation on the line, to be the Speaker of that Parliament. One of the things we agreed was that people would not be left out, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and I had been previously. Jack Weatherill said that he would call every single person who wanted to speak, for 10 minutes at least, even if it meant that his House—we were based at Church House, over the road, because we were not permitted to use our own Chamber—sat until 3 am.
Having got a critical mass of willing Back Benchers, I asked the BBC whether it would cover the debate. The BBC ummed and ahhed, and it finally said that, since the actual Parliament would not be allowed to meet, it would cover the alternative Parliament from the opening to the end of its proceedings. Amazingly, within a day, I received a phone call from Robin Cook, saying, “You lot have won; we are going to recall the proper Parliament.” As he recalls in his diary, my reply was, “My God, that leaves me with a thousand vol-au-vents and 200 bottles of wine on my slate.” I had ordered them to refresh the members of the alternative Parliament, and I am still working my way through the vol-au-vents from my deep freeze.
This was the House at its best, in the sense that Back Benchers came together. Some are still here today, and some are not. They included Charles Kennedy, Chris Smith, Douglas Hogg, Peter Kilfoyle, Tony Lloyd, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the right hon. Members for Gordon (Alex Salmond), for Moray (Angus Robertson) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams), for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and for Angus (Mike Weir). I think about a quarter remain. We decided collectively how the resolutions, the amendments and our external relations should be framed. That was an example of Members of Parliament working together in an excellent way. On 24 September, Parliament was recalled and the debate was held. It was on a motion for the Adjournment, so not many people voted at that point.
We raised collectively a series of issues about how the House works, one of which was the question of legal advice to Members of Parliament. We were in a position where some of us could have been arraigned before the International Court of Justice, so we needed to know what the truth was. The then Clerk of the House said, “Yes, Mr Allen, I will get you some legal advice.” I thought, “Wonderful,” and I was sent off to the lawyer that the House employs to deal with health and safety matters, who assumed that some sort of accident had happened in the office and I was being taken to court. That was not of great help, although that was not the lawyer’s fault. The House and Members should have had legal advice, just as the Government had legal advice, which would, in itself, prove to be relatively controversial.
Another issue that arose was the question of war-making powers. We in this House should define how we are involved. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee worked hard to come up with a sensible set of words that would allow a response in the event of immediate threat of attack, but with the House being consulted where appropriate. In a proper democracy, the Executive and the legislature work together.
Another issue is the recall of the House. Instead of having a farcical arrangement, we should allow the Speaker to say, “On the balance of what I have heard from people on this issue, there is a very strong feeling that the House should be recalled.” That would be better than a dozen people doing it, or 550 people not being allowed to do it. The Speaker should be given that power to recall, rather than the Government having the power to ask the Speaker to do that.
A further issue—this could not be dealt with in the Standing Orders—is a free vote on war. In the first vote on Wednesday 26 February, 122 Labour Back Benchers voted against the proposal, while 119 Labour Back Benchers voted with the Government. I am absolutely confident that if those Back Benchers had been allowed to make their own decision rather than being pressured by Whips, being asked to see the Prime Minister—even being asked to see the Prime Minister’s wife, on certain occasions—and being got at relentlessly, the number of Labour Members would have been much more than 122. I would guess that a rump of about 20 or 30 Members would have voted with the Government, and that would have put them in a very difficult position.
Some of the Conservative Members who stood with us on that day deserve a mention at this point, after Chilcot. I have not spoken about this issue at any length since the decision for war because I thought my job was to support the young men and women of my constituency who went to war. I put it on record that the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) gave up a potential ministerial career. The hon. Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who are all still with us, also did so, as did good colleagues such as Peter Ainsworth, John Gummer and others who are no longer with us in this House. They all put their necks out very extensively.
Finally, on 18 March, we came to the vote on the amendment stating that the case for war was not established. Some 139 Labour colleagues supported that out of the total number of 217 MPs in favour. The number therefore went up, despite the immense pressure that was being put on people.
We went to war; we won the war. We lost the peace and we are now reaping the whirlwind. Let Parliament be strong “whatever”.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and hear the historical background from his perspective.
Two weeks ago, many of us spoke in a moving debate on the centenary of the battle of the Somme. Throughout these islands and beyond, the events of 100 years ago were commemorated, and one recurring theme in this House and elsewhere was the importance of treasuring the young lives of our soldiers. When we read about the senseless slaughter of the Somme, we like to think that we are more sophisticated and less gullible than previous generations—that we are more concerned with the lives of others, whether our own soldiers or civilians abroad. Yet in this House, in very recent history, we voted for a war that was an unpardonable folly.
On 18 March 2003, 411 MPs followed Tony Blair into the Aye Lobby, unleashing the forces of hell in Iraq; 139 of those MPs still serve in Parliament today. It must be difficult to live with that vote. But rather than accept personal responsibility, too many say, “If I had known then what I know now, I would never have voted for the war.” That is what I want to focus on, because I do not buy it. It is too easy a cop-out. Tony Blair has become so discredited that he is a convenient depository for shared guilt. “It was his golden oratory that bamboozled me,” say some MPs. They talk of seductive mendacity, or ask who could have questioned our security services in all their wisdom. They say that they believed Colin Powell and his illustrated talk at the UN with its cartoon mock-up of mobile laboratories on trucks and that they fell for his dire warnings that the secular Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with the fundamentalist Osama bin Laden, however culturally illiterate that claim was. It was just all so convincing, they say—if they had only known then what they know now. It is all nonsense.
We did know then much of what we know now, and if we did not, it was because we chose not to absorb the expert opinion available at the time. We knew then that Saddam Hussein had once possessed chemical weapons. He had used them in the 1980s against the Kurds, the Iranians and the Shi’a. However, we also knew that the implementation from 1991 until the war in 2003 of two no-fly zones, one in the north of Iraq and one in the south, prevented any further chemical attacks, as those chemical weapons could no longer be dropped. Even at their height, Saddam Hussein’s powers had limits. In 1991, 39 scud missiles were fired at Israel—I was there at the time, as a journalist. They were crudely targeted at Tel Aviv, and killed no one.
Even if Saddam Hussein could not fire his chemical weapons, might they somehow have become a threat on the battlefield? In the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Gulf war, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq was set up to inspect Iraqi weapons facilities. It maintained a presence in the country for several years. There was broad agreement among experts that Iraq was not an imminent threat. Those weapons that had been used against Iranian and Kurdish opponents had been destroyed or were degraded beyond use.
Let us remind ourselves of what the experts said at the time. Scott Ritter, a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, stated in 2002 that
“since 1998 Iraq has been fundamentally disarmed: 90-95% of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability has been verifiably eliminated… If Iraq was producing weapons…we would have…proof, plain and simple.”
Experts told us repeatedly that chemical weapons do not have a long shelf life. Ritter stated that Iraqi sarin and tabun had a shelf life of approximately five years. Botulinum toxin and liquid anthrax last about three years. As Members debated the war in this House, they knew that at the height of his powers Saddam had never had the capacity to fire chemical weapons long range and that, even if he had had that power, after years of no-fly zone restrictions and the passage of time, his weapons were degraded and beyond use.
I seem to recall that the hon. Gentleman and I were together in the television studios at the time and that we laughed at the mock-ups of the vehicles that he mentioned. We agreed that if those vehicles existed they could easily be photographed from the skies. We therefore thought that they could not exist: why would they need to make drawings of them when they would be able to get photographs of any actual vehicles?
The hon. Gentleman remembers well. We did indeed sit together in television studios, because we journalists called in experts to ask them for their evidence. It was relatively easy, even as a journalist, to pick apart many of the absurd claims.
Of course, some journalists were screaming for war. The Sun ran the absurd headline “Brits 45mins from doom” about a supposed threat to troops in Cyprus. The Star wrote “Mad Saddam ready to attack: 45 minutes from a chemical war”. It was all nonsense. The journalists who wrote it knew that, but it was terrifying for some Members.
In January 2003, United Nations weapons inspectors reported that they had found no indication whatever that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons or an active programme of chemical weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency at the time found
“no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq.”
The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission said at the time that it
“did not find evidence of the continuation or resumption of programmes of weapons of mass destruction”.
However, US Vice-President Dick Cheney retorted that he believed that Saddam Hussein
“has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. ElBaradei”—
the director general of the IAEA at the time—
“frankly is wrong.”
Who were parliamentarians to believe—the chemical weapons experts, the missiles experts, the IAEA, or Dick Cheney, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and the neo-cons? The House had to make up its mind.
In the run up to the Iraq war, I was working as a journalist, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. Among other things, I was presenting a three-hour daily radio news programme. We had access to experts, as any news journalists do. We called them in and asked them to outline their evidence. Now, I am not a pacifist. I supported NATO action in Bosnia and Kosovo due to the imminent threat to life and the need to save civilians; in fact, I was on the flight back from Iraq—mentioned earlier—with the returning hostages who had fled from Saddam Hussein. However, during interviews with experts and academics in the run-up to the House’s vote, I saw clearly that the case for war was built on exaggeration and deceit. It was blindingly obvious.
Tony Blair frequently told this House and the British people that he was working towards disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. He repeatedly told the House that his aim was not regime change. The House could have been under no illusion about what it was being asked to vote on. Mr Blair said that Saddam was a “very brutal and repressive” leader but that the aim was
“disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, it is not regime change.”
Regime change was not the basis for war. The challenge for the House on the day of the debate was clear. Mr Blair was asking Members to vote on one basis and one basis alone: the imminent danger posed by Saddam’s weaponry.
What if all the experts talking in public were wrong? Was there an elevated group of experts—an inner core with extraordinary knowledge that was unavailable to the ordinary expert? As Members will recall, Tony Blair often said, “If only you could see what crosses my desk, you’d never doubt the danger that we are in and the pressing case for immediate action.”
Does my hon. Friend share my concerns about recent mission creep and the use of intelligence-led drone strikes that are notified to the House only after the event? What does that mean for lessons learned and transparency?
Many Members keep saying that we have learned the lessons of war, but I am not convinced, and neither was I when we had the debate on Syria. Tony Blair made a direct appeal that he had seen privileged information that no one else had seen, and he asked the House to trust him. Many Members have said that that appeal for trust was what swayed them.
There was a direct appeal for Members to ignore the available scientific evidence, but there was one embarrassing hurdle in the way: Robin Cook. I had an extensive interview with Robin Cook after his resignation from the Labour Front Bench on 17 March 2003, and I asked him whether he saw the same briefings as the Prime Minister on Iraq. He said, “Yes, I do.” I asked him what it was that had crossed Mr Blair’s desk that he could not tell us about but that contradicted all the expert evidence. Robin Cook told me that there was nothing—nothing had crossed the Prime Minister’s desk that had not crossed his as Foreign Secretary and nothing had crossed his desk or that of the Prime Minister to suggest an imminent threat from chemical weapons. Robin Cook told me that, on that basis, the war could therefore not be justified. Every MP who listened to that interview, who met Robin Cook in the House or who took on board the opinion of experts at the time would have known that the case presented to this House was flimsy to the point of absurdity.
I am, of course, aware of the pressure that MPs were under. Setting aside their promotion prospects in the Government, tabloid newspapers had launched a vicious campaign against opponents of the war. The Sun published a traitors dartboard—I note that it has since deleted that from its website in the aftermath of the Chilcot report. It ran a front-page showing a picture of a snake and Charles Kennedy with the headline, “Spot the difference. One is a spineless reptile that spits venom...the other’s a poisonous snake.” MPs were frightened that they would be targeted as cowards and peaceniks.
As we survey the carnage of Iraq, with countless civilian lives lost, soldiers’ lives lost and family lives destroyed, it is easy to look for a single scapegoat. Although I share the disdain widely felt for Tony Blair, there is something gutless about attributing all blame for the votes of individual MPs to him and him alone. The truth is that expert information was freely available to any Member who chose to take it.
I welcome the fact that the Government have allocated two days for this debate. This is an opportunity to remind the House that although all Members considered the same evidence, presented to the House by Mr Blair, some—from all parties—came to a different conclusion from others about whether military action was timely or legal.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) is no longer in his place, but I thank him for the service that he has given this country, as have other Members. I reassure him that although I, along with many other Members, marched against the Iraq war, I have always been fully supportive of our troops who were dispatched by our Government to fight that war, or indeed any other war. I have no criticism of them; I might have some for their senior officers, but that is a different matter.
Since the publication of the Chilcot report, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem has provided a helpful summary of events in a speech in the House of Lords:
“We know that the Cabinet was not provided with the full, detailed opinions of the Attorney-General. Sir John Chilcot forcefully finds that that was not proper and should not happen again…He found that military action was not yet the last resort, that diplomatic options were still available, that there was no imminent threat, that Dr Blix and Dr ElBaradei were still able to fulfil their responsibilities, and that there were conflicting views about Resolution 1441. When you add to that Article 2 of the United Nations charter which prohibits regime change, it is a legitimate judgment that this was not a legal war.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 2016; Vol. 774, c. 135.]
We also heard from Lord Tyler, who said that Chilcot was explicit that
“going to war without a majority in the United Nations Security Council ‘undermined the authority of the UN’.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 2016; Vol. 774, c. 144.]
The Liberal Democrats have always put great stead on the importance of supporting the United Nations.
In the same debate, Lord Beith focused on some of the inadequacies in preparation, from a military perspective, by the Ministry of Defence, and asked why there was inadequate preparation for the known dangers of improvised explosive devices, and a failure to provide adequately armoured vehicles. I would therefore like to speak for a few minutes about the focus on post-conflict reconstruction—an area that has not had much of an outing today. Better planning and preparation for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq might not necessarily have prevented the events that have unfolded in Iraq since 2003, but Chilcot identified the major issue that there was no planning to speak of at all for the post-conflict stage.
Before I was elected, I worked in project management, and a cursory examination of paragraph 590—on page 78—onwards of the report’s executive summary highlights that if we consider the work done in Iraq as a project, it failed the most basic tests of initiation and execution for even the smallest project. For instance, is it clear who was responsible for which tasks? Paragraph 593 says no, and that
“the UK assumed that the US would be responsible for preparing the post-conflict plan”.
Were there any contingency plans? Paragraph 601 says that none were made for the possibility of the UK being drawn into a huge commitment of UK resources. Is there clarity about who had the power to take decisions? Paragraph 603 stated that no one had sufficient authority
“to establish a unified planning process across…the FCO, the MOD, DFID and the Treasury.”
Was it clear who was in overall control? Paragraph 609 states that no single person was in charge of
“overseeing all aspects of planning and preparation”.
Were sufficiently trained and experienced people available? Paragraph 610 states:
“The FCO…was not equipped by past experience…to prepare for nation-building of the scale required in Iraq,”.
Were the assumptions challenged? Paragraph 618 states that assumptions were not systematically challenged, and that in fact, they were very seldom challenged. Any project manager—even the most junior one—in IT, construction, or any other field, who designed a project that was as poorly planned, initiated, resourced and executed as this one, would have been sacked. Yet in 2002-03, our Government planned to invade a country, support regime change, introduce democracy, and rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure without so much as a plan written on the back of a fag packet. This lack of planning for the post-conflict period was one of the most shocking aspects of the Iraq war.
In conclusion, the Iraq war and its legacy—internecine religious war, some 180 UK troops killed, many casualties, car bombs, suicide bombers, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi citizens, millions displaced and instability—reverberates around the region to this day. We can argue about whether this was all linked directly to our intervention in 2003, but I do not think anyone could claim that our intervention in 2003 helped to stabilise Iraq—on the contrary. What we need from the Minister today is reassurances that the UK Government will never, ever again launch into such a reckless adventure on such a flimsy premise, with so little preparation. I wonder whether the Minister will be able to give us that guarantee.
I was a Member of this House when the decision to invade Iraq was taken. Plaid Cymru was against the war from the start, along with our friends in the Scottish National party and other parties; I acknowledge their part. Elfyn Llwyd, Adam Price, Simon Thomas and I were unanimous in our opposition to the war. As with others, we were subject to vilification way beyond that expected in the usual argy-bargy between politicians with opposing views, or even from a critical press. I made no complaints then and I make no complaints now, for we did not really pay an onerous price. That was paid by those who lost their life, by those who were injured physically and psychologically, by the women and children who were killed “collaterally”, by those who still grieve, and by those whose lives have been blighted forever. It is right to say that now, when opposition to the war is a common-sense accepted view. It was not the case then.
Plaid Cymru is instinctively for peace, but we are not a pacifist party. We are prepared to support military action as a last resort, in extreme circumstances and with international agreement. That is why we supported emergency military action in Libya, with the required support of the United Nations. In retrospect, I regret that we did not then press the case for reconstruction harder. We have seen the effect of intervention in Libya without reconstruction, as we have seen it in Iraq.
Immediately in the report we find two of the reasons why we opposed the invasion of Iraq. The required second UN resolution had not been passed; and, as Chilcot states clearly in point 20 of the executive summary,
“the diplomatic options had not at that stage been exhausted. Military action was therefore not a last resort.”
Mr Blair presented Iraq as a real and present danger with a certainty that was not justified. Yesterday, the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) made a very telling point. His colleague, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), persuaded him the night before to vote for the war, having, in turn, been misled by Mr Blair, and that on Privy Council terms. We contend that Mr Blair misled the House. For that, he must be held to account. It is clear from Chilcot, not least from Mr Blair’s memo to President Bush, that he had already agreed to go to war, while giving the House the impression that it had a part in the matter. That is the only reasonable interpretation of the infamous statement on page 72 of volume 2:
“I will be with you, whatever.”
That was Mr Blair’s choice all along. As point 364 in the summary states, the UK Government held
“that it was right or necessary to defer to its close ally and senior partner, the US.”
It was clear that President Bush had already, long before, decided to go to war. My personal experience confirms this. I was with Adam Price, then the MP for Carmarthen East, at the State Department in Washington in mid-September 2002—I think it was 10 September—on a visit with other new MPs arranged by the British-American Parliamentary Group. It was a very useful and instructive visit. It was the first anniversary of 9/11, and feelings were running very high, with myriad official ceremonies to commemorate the dead and support the forces of justice—and with the implied and explicit intention of making someone pay. One felt that it was about not just making someone pay, but making anyone pay for what had happened. That was the atmosphere then, and it is important to remember that.
In Washington, we discussed Iraq with a State Department official. He was not a high official; rather, he was one tasked with briefing rookie MPs from across the pond. It was Adam Price who put the blunt question, “Do you intend to invade Iraq?” The answer was equally forthright: “Yes,” he said, “With our friends if we can, and without them if we must.” This was the commonplace view among officials at that time, one that they could share with insignificant visitors like ourselves. It is our very insignificance that is the significant point. If we, as insignificant visitors, knew what they intended to do, then so did Mr Blair and his associates.
I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his part in the Iraq rebellions. If I may put the record straight, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) also played a significant part on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. What the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) says about America going ahead regardless of the UK is absolutely right. One week before the final vote on whether to go to Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld said in a press conference that it was not necessary for the UK to join America: there would be workarounds if the UK decided not to go ahead.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very telling point. It was a conscious choice to join our senior ally and defer to their view of the world. The very significant point is that a political choice was made by Mr Blair and his associates. He knew what America intended. We know about the evidence from the meetings at Crawford, so I do not need to go over that, but of course he knew, and his response was:
“I will be with you, whatever.”
In the conversation I referred to a moment ago, American preparedness was confirmed quite casually when I asked what the war aims were. I have a long-standing interest in the Kurdish people, although I concede it is the Kurdish people in eastern Anatolia, or the northern Kurds, rather than the southern Kurds, with whom the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has been involved for so many years. I asked what the war aims were, and the answer was very clear. The official said, “We are looking for a democratic Iraq within its current borders.” I remember the words quite clearly, because the Kurds in the north were thinking, as they are today, of being at least a semi-independent entity, if not a southern part of a greater Kurdistan. We know the subsequent outcome all too well. The northern Iraqi southern Kurds, of course, have a degree of self-government. A democratic Iraq within its current borders has clearly not been achieved. My point is that there was no secrecy about this; there was no deficiency of vision and idealism, just an enormous deficiency of realism and good sense.
I will finish on this point, as time is short and many colleagues wish to speak. I ask the Minister for action. Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) expressed his doubts and concerns about a process of sanction that could be employed by this House in respect of Mr Blair. He made a very cogent argument and I found it very interesting. I do not know if it was entirely persuasive, but he clearly made his argument very well indeed.
We in Plaid Cymru have called consistently for those responsible for taking the UK to war in Iraq to appear before the International Criminal Court. The crime of aggression is listed in the statutes establishing the ICC, but it is not currently prosecutable by that Court. Some 30 countries have agreed to rectify this, following a convention in 2010. The UK has also said, informally, that it would support such a change, but it has not yet formally ratified that position. Under ICC rules, two thirds of signatories have to agree, which would require 82 countries to sign up, so I call on the UK Government formally to agree to the necessary change, in order to pave the way for prosecuting those responsible for taking the UK into an illegal war in Iraq. I look to the Minister for that assurance today.
I begin with a declaration of interest: my brother served on the frontline in the Iraq war, so the decision taken on the Floor of the House that night had a direct impact on both my family and his wife and two children.
I get concerned when we discuss Islam in this House and equate it with fanaticism and fundamentalism. Many belief systems are prone to fanaticism, and I am mindful that, before 9/11, the greatest terrorist act that the US had ever suffered took place in 2005, when a Christian fanatic killed 168 people and injured nearly 1,000 over a 16-block radius in Oklahoma. If Members wish to debate fanaticism, I wish that they would bring it to the Floor of the House and debate it in detail.
Just under three months ago, I and many other colleagues participated in a debate—I was grateful to be able to sum up for my party—that called for publication of the Chilcot report. I am glad, therefore, that we are now debating its publication. Like others, I am grateful to Sir John and all those who participated in its construction for their diligent work and the manner in which they carried out their examinations. I believe that the report will go down as one of the most important documents debated on the Floor of the House and will have far-reaching consequences. I agree with the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), however, that it has sadly been overshadowed by the political events of the last couple of weeks.
The publication and conclusion of the report will come as some comfort to the families of Army personnel such as my own and to casualties in the conflict who have been waiting for answers for far too long about why we were taken to war. I praise those families who, like their loved ones, fought the good fight and never allowed this issue to be forgotten in their quest for justice and truth. The House must note their courage in seeking answers to the conflict. The report should and must send reverberations through the whole British establishment, which has been undermined by the decision to go to war. It must, if anything, enhance the debate about the nature of our constitutional democracy and the duties of Government in their attitude to war and peace.
“I will be with you, whatever”
will be forever associated with the former Member for Sedgefield and will be his political epitaph, yet the phrase is much more than that. It will forever live in and scar the hearts of those families whose relations were casualties of the war, whether as members of our armed services or Iraqi civilians. That is the true legacy of
“I will be with you, whatever.”
That must never be allowed to be forgotten. It is a reminder to all representatives that our actions have wide-ranging consequences beyond this place and our own lives.
For me, that phrase really blows apart my belief that Prime Ministers, regardless of political persuasion, always act in the best interests of our country. It is deeply upsetting to think that that phrase was used in a memo to the US President.
I am grateful for the intervention from the hon. and gallant Member, whose opinion I often taken on board. I will come to his point further in my speech.
The actions in the lead-up to the invasion had a detrimental and fundamental impact on confidence in our democracy and parliamentary system. We must use the report to rebuild that confidence and trust, as we risk so much if we do not. That is particularly critical as parliamentary democracy is being attacked across the world as we speak. The report raises damning and fundamental issues about the role of the Government in the run-up to the invasion. The duty of the Government is to carry out their responsibilities in a responsible and transparent manner. In matters of war and peace, that is particularly vital, but it is now clear that, in 2003, the actions of the former Member for Sedgefield flew in the face of that.
We are told that collective responsibility has underpinned our democracy for centuries, but, as the report outlines, that system was abused and ignored by the former Member for Sedgefield. His actions are a warning to the current and future Governments that the mechanism of government itself must not be twisted and subverted by an individual to meet their own delusional, self-appointed, God-like views and that full transparency and accountability must be always ensured. To ensure accountability and transparency, and for justice to be done, those who made the decision to go to war must be brought to order.
That is why, like many other Members, I will be fully supporting the contempt motion against the former Member for Sedgefield that the general public expect and which the House needs to demand. The international community must see justice done. There will be those who question the motion, given the former premier’s public apology, but I draw this conclusion from that apology: an act of contrition requires a heartfelt, sincere and full intention not to recommit that sin. In the light of the apology given by the former Member for Sedgefield, I would advise him to seek a longer counsel with his confessor in order that he might understand the full concept of an act of contrition.
In conclusion, I wish to consider the words of the former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, George Reid, when a motion was placed before that place on this very matter:
“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.’”
It reminds me of the journalist Michael Ware and his account of his time reporting the conflict: while we might wish to see peace and an end to war, only the dead see the end of war.
A number of people have said today that the 2003 decision casts a long shadow, and indeed it does. There has been much talk about lessons learned and lessons needing to be learned, but I fear that this is largely about: “I was right and others were wrong”. There is a slightly self-righteous tone when people talk about where they stood on the vote in 2003 that I feel will not help us to make the decisions facing us, which are as serious, dangerous and consequential as any.
I was not in the House in 2003; I did not come in until 2005. At the time, I was one of those marching up and down and saying no to war. When I came in, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would spend most of my time on defence matters, but I came into the Chamber one day and noticed a group of middle-aged men talking to another group of middle-aged men across the Chamber on perhaps one of the most important subjects facing the country. I thought, “I’m not having this”, and I went out of my way to teach myself defence. I have to say that that is necessary—unless someone has been in the armed forces, they have to go out and learn, find out how decisions are made, what equipment to use, how on earth a decision to go to war is implemented and how it is carried through. It is not enough to be a Member of Parliament and think that defence is something that can be dipped into. Sadly, too many right hon. and hon. Members think it is.
I do not feel that people have the right to criticise unless they have looked and questioned: what equipment are our people going to war with; how many of them are there; what is going to happen when the number of personnel we want to send is balanced against the number of personnel that can be met? We made a disastrous decision when we sent our people to Helmand, but nobody questioned it. We are not having a big two-day debate about that disaster. How many hon. Members have bothered to read any of the Defence Committee reports on anything? Quite honestly, I wonder how many Members have read the strategic defence and security review. How many Members have been worried and concerned at the paring back over and again of our armed forces? How many have been concerned about the cuts to the platforms that our armed forces will be able to utilise?
It is all very well to go back to 2003 and beat our breasts. It is all very well to spend seven years. Since I have been a Member, I have taken three decisions on going to war—and I spent a lot of time on all three of them. Libya was as great a disaster as Iraq. I spent a lot of time asking whether it was about regime change, and I was told, “No, it is not about regime change.” I do not believe that to be true—I think it was always about regime change. I asked what we were going to do about post-conflict reconstruction, because it was the big lesson from Iraq, and I was told, “We are not putting boots on the ground, so it isn’t an issue for us.”
The hon. Lady knows that I have deep respect for her, which will continue. I seem to recall, however, that we had little choice but to intervene in Libya, and I voted for it because I was terrified that people would be killed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that most helpful intervention, because it takes us back to the exact same issue that people faced when dealing with Saddam Hussein. He led people down a track that really made intervention almost inevitable. He ignored all the UN missions and he was obstructive many times to the people who went in to look for weapons.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was with us on the visit, but when we met a group of tribal elders in a room in Iraq, they told us that the last time they had been in it, they had been called there by Saddam to hear a report about the changes he was introducing to the health service in Iraq. Someone had stood up at that meeting and said not that he disagreed with it, not that he thought Saddam was wrong, but that a small change might make it slightly better. The man was marched out of the room and shot at the front door of the building. That is the world that we were trying to understand.
On that occasion, too, I asked why on earth Saddam did not simply say, “I have given up the weapons of mass destruction; I do not have any. I got rid of the chemical weapons; I do not have any.” I asked why he did not just step forward and say that. I was told, “Because he was more afraid of his own people than he was of you, so he had to convince not you but his own people that he had those weapons.” That, I was told, was why he kept that myth going—not for us, not because he was afraid of our invasion, but because he was afraid of his own people if they thought he showed any weakness.
The situation was exactly the same in Libya. Gaddafi made it impossible for hon. Members to feel that we could sit back and let him say, “I am going to slaughter those people in Benghazi,” which is what he said he was going to do. We acted, but look at the consequences. In seven years’ time, are people going to stand up and criticise us for that vote? Are they going to say self-righteously, “How dare you? You did not do enough on post-conflict reconstruction.” No, we did not; and, yes, it is a mess. There are so many lessons that we have to learn.
I have been to Iraq and to Afghanistan. As a member of the Defence Committee, I believe that if we send our personnel there, we have a responsibility to go ourselves, to see for ourselves and to talk to people on the frontline and ask them, “Have you got the right kit? Have you got the right equipment? Are you being looked after all right? What do we in Parliament need to change? Tell us and we will be your voice.” Those are the lessons we have to learn.
We need to be more robust in our understanding of defence. We have to be more responsible in understanding the tasks and the responsibilities we place in front of our armed forces. We do not want to be sitting here pontificating about whether Tony Blair was a liar, or whether a jolly big “but” continued underneath the sentence when he said:
“I will be with you, whatever.”
I want us to look much more at what we have learned and what we are going to do in the future. I doubt whether many Members have read it, but the Defence Committee recently put out a report about Russia—be afraid, be very afraid, because that is coming down the track.
I may disagree with certain elements of the hon. Lady’s speech, but does she agree that one of the problems during the period was that many of the major partners of the United Nations, including the Russian Federation, did not want to play their part?
I look at the Russians in Syria. I look at what the Russians did in Afghanistan. Do I want to stand alongside them? I have my standards. The hon. Gentleman may have different standards, but I am not for the barrel bombing of civilians, which the Russians think perfectly acceptable.
I am not someone who will be happy about coming to the House and just saying, “We made mistakes in Iraq.” We made mistakes in Libya. In fact, we have made mistakes in every war in which this country has been involved. What I would like to know—I am glad that the Secretary of State is present—is whether the historical analysis team that used to be in the Ministry of Defence and that analysed and taught the lessons learnt to military personnel will be reinstated, because that would have more impact than anything else that we are discussing here. That is what we need: we need our personnel to know the lessons that will be learned.
What about the South China sea? We have 19 ships. Those who are worried about Iraq should worry about the South China sea. Please let us be realistic, because the world is looking and laughing at our tearing ourselves apart. I want a confident Britain. I want a secure Britain. I want a Britain that is not afraid of making difficult decisions, a Britain that is not afraid of sticking its hand into a wasps’ nest and a Britain that is well equipped and well trained but will take on its responsibilities in the world. We will look at our mistakes and we will learn, but we will not waste our time casting rude and offensive remarks at people who lead us.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). I commend her for her thoughtful and well-informed contribution to the debate. I did not agree with every point that she made—no one would expect me to—but I did agree with her about the tone that we should adopt in our approach to this debate: it right for us to approach it with a degree of humility and to be careful not to reinvent history.
I was here in 2003, and I remember those debates. As I listened to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), I could hear her speaking from the Opposition Benches, but I kept looking over to the Government Benches, because that is where I remember her sitting when she made her speeches in the 2003 debates, and they were very powerful speeches.
I well remember the atmosphere described by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who recalled the way in which the votes were whipped and the way in which the Government really did make every effort to steamroller the motions through the House. He said that he felt vindicated. I know what he meant by that, but I do not sense anything quite as positive as vindication in this. If anything, I feel slightly depressed, because I think that there was an inevitability that was not addressed by the House at the time, and I fear that we would still not address it if we were placed in the same position today.
I will say a bit more about that later and about how I think the House should deal with it in the future, but I should first place on record our gratitude to Sir John Chilcot and his team for doing a thorough piece of work. Like others, I have been critical of the length of time that it has taken, but there is no denying the thoroughness of the work that has been done. What we see before us on the Table certainly clarifies one thing in my mind: we were absolutely right to set up an independent inquiry. We have been chivvying that man and his team for years, and now we see why it has taken him as long as it has.
The report fills in a lot of the background detail. It does not tell us anything that we did not already know or have cause to believe, in the broadest terms. However, Sir John has placed a number of dots on the page, and it is now for Parliament to join them up to produce a discernible picture. In particular, he says, quite clearly and quite fairly, that he will not express a view on the legality of the war, but he offers us evidence from which we can draw our own conclusions.
We are shown the already infamous memo from Tony Blair to George Bush in which he said:
“I will be with you, whatever.”
I think it important for the House to put that in the context of the time. As others have pointed out, Tony Blair was always meticulous in the House in making a case that was based on weapons of mass destruction. That was not true of George Bush. George Bush never pretended this was anything other than an exercise in regime change, so when Tony Blair wrote that memo to George Bush, he was saying, “I will support you even though I know what you are doing is something which is done on a quite different basis than that for which I am seeking authority from the House of Commons.” That is significant because, of course, a war entered into for the sole purpose of regime change would be an illegal war, whereas one for which the purpose was the removal of weapons of mass destruction was one for which there could have been a legal basis.
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) posed a pertinent question. He asked, “How would the House have reacted if Tony Blair had been more balanced and even-handed in the presentation of the evidence?” That is where the detail of what Chilcot tells us is important, because in fact we see from that memo why Tony Blair was not more even-handed and balanced in the presentation of the evidence: he was working to an objective; he was working to an aim; he was supporting a commitment he had already made.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Syria vote in 2013. I gently suggest that he might want to refresh his memory of the terms of the motion against which he and others voted, quite legitimately. I do not challenge his right or his reasons for doing so, but it was not a vote to remove Assad; it was a motion instructing the Government to obtain authority from the United Nations and then to come back to this House before any further military action was to be sanctioned. That was why I was prepared to support it.
I was not planning to intervene as I have made my speech, but—this is one of the knock-on effects of the matter we are discussing today—by the time we got to that vote we knew perfectly well that if we had passed that motion, the bombing would have started that weekend. All the planes were ready to go, and I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is, if I may gently say so, naive enough to believe anything else.
With respect, I do not want to get taken down a side alley and into the question of Syria, compelling though that is, but the bombing could not have started on the authorisation of this House on the basis of the motion put to the House and against which the right hon. Gentleman voted. It is interesting to speculate, although not necessarily wholly germane to this debate, what would have happened had the House gone down the route urged on it in 2013—what might then have been the reaction of President Obama, how things might then have moved on, whether we would have been put in the position we were in relation to the vote we took last year on Syria. What I think is undeniable is that all these decisions and others—Libya is a good example—were taken under a cloud, which still hangs over our foreign policy and our role in the world, as a result of the experience of the debate on Iraq.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) pointed out, it is remarkable that if regime change was the agenda that sat behind the Americans’ intervention in Iraq, they did so little to prepare for its aftermath. The removal of the Ba’ath party from government must stand out as being one of the biggest strategic errors we have ever been party to. It completely failed to understand that many ordinary Iraqis who were engaged in Iraqi government and civic society did so as part of the Ba’ath party because it was the only party in town. To remove the infrastructure of government in the way that was done in 2003 has left a void in that infrastructure that remains a problem for Iraq to this day. The country has never recovered from that, and it provided fertile ground from which extremism flourished. That was all predicted by many of us who questioned the decision to go to war in 2003.
The House today is very different from the House that took that decision. Only 172 of the 659 Members who were here in 2003 remain Members today. I calculate that 141 of those 172 voted in favour of taking action, and 21 voted against it. I re-read the Hansard reports of the February and March debates before I came here today, and I was reminded that there was not a happy atmosphere in the House at the time. On that, I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. It was tense and brutal, and deliberately so. It was the creation of that atmosphere that forced many people to vote for the enterprise against their better judgment.
It is important that we approach this matter with some humility. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) garnered some support. It said that the case for war had not been proven, and that was certainly the view that I took. I was not going to vote for a motion that said we would never go to war in any circumstances, because, like other Members, I knew that Saddam was a brutish dictator. We also knew that he had had weapons of mass destruction in the past. In fact, we had been quite happy to turn a blind eye to that fact because he had been using them against Iran, whose regime we were also quite happy to see removed.
It was that sort of double standard in our foreign policy that I hoped we might see the end of after the enterprise in Iraq. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case. In the speech that I made in the debate in 2003, I called for the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 242 on the question of Palestine. Sadly, we are no further ahead on that issue today than we were in 2003. If anything, we are further behind. That is why, should we ever find ourselves in this position again, the House must take its duties more seriously. We must ask questions. We cannot accept assertions when we should be given evidence.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) is exactly right. The issue of whether the House allowed itself to accept assertions instead of evidence touches on a point made by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), which I think I agree with, that Members of the House must take their responsibilities seriously when it comes to votes on such matters that affect the lives of not only people in other countries, but the servicemen and women who are deployed on the basis of our votes.
There is a huge lesson to be learned from this, as I have heard from people who took part in the debates at the time on both sides of the House. Those debates took place before I was in Parliament. Those people now regret that they downloaded their sense and judgment from the Dispatch Box in the belief that no Prime Minister would tell them such things unless they were firm and true. They therefore believed that what they were being told must be right. Of course, those who demurred from that view were demonised in the House and outside it. If there is any lesson to learn from all this, it has to be that we should never again mistake certitude at the Dispatch Box for certainty about such grave matters.
We are told by some people that the report reveals no smoking gun in relation to the former Prime Minister. People have listed exaggerated versions of the charges against Tony Blair—that he lied, for example, and that he misled Parliament—and say that none of that is in the report. I have stated previously that I know Sir John Chilcot and have experience of working with him in Northern Ireland in various capacities. I also said that while he had many attributes and skills, I was unsure whether he would be found in the “Yellow Pages” under “I” for independent or “C” for challenging. I accept, however, that the report is compelling. It may be written with typical British understatement, but we should not neglect the key truths within and the lessons that need to be learned. Some will say, “There is no smoking gun about the dodgy dossier or anything else,” but I will give an example of Sir John Chilcot’s understatement. He says in paragraph 836 of the executive summary:
“The Inquiry shares the Butler Review’s conclusions that it was a mistake not to see the risk of combining in the September dossier the JIC’s assessment of intelligence and other evidence with the interpretation and presentation of the evidence in order to make the case for policy action.”
That is a telling criticism of what exactly was afoot with the September dossier.
The Prime Minister—well, last week’s Prime Minister—highlighted in his statement that Sir John had identified that an “ingrained belief” was genuinely held by people in both the US and UK Governments about Saddam and his weapons. I know that to be true. In November 2002, Tony Blair addressed myself and other socialist leaders in Downing Street and not only told us what he believed was the case with Saddam and what he thought would be found, but shared the view that the US was going to go to war anyway and it was important that he maintained a restraining influence. He described himself as something of a bridge, trying to ensure that America would not go too far on Iraq. I remember saying to him that I did not buy the image that he was selling of himself as a mooring rope, attempting to hold America closer to where Europe was on such matters, and that I felt that America saw him as a tow rope who would pull Europe and possibly rupture it. I do not doubt, however, that he sincerely believed that he was somehow in a positon to restrain and influence America by adopting the course that he was preparing to take.
A very different approach was taken at the time by Canada. Jean Chrétien, the then Prime Minister, said that Canada would not stand with the United States. Now, 13 years down the line, does the hon. Gentleman think that the relationship between Canada and the United States is any the worse for Chrétien’s decision?
No, absolutely not.
To say that I might accept that there was an ingrained belief, genuinely held, is not to endorse or accept that belief, or to say that it was a wise belief. It was a foolish and rash belief that was, in some ways, deluded.
Alongside that ingrained belief, the report also states that the UK Government, and Tony Blair in particular, had an ingrained intent that was not genuinely expressed either to this House or in public—those are not the report’s words, but mine. The ingrained intent was that he was going to war anyway, because he thought that that was where America was going. The report contains example after example of evidence being bent, melted and confected to justify that the preparation for any intervention would be undertaken on the basis of weapons of mass destruction, whereas it was clear that the then Prime Minister knew that the intervention in which he would be joining America really had an agenda of regime change. People in this House and elsewhere knew that that was illegal, so that view was withheld. People might say, “Chilcot hasn’t said that Tony Blair lied to or misled this House”—it was not for Chilcot to make such a finding about a parliamentary matter—but nobody can say that there was no duplicity of presentation throughout.
The report’s other big indictment is about the paucity of preparation. I refer to the fact that there was a commitment to go to war without the proper equipment to protect and safeguard people who were being put in harm’s way, or to allow them to give care to people whom they would be meeting in distress. There was a paucity of preparation for the aftermath with regard to any sort of reconstruction. People had the assumption, “The Americans will somehow sort that out. We assume they have that done.” That is serious and must bear on all our minds.
When we have had votes such as those on Syria and on Libya during my time in this House, I and other hon. Members have had to consider what we were being told, and what assurances and assumptions the Government’s position was resting on. That is why I have not been convinced on any of those. I say that not from a point of view of self-righteousness, because I was in the small minority of those who voted against the action in Libya and hoped that I was going to be proved wrong. When it looked as though the early intervention had achieved the short-term goals that people had wanted it to achieve, I was more than happy to have been proved wrong.
There were times during the debates on Syria in this House when some of us who were asking about the Government’s proposals were advised that we should just listen to what the Prime Minister was saying. During the last such debate, there were people here who still had not learned the lessons from the Iraq war, because they were saying, “If our Prime Minister is telling us this, we should do it. We should proceed.” It is clear that in this House we need to do much more to learn the lessons from all this.
The motion is that “this House has considered” the Chilcot report. Obviously, I do not demur from that motion, but we should not pretend to ourselves that this two-day debate is anything like an adequate consideration of the report. I cannot pretend to have read all 2.6 million words, and other hon. Members have not pretended to have read them either. This debate has also taken place in the context of a swirl of other events, which is somewhat distracting. A strong undertone in this debate has been the question of the former Prime Minister, and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) was right in pleading that we should not just personalise this around the former Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman also made hugely important points on behalf of people who serve in these sorts of military ventures.
I ask hon. Members who tried to say that the report exonerates Tony Blair to stop making the mistake of polishing its non-findings and trying to rubbish some of its findings. Some people who are highlighting the non-findings are also questioning several of the findings about what the future course should be, and what future requirements should be with regard to upholding UN positions, and proper parliamentary oversight, information and awareness.
The final point I make, in agreeing with the hon. Member for Bridgend about her statement, “People don’t have the right to criticise unless they asked about the equipment,” is that people also do not have the right to justify the Iraq war and to pretend that the Chilcot report is not an indictment of the decision and how it was taken if they did not ask questions at the time. The report tells us that those questions should have been screaming out to us at the time, and if we look carefully at the report, we see that any reading of the intelligence available to MPs at the time would have told them that they were there.
It is a privilege to take part in this debate on the Chilcot report and to have listened to colleagues who have much greater knowledge and more direct experience of these issues and events than I have. I do not intend to repeat many of the points that have been made. I was not an MP at the time, so my opposition to the Iraq war came from my limited knowledge from outside this House. I made my views known vigorously to my then MP.
In his report, Chilcot has been prepared to be very critical of processes and decisions, and the opportunity to be critical is vital to our democracy. What is important now is that we learn the lessons from the report. I wish to remind Members that it was the Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown who set up the Chilcot inquiry in June 2009. He also set out the inquiry’s remit: it would cover the period between 2001 and 2009, including the way in which decisions were made and actions were taken; and identify the lessons that could be learned. There had been calls for an inquiry before, while our troops were still in Iraq, and our response was rightly that we should wait until all our troops had withdrawn and then the Labour Prime Minister would instigate an inquiry.
We now need to learn the lessons, and we as parliamentarians should focus in particular on the decision-making process. The basis for the Attorney General’s advice on the legality of the war was:
“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 . . . this is a judgment for the Prime Minister”.
The legal advice put the onus clearly on the Prime Minister, and the lesson that we should learn is that whether at the level of Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary, or the wider Cabinet, or as MPs, we should scrutinise any such advice carefully before we commit to war.
In 2013, when MPs were considering the vote on military intervention in Syria, events in Iraq were very much in their minds. Put simply, when we see the terrible suffering in Syria, the dilemma is how to deal with it. Would our military intervention cause more suffering and make matters worse? What do we do about a leader such as Assad? Even if he were removed, who would fill the power gap?
As the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, we must fund the FCO properly and ensure that we have a thorough, detailed and up-to-date understanding of the complexities of what is happening in many foreign countries where there is the potential for conflict and we could be involved. The FCO is an easy option for cuts as it is out of sight and such cuts are not likely to cause public outcry, but if better understanding and diplomatic efforts mean that we can avoid the devastation and human cost of war, that represents money well spent. The same is true of the commitment to devote 0.7% of GDP to international development, because an important part of that work is conflict resolution. Such work helps to make the world a safer place and reduces the need for military intervention.
During the previous Parliament, it was worrying to note that Sir John Stanley, the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, reported that since 2010 there had been less stringency about which regimes we were exporting to. It is vital that we are wary of which weapons we sell to whom. The Committees should continue to be vigilant and the Government should be responsive to concerns.
We need to uphold our support for the UN and strengthen its work. On the Security Council, the UK is the informal lead on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Therefore, as chair of the all-party group on weapons and protection of civilians, I am concerned that the UK—[Interruption.]
Order. There are still quite a few conversations going on in the Chamber. The Secretary of State for Defence is, I think, going to reply to the debate and it would be a courtesy if Members would listen. There is some middle-ranking Minister sitting next to him and wittering away from a sedentary position, which is not a great sign of intelligence and is discourteous. It is very obvious. The hon. Lady will be heard with courtesy.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
I am concerned that the UK is not supportive of the UN Secretary-General’s initiative to develop an international political declaration to stop the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. We must take seriously our responsibilities in the Security Council and do everything we can to avoid war by working through international organisations such as the UN.
I sat through the whole debate yesterday and today, and it has been a fascinating education. I have appreciated listening to many of the Members who were here 13 years ago. I have been disappointed by the lack of numbers on the Benches. I am new to the Chamber. Given the gravity of the issue over the years, and given the long wait for the Chilcot report, I am surprised that there were not more Members present. I will put that down to the fact that so much else is going on in the political firmament, and that there is so much to read. The onus is on those on the Government Benches to think about that, and to realise that this is not the end of the Chilcot investigation. A lot more discussion and thought has to go into that report. I appeal to the Government to take that away and think about how we can come back to, and look into, all the ramifications that the report has brought to this Chamber.
No one has quite given due recognition to the fact that it was the previous Labour Government, under Gordon Brown, who commissioned this report, and that should be recognised, because it was a brave thing to do. I would gently chide those on the Conservative Benches, because after the Suez crisis—the other post-war global diplomatic disaster that Britain blundered into—there were repeated attempts in the remaining eight years of Conservative Government after 1956 to get a public inquiry, but they were systematically rejected, and that was a dangerous precedent. Having got the Chilcot report, we have learned that, when we make mistakes, we have to own up to them and examine the details.
I have particularly—“enjoyed” is perhaps the wrong word—appreciated listening to those on both sides of the House who took part in the debate in 2003. However, I have been surprised by the attempts of some Members—particularly on the Labour side—to justify what was clearly the biggest diplomatic blunder of the last 30 years. I was particularly surprised by the right hon. Members for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), both of whom tried to draw some comfort from the fact that the Chilcot report has not found the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, guilty of misleading the House. I do not know whether that is what Chilcot set out to do, but it certainly comes down to what we mean by “mislead”. There is abundant evidence in the Chilcot findings—even from a cursory read of the report, and even in the summary report—that the facts were pummelled, twisted, jumped on and stretched to the point where no one knew what was going on. That was a deliberate move by the Executive to try to impose their view of the world on this Chamber.
That is abundantly clear, and we have to grasp the fact that, as well as the politics, the diplomacy and the military issues Chilcot deals with, there is a constitutional issue at the heart of the report, which this Chamber and you, Mr Speaker, have to take into account: the Executive, in the shape of Tony Blair and his immediate allies, got out of hand. This Chamber and the Cabinet lost control of the Executive in the run-up to the intervention in Iraq. That is the fundamental finding of the Chilcot report. Yes, the nature of the intervention, and all the disasters that came from it, are important, but if we abstract from that, we see that the Executive were not under control. It has been rare in the history of this House, and particularly in latter decades, for the Executive to get completely out of control, and that can never happen again.
If we are to have a debate about bringing some of these individuals, including the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, to this House to answer for their actions, the issue should not be retribution, or holding them to account because they were wrong on Iraq and got us into a terrible disaster. That is an issue, but the fundamental issue for the House in deciding whether the former Prime Minister should be held to account in this Chamber is that the Executive got out of control. We have to learn the lessons of that, and we cannot let it happen again. If that is what happened—I believe that it was, and that that is what the Chilcot report shows—we cannot let those who flouted this House and Cabinet Government get away with it. If we do that, it could happen again.
I was rather surprised by the vehemence with which the right hon. Member for Leeds Central and other Labour Members tried to argue that, whatever mistakes were made in the intervention in 2003, the ramifications—the breakdown of law and order and of society in Iraq, and the subsequent calamities that have beset the middle east—were the fault not of that intervention alone, but of the great fragmentation and deep divisions in the middle east, and that, as bad and as mistaken as the intervention was, it cannot be held to be fundamental to the divisions and other developments in the last 30 years. I am sorry, but Chilcot and history show otherwise. For example, Daesh is a horrible amalgam of the former military leadership of Saddam’s Ba’ath party and people who were radicalised inside American jails after the intervention in Iraq. There is abundant evidence, and it is a reasonable conclusion, that Daesh, as a movement, would not have existed had we not invaded Iraq and caused the meltdown of what there was of Iraqi society. We have been living with that consequence ever since.
Labour Members are rather misguided in not understanding the role of western intervention, and western support for Saddam in his war against Iran in the decade before America’s and Great Britain’s intervention in Iraq. The long and horrible war between Iraq and Iran was fundamentally supported by the west as a means of containing Iran after 1979. That war multiplied a millionfold the divisions between the Sunni and the Shi’ite populations of the middle east and north Africa. We are living with those consequences, too. The west cannot claim that it is not culpable for stoking up the divisions in the middle east prior to 2003.
We are not finished with Chilcot, and we are not finished with the ramifications of the failure of this House and of Cabinet government to control and hold to account the Executive. I ask you, Mr Speaker, to bear that in mind when any such issues are raised in this House in future.
During these two days of debate, we have heard from Members in all parts of the House who have contributed substantively and thoughtfully on this extremely sensitive and controversial subject. That has given us the chance to have a rigorous debate, and to give the subject dutiful consideration and sombre reflection. I thank all my colleagues.
First, I would like to add my own personal tribute to the 179 servicemen and women who gave their lives in the Iraq war for this country while on duty, and to give my deepest condolences to the families from whom they have been taken. Their commitment to our keeping our freedoms, and ultimately their sacrifice for the United Kingdom, will not be forgotten. I also extend my gratitude to the 220,000 personnel who served and wore the Queen’s uniform overseas in numerous tours of duty of the southern regions and Basra, some of whom now serve in this House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), and the hon. Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Wells (James Heappey). I know the whole House would agree that we owe them a great deal for their service, and their continued public service in bringing their expertise to the Floor of the Chamber.
Secondly, I thank Sir John Chilcot and his team for their due diligence and forensic detailing of such a complex matter. At the time of the Iraq war and in the period immediately preceding it, I, like many others, was not a Member of this House. I was working for the NHS as a clinical scientist, and can vividly remember the conversations I had with my NHS colleagues around that time. People I worked with in the laboratory were convinced that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons at his disposal that could wipe us out in 45 minutes. There was real fear among my friends and colleagues, and many of them supported the action taken by the then Prime Minister. Personally, I was very dubious about the justification for war, and I was concerned that we were being led into action without a second resolution.
For me, the most telling phrase of the executive summary of the Chilcot report is paragraph 339, which states:
“diplomatic options had not been exhausted. The point had not been reached where military action was the last resort.”
That one point, which was also quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), encapsulates my feelings at the time, although of course I have a great deal of respect for the thorough and painstaking work done by Sir John Chilcot, and hope that my comments will be taken in the spirit in which they are intended. I am most certainly not presenting myself as an expert in this field.
As I have said, I did not support the Iraq war, nor was I a Member of this House at the time, but I hope that I now have a better understanding of the great difficulties involved in taking these daunting but necessary decisions. However, for me, the inquiry highlights and underlines the key lesson, which is the absolute need to learn from the grave mistake of triggering an event for which we had not fully planned, and from which we did not have a coherent exit strategy. If we as elected Members and a collective legislative body are to grasp fully the extent of those failures, now is the time to do so. We must acknowledge the errors of Iraq and implement the lessons in today’s context.
That context came 13 days before the inquiry report was published in the form of Brexit. Some Members have infamously said outside this House that the public are “fed up with experts”. That, as with Iraq, is flawed intelligence. Now more than ever, the UK needs experts. We face a tumultuous and treacherous period over the coming years as we negotiate our exit from the European Union. The Government, who called the referendum, did not have a contingency plan for leaving the EU, and neither did the Brexiteers, who campaigned so ardently for us to leave.
Both the EU referendum and the invasion of Iraq were peddled and pushed on mistruths, and presented with a certainty that was not justified. The era of post-truth politics that we seem to have entered over the past two months can be traced back to the hyperbole of the “45 minutes to Armageddon” document, which warned of an imminent threat from Saddam Hussain. Now is the time to turn back that tide of tirades against the truth, and that process should begin here in Westminster.
Sir John Chilcot wrote that
“assessments…were not challenged, and they should have been.”
“Despite explicit warnings, the consequences…were underestimated,”
and that inadequate planning led to fatal errors. Let us not fall into the same perilous trap as we fell into 13 years ago. Some decisions cannot be reversed, but lessons can and should be learned from the Chilcot inquiry, and the parallels are here in front of us now.
I conclude by echoing the words of Winston Churchill:
“Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on an issue that should have been addressed long ago. Those responsible for such an affront to basic standards of trust and integrity should be held to account. I was interested to hear the speech by the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), and I absolutely agree with him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) in their call for action in this House against Tony Blair.
There is a growing sense in the UK of a protected elite who are above the law, too often because the law seems drafted to permit things that most of us would regard as wholly unacceptable. Voters have watched as organised theft goes unpunished when it is done through manipulation of the financial system. They have seen companies stripped of assets, leaving pensions unfunded and care home residents fearing eviction.
Thanks to this report, a former Prime Minister is exposed as having taken this country to war on grounds that were, it seems, deliberately set in train. Tony Blair’s now infamous memo with the phrase,
“I will be with you, whatever”
seems tantamount to subcontracting to President Bush the decision to invade Iraq, committing UK troops to back his decision, whatever. If anywhere in the 2.6 million-word Chilcot report clarifies a time when he thinks Tony Blair reconciled that private commitment to war with a public statement, I am yet to find it.
When this House was recalled in September 2002 to consider Mr Blair’s dossier, he said that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programme was “active, detailed and growing”. That was simply part of a plan orchestrated by Bush and Blair to take Iraq and the international community to the brink of war, and then push them over. Always the wordsmith, Mr Blair called this his “clever strategy” in a paper sent to President Bush, suggesting it was a strategy for regime change that built up over time to the point where military action could be taken if necessary. It seems that Blair owes more to Robert Maxwell than just the opportunity to rewrite evidence against him before anyone else gets a chance to see it. If, as a constituent said to me at a surgery recently, you are going to tell a whopper, make sure you do it in plain sight so that no one can accuse you of concealing anything—except the truth.
It is instructive to remember who the cheerleaders for Blair’s action were. The inquiry notes that an editorial in the News of the World claimed that the dossier would be as devastating as it was vital, and show that Saddam had enough chemical and biological stocks to attack the entire planet, and the missile technology to deliver them. That Government-planted story was a lesson in building exactly the kind of narrative that the dossier was designed to back up, by a Prime Minister intent on feeling the “hand of history” on his shoulder. Instead of the hand of history, it is surely right that the hand of Parliament lands on Mr Blair’s shoulder and returns him to this House to account for his disastrous legacy.
The US strategy for Iraq was described in 2001 by General Wes Clark as to leave Iraq so unstable and chaotic that it did not pose a powerful threat in the region. Thirteen years later, Iraq is indeed unstable and chaotic, and the consequent sectarianism and hatred pose a powerful threat to the region and much further afield. Those consequences cast a long shadow over our age and will not easily be forgiven or forgotten.
At the heart of this decision-making process, we were sending the men and women of our armed forces into conflict. It is incumbent on the Government and the defence staff to ensure that troops sent into battle are properly equipped for the task and their welfare given due consideration. Therefore, I was disappointed to hear General Sir Mike Jackson’s comments on the BBC on the inadequacy of the equipment available to the armed forces in Iraq, saying simply,
“We had what we had”.
The MOD was not given the green light to obtain supplies for the operation until Christmas 2002.
Some of the deficiencies were not unique to the Iraq operation. There should have been standard items for a country whose leaders regularly boast of using our armed forces to punch above our weight. The evidence is that the Government wantonly ran ahead of the armed services’ capacity to deliver without being under-resourced and overstretched. Given the background, no self-respecting commander would want his forces on the battlefield without adequate nuclear, biological and chemical protection, but that is exactly what the Government required of the troops.
The National Audit Office reported major deficiencies in the supply of these protective suits, unusable residual vapour detector kits and a 40% shortfall in tactical nerve-agent detection systems. In this Chamber, the Defence Secretary reassured members that there was at least one nuclear, biological, chemical suit for all personnel. Of course, if the risk of chemical or biological weapons was being taken seriously, many more suits than that would have been required. In reality, personnel were given suits that did not fit.
The MOD noted that troops and equipment were probably in the same country, but not necessarily in close proximity. In fact, severe shortages of both desert suits and desert boots meant that sand and heat were the real problems for the British forces. Why did it take the MOD until weeks before deployment to find out that that protective gear was in short supply or had been left in storage, unserviced and unusable?
The evidence given by Gordon Brown highlights the financing assumptions for the MOD. Basically, it is funded to be ready in case there is military action. However, all costs of military action are met by the Treasury, thus encouraging the MOD to stretch its budget by saving on maintenance of existing kit. Some of the kit needed in Iraq had been bought for the 1991 Gulf war, and appears to have lain untouched for over 10 years. How many more items on the MOD inventory are in such condition? It also meant that combat-critical items needed to be procured at the last minute. However, in the case of Iraq, no one was authorised to start the procurement process until both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown gave the go-ahead. General Sir Mike Jackson noted, days before the invasion:
“In the name of accounting orthodoxy, we lack basic items, such as desert clothing.”
Clearly, these are key issues to bear in mind in our debate next week on Trident. How can a defence budget that can barely sustain basic equipment, and that is based on ever-declining personnel numbers, stretch to accommodate the UK’s own weapons of mass destruction?
Of course, the other way in which the MOD stretches its budget is simply to overstretch members of our armed forces, sending them on deployment more often or for longer periods than should be the case. The House will note that the report highlights considerable overstretch on the Army throughout the Iraq war and occupation. The UK Government aim to reduce the strength of the regular Army by 2020 by an amount that is virtually the same size as the initial land force deployment in Iraq. Clearly, with such a reduction, the potential for overstretch on the Army has increased considerably, but the computerised personnel system introduced in 2007 makes it impossible to measure overstretch.
I would like to close by considering the armed forces waiting in Kuwait for word to move into Iraq, among them the officers and men of the Black Watch. In action, soldiers work around many problems caused by the failure of others. However, special contempt must be reserved for top brass who dodge responsibility for failures of kit by blaming poor, benighted end users.
Three days into the Iraq war, the chain gun on a Warrior armoured vehicle caused serious injuries to one of our men. In the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, senior officers blamed the Warrior gunner, my constituent Tam Henderson. His appeal hearing heard of mechanical and electrical faults with the Warrior vehicle and the chain gun, and he was cleared of all charges, but senior officers held a board of inquiry in secret and pointed the finger of blame once more. When someone alerted Captain Henderson to that cowardly act, the MOD caved in and settled out of court. Nevertheless, I am told the MOD will do nothing to remove that self-serving finding from its records. Captain Henderson bravely allowed me to highlight his fight for justice in today’s debate, but I will seek an opportunity to raise the issue more fully after the recess. It is an irony indeed that those who served in Iraq face such injustice, when those responsible for sending them there face no justice at all.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). I do not necessarily agree with all the sentiments she expressed, but I agree with many of the points that she made.
The Chilcot report was sombre and sobering reading, and I am glad that it was commissioned. I welcome its openness and the debate about it, and I wonder what I would have done had I been here at the time of the vote. I think most hon. Members know this, but for those who do not, I was a serviceman until 1984, which was well before that time. We should always show our sympathy to the armed personnel who served, especially those who lost their lives or were injured, but also to those in the middle east who are still suffering from the consequences of the conflict.
All who served in the armed forces are proud of how well respected they are the world over. We were always brought up to use whatever equipment we were given and to do the best with it, but one lesson that we must learn from the Chilcot inquiry is that, if the equipment is no good, there is a point at which we really cannot do our job. My first point is, therefore, to ask the Defence Minister whether we will make sure that senior Army officers, naval officers and RAF officers are allowed to speak out. Will we ensure that there is never any feeling—caused by political pressure or perceived political pressure—that they cannot speak out early and be listened to? Sometimes, I feel that, when people reach the top, they feel that they cannot speak out and say what is needed. It is evident from the inquiry that that may have been behind certain decisions.
Another key area that we should learn from and watch is the influence of the press, which has been touched on. We are always told that it is dangerous to criticise the press, but they must examine themselves and ask how much of what went wrong in Iraq was due to their pressure. At the same time, we must look at how we use the press, and at how senior politicians push the press to do what they want. There must be more openness so that people feel able to criticise.
I was lucky enough to visit the Kurds in Iraq last year. Seeing the internally displaced persons and all that is happening reminds us that, as we know from the Chilcot report, we did not prepare properly for what was going to happen afterwards. We have a duty. We do part of that duty, and there is good foreign aid going to Iraq, but the IDPs need a legal status and to be properly looked after. We need to try to make up for the mess we have left.
Those are the key issues I wanted to raise today. It is right that this House always looks at the place of the United Kingdom in the world. We did not deal with things in Rwanda or Srebrenica, or perhaps early on enough in Syria. We should always take our rightful place in the world, but we should also always follow the wishes of this House.
It has been a great pleasure—privilege might be a better word—to sit through the entirety of the debate today and much of yesterday’s debate. In particular, it has been a privilege to listen to those hon. Members who have been here since 2003 or, in many cases, before, during the lead up to the Iraq conflict. One thing I have noticed about the contributions from people who have been here for that length of time is how some of the emotions are still raw. Members on both sides of House still feel strongly about the way they were led into voting for the conflict or how they had to delve around to find the truth before deciding how to vote.
Any reasonable reading of the Chilcot report would conclude that this Parliament was never at any stage given the whole, unalloyed truth about what was in preparation. Indeed, as I was listening to many of the contributions today, including those of the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), I wrote down a few words to try to summarise some of their points. What I have written down is that the then Prime Minister did not seem to allow the evidence, analysis or expert opinion to get in the way of his intuition or pre-chosen narrative. For me, that is at the centre of the issue—the attempt to deny the exposure of the truth of the matter, as known at the time.
As this House knows, a total of 179 British service personnel were killed in the Iraq conflict. It is less well known that, according to the Ministry of Defence, there were a total of 5,970 casualties, including deaths, up to July 2009. I pay tribute to the courage of those people and hope, above all, that we do right for those left with utterly appalling physical and mental injuries that they continue to endure.
I speak as the wife of a former member of our armed forces personnel. Does my hon. Friend agree that justice and acknowledgment are particularly important for the families? Locally, we grieve Guardsman Stephen Fergusson of the 1st Battalion the Scots Guards, who lost his life aged 31. I pay special tribute to him.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that intervention. I am sure we all wish to pay tribute to the constituent she named.
People living with the consequences—those appalling injuries—need our support and care, but they also deserve justice and the truth. Over the past few days, I have heard one or two Members wonder whether it would be a waste of time to hold the former Prime Minister to account. I would answer that by asking, is justice ever a waste of time? I think not.
I was not a Member in 2003. Like some, I opposed the war at the time, but many people supported it. I have not had time to read the whole report—I have not been to a good enough speed-reading course to accomplish that—but I have attempted to focus on a few issues that I am particularly interested in, not least because I chair the all-party group on explosive weapons, and I am interested in some of the consequences of conflict and in issues such as reconstruction and preparedness for the aftermath of war.
We now know that, as UK troops poured into Iraq on 20 March 2003, the ill-conceived hope in Whitehall was of a quick victory over Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by a relatively benign security environment, which of course never existed. Victory in the immediate conflict unleashed a vicious insurgency that some have estimated claimed 250,000 lives or more. That should not have been a surprise. As Chilcot argues, UK hopes were exposed as hopelessly vague, under-resourced and compounded by a complete Government planning failure. Indeed, the report finds that the UK Government’s plans were “wholly inadequate”.
For that failing, Sir John Chilcot laid particular criticism at the door of Tony Blair, and stated:
“He did not ensure that there was a flexible, realistic and fully resourced plan that integrated UK military and civilian contributions, and addressed the known risks.”
Before the troops rolled in on February 2003, the Joint Intelligence Committee—the overarching body that brought together the work of agencies such as MI6 and GCHQ— concluded:
“The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-US/anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West.”
A little over two years later, London would become the target of the 7/7 attacks, yet there has been reluctance in some quarters to accept any link between that and the invasion of Iraq, despite the intelligence that was given years earlier.
Before becoming an MP, I worked in places that had suffered from earlier conflict, albeit not to the same extent as Iraq. There is absolutely no shortage of historical information to show that severe conflicts throw up not merely economic, infrastructure and security challenges, but cultural challenges, which are sometimes seen in the strengthening of sectarian attachments of many sorts. Sir John found that the UK Government had completely failed to appreciate the
“magnitude of the task of stabilising, administering and reconstructing Iraq.”
“The scale of the UK effort in post-conflict Iraq never matched the scale of the challenge. Whitehall Departments and their Ministers failed to put collective weight behind the task.”
What may have begun as a failure of leadership by a few had become a collective failure of the entire Government. It has become clear that there was one central strand to UK strategy post-conflict, which was to leave Iraq as soon as possible. As Sir John put it,
“In practice, the UK’s most consistent strategic objective in relation to Iraq was to reduce the level of its deployed forces.”
The report found that the Government failed to protect their own troops with appropriate kit and vehicles, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) explained a short time ago. Sir John stated that the Government failed to act against known dangers faced by our troops, such as the use of IEDs, and he castigated the MOD at the time for failing to apply appropriate armed vehicles with the appropriate haste. He argued that the troops
“did not have sufficient resources”
to conduct simultaneous long-term operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 onwards.
On Monday this week, I was in discussions with senior staff at Imperial College’s centre for blast injury studies. I was surprised to learn that as far back as the 1970s and the Rhodesian conflict, as it was known at the time, reports and studies demonstrated to the MOD what it needed to do to upgrade and provide better equipment for armed personnel in such conflicts. At that time, the lessons were ignored. This time, the lessons from Chilcot must not be ignored.
The hon. Gentleman is making a most interesting speech. Before he leaves his list of failures, may I remind him of a point I raised in July 2003? Another failure is that, 13 days after the fall of Baghdad, it was still possible for journalists to go into the gutted headquarters of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and intelligence services and pick up classified documents that were available for anyone to take away. One would have thought that if someone was determined to find out about the truth on WMDs and other matters, those ministries and agency headquarters should have been the first targets to be searched by intelligence teams.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a wonderfully telling point. I like his use of one word in particular: “if”. If they had been interested in finding out the truth about WMDs, these things would have been found much earlier and taken care of much earlier. The fact that there was no planning to do that tells its own tale, I fear.
Returning to my opening points about the people still alive today who suffered terrible injuries in the conflict, I would like to end, with your permission, Mr Speaker, with a quote from The BMJ only two days ago:
“No matter how good the short term care, nothing will remove the enduring effects of the deaths and the physical and psychological injuries. The true legacy of the conflict for individuals and wider society in both the UK and Iraq may not be evident for many years to come.”
That is why we need to learn all the lessons that have to be learned. We need to hold those to account who deserve to be held to account.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would it be in order to put on the record Members’ thanks for the fact that you have sat through this debate from the very beginning for the whole two days? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It has been much appreciated by Members on all sides of the House.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, which obviously was unsolicited. It is something for which I am very grateful and I thank colleagues for their response. As far as I am concerned, it is a matter of duty. I feel it is important and I want to hear what people have to say. It is my privilege to hear colleagues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) took the words right out of my mouth with regard to your presence, Mr Speaker. One can tell how good a debate has been when Members find themselves nodding vigorously, no matter from which side of the House the points are being made. I think that that has happened quite a lot over the past two days.
I am honoured to be closing this debate on behalf of the Opposition. The Chilcot report is an extraordinary piece of work and I hope the whole House will join me in congratulating Sir John Chilcot on his efforts. He took a fair amount of flak during the lengthy writing of it, but it seems clear that it has been worth the wait. The report is in the very highest and noblest traditions of our country. It has unflinchingly shone a light both on crucial decisions made by our leaders and on how those decisions were made. It has not ducked from shining that light at the very highest levels of our Government—indeed, at the very top.
It would be naive to suppose that complete openness is always possible in government, especially over matters as grave as going to war. None the less, openness will always ensure that our policies have a firm moral foundation. As a great American jurist once said,
“If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, if would purify them as the sun disinfects”.
The report has let sunlight in on much that some would prefer to remain hidden. It is the most comprehensive and devastating critique we have had of the individual, collective and systemic errors that added up to the failure in Iraq—a failure whose consequences we are still dealing with and will have to deal with for many years to come.
I wish to pay tribute to comments by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Over two days, we have heard contributions from, among others, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on the opportunities the report provides to learn lessons for the future, from the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who emphasised the need for war to be seen always as a measure of last resort, and from the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who ably chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee and spoke with particular insight about some of the legal questions involved in the decision to go to war and about the failures of intelligence, which were also raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), who has served as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and therefore speaks with considerable authority on these issues.
Many Members, including the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax), talked about problems with military equipment, as did the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) in what I thought was one of the finest speeches of the debate. The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) were among the many contributors yesterday who spoke about the lack of adequate planning for the post-war reconstruction phase. As the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) pointed out, the same mistake was repeated in Libya, where the Government spent 13 times more on the military campaign than on post-war reconstruction.
The hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) made the case for better leadership on such matters and urged that the House and the Government learn from the Iraq report to build public trust in politics, politicians and the big decisions we inevitably must make on the public’s behalf. The knowledgeable and right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee, reminded us that it did not require hindsight to predict the many tribal and religious hatreds unleashed by the war and its aftermath. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) reminded us that we are elected to act in good faith, yes, but also with good judgment.
The speech that I felt best captured my personal anxieties was that of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who made more insightful comments than I have time to list. He spoke of the need for a more holistic approach to defence in both soft and hard power, and warned us that the continual budget cuts to the FCO undermine our ability not just to respond to global security threats, but to pre-empt them.
I want to focus on two topics that stand out to me: civilian casualties and equipment failures. Sir John estimates that there were at least 150,000 Iraqi fatalities, but suggests that the number is probably much higher. He notes that a proper assessment of the likely number of civilian casualties was not made before the invasion and that there was no systematic recording of casualties after the war had started. In one of his most scathing remarks, his report concludes:
“More time was devoted to the question of which department should have responsibility for the issue of civilian casualties than it was to efforts to determine the actual number.”
Today, it seems that Whitehall has yet to learn from this mistake. In the air campaign against Daesh, the Government insist that not a single civilian has been lost in almost two years of UK airstrikes. This seems literally incredible. Ministers give cryptic answers to questions about how they assess the damage caused by airstrikes, how they distinguish between combatants and civilians, and what they mean when they say they will consider all credible reports of civilian loss of life. The Government’s continued lack of transparency on this issue is troubling. I urge the Secretary of State, in the light of the report, to look again at how his Department monitors and collates information on civilian casualties.
The exposure of equipment failures is one of the gravest findings in the report. Chilcot sheds new light on this by documenting the sheer scale of the problem. Shortages of helicopters and armoured vehicles had terrible consequences. Day after day we saw Snatch Land Rovers that were designed for riot duty in Northern Ireland blown to bits by huge roadside bombs. There were also shortages of uniforms, boots and even such basic necessities as toilet paper. Some units even had to borrow rations from the Americans; one unit became known as “the Borrowers”. Some of the soldiers who died in Iraq were still teenagers, and it is a disgrace that they were sent there so woefully prepared. Although we understand that it is literally impossible to plan for every equipment need and contingency, we can never again let such catastrophic failure occur.
I want to pay a personal tribute to the families of our troops who died for their dogged and persistent pursuit of the truth about these equipment failures. Their steadfastness to the cause was heroic. I and everyone who saw some active service in the years that followed owe them a deep debt of gratitude. We got the kit their sons and daughters did not get. I, for one, will never forget the commitment to this cause that they showed. It undoubtedly saved many lives, and I hope that that knowledge can bring them some small consolation.
I have spoken about some of the specific failings identified in the report, but I must also speak of the much wider failings that a report of this scale and quality makes clear, such as the failure of this House sufficiently to hold the Executive to account on matters as grave as taking this country to war. Chilcot tells us that we must never allow a rush to war to blind us to facts or their absence. We must never allow a debate to be closed down with snide imputations of a lack of patriotism, or by the kind of macho posturing that suggests that those who urge caution, who demand evidence and who want proof when allegations of the gravest seriousness are made are somehow cowardly or undeserving of a voice.
The guardianship of this country’s future and the future safety of the world are issues that require not the posturing bravado of adolescence, but mature wisdom and a readiness to accept that every voice in this Chamber is worthy of our fullest respect, because those voices have been sent here as representatives of the British people, in all their variety and complexity, and we all speak for Britain here. If we speak again of a rush to bomb the odious Government of President Assad, we should not be derided as supporters of the Assad regime. When, just two years later, we are told that we must now bomb President Assad’s enemies in Daesh and we ask the question, “How will this bombing achieve our aims?”, we must not be told that we are soft on terrorism. We are demanding evidence of a coherent long-term plan that is backed with credible evidence and sufficient resources to achieve a lasting peace, founded on justice.
I am not a pacifist. My grandfather, of whose armed service I am deeply proud, was a paratrooper in the Normandy landings, and I have already mentioned my own service. I will always demand, however, the highest standard of proof for taking our country to war, and I will never apologise for that. These are literally matters of life and death, and the British people deserve better than political posturing.
Ultimately, if we cannot face and accept the consequences of our actions, we cannot learn the lessons and we cannot make wiser choices in the future. I hope that when we discuss issues of the gravest possible importance next week—those relating to Britain’s nuclear capability—this House will do so in a spirit of due humility and awareness of our shortcomings. We are not infallible, and when we are making choices of such gravity, we must speak with the very best part of ourselves and not stoop to political point scoring.
Let me conclude by quoting the words of the former Foreign Secretary and now deceased Member for Livingston, Robin Cook. In his resignation speech, he said:
“The longer that I have served in this place, the greater the respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people. On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain. They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect that they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US Administration with an agenda of its own. Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 728.]
There it is in a nutshell: we went to war without the support of international alliances, institutions or our allies, without sufficient evidence and without the support of the British people. Some Members saw that, and they are to be congratulated on their honesty and moral integrity in saying so at the time. We were railroaded into war. That was shameful, and it must not happen again.
This has indeed been a considered and moving debate, as befits such a serious subject. I believe that more than 50 Members have contributed over the last two days, and I join them in thanking Sir John and his colleagues, including the late Sir Martin Gilbert, for their immense efforts. They have produced a report that I think we all now agree is comprehensive, accurate, and an unvarnished record of the events, and they have been unremitting in their efforts to understand the causes and consequences of the Iraq war and its aftermath. We are all in their debt.
I hope that members of the armed forces and their families are able to find some measure of consolation in the report’s acknowledgement of their enormous service. Our thoughts remain with them. We should bear in mind what Sir John says about the efforts of the men and women of the armed forces: that the initial war-fighting phase was a military success. They did fight to help topple a tyrant who had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people, and the subsequent failures in the campaign, at whoever’s door they are laid, cannot and should not be laid at the door of those who did the fighting on our behalf.
However, Sir John also makes it clear that the United Kingdom did not achieve its overall strategy objectives in Iraq. There were too many challenges in too many different areas. There was a lack of leadership across Government, and there was too much group-think in our military, security and intelligence cultures, which stopped short of challenging key decisions. That point has been made many times over the last couple of days. There was flawed intelligence, which led to assertions—particularly in relation to WMD—that could not be justified. There was a fatal lack of post-war planning, and lessons from previous conflicts and exercises had not been properly learned. We also failed, as the campaign unravelled, to adapt to the changing situation on the ground, and there were significant equipment shortfalls for our troops, listed in some detail by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). There was much in that campaign that—whatever else we do—we must try to avoid in the future.
It will not, I think, be possible for me to refer to every single speech made over the last couple of days. The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) picked out some of the more memorable. We have heard speeches of anger and speeches of remorse, and we have heard thought-provoking speeches about the overall effect of the Iraq war on our process and our political culture.
We have heard speeches from those who played significant roles at the time. The right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) spoke very illuminatingly of the need for humility, given that so many of those who were involved professionally were able to reach the same conclusions without properly challenging the existing culture, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) spoke of the drive to converge our views with those of the United States. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) underlined the importance of planning for reconstruction in any military action. The House also had the benefit of the military experience of my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). I was particularly struck by the speech made by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), who reminded the House that Islamic terrorism did not start in 2003; it was there long before that, and other countries were also engaged in trying to deal with it.
The question the House has to ask itself is this: given that we all want to avoid this happening again in the future, have there been sufficient, significant changes for the better? I suggest to the House that there have been some changes for the better. First, we in Government are better co-ordinated. We now have the National Security Council, which ensures that decision-making is dealt with in a joined-up way across Government. The NSC includes not only Ministers from the main Departments, but the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the heads of the intelligence services, relevant senior officials and the Attorney General.
The Secretary of State has just listed the membership of the National Security Council. While it is revealing that all the intelligence services are individually represented, it is a fact that all the armed forces are represented only by the Chief of the Defence Staff. Will he give consideration to the Defence Committee’s suggestion that the Chiefs of Staff Committee could serve more usefully if it was constituted as the military sub-committee of the NSC?
I heard my right hon. Friend’s speech earlier today, in which he made that point at some length. I caution him against over-complicating the structure we have and setting up sub-committees of it. The armed forces are represented through the Chief of the Defence Staff, who attends not only the NSC, but the officials’ meeting that precedes it.
My right hon. Friend is, I am delighted to say, serving in his current role under his second Prime Minister, and I trust he will serve under several more yet. [Interruption.] If we keep having leadership crises. As he has experience of Cabinet Government and the NSC, and as he remembers serving in government decades ago under former Prime Ministers, will he, with the new leader of the Government, consider the possibility of the Cabinet sitting for slightly longer than one and a half hours each week, particularly when pressing issues are on the agenda, and of more readily having individual briefings before issues are considered at Cabinet?
Similarly, will my right hon. Friend consider whether the NSC might be more flexible as to the length of meetings, whether briefings might be given to members before the NSC sits, and whether matters might be returned to at subsequent meetings if there is a basis for challenging the advice given? We obviously have a difficult four years to go through; does my right hon. Friend agree that more collective government might be a good way of proceeding?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, particularly for his kind words. I am now serving my fourth Conservative Prime Minister; I do not think I have quite matched my right hon. and learned Friend’s record, but I am closing in on it. I will not be drawn on the possibility of serving yet another, given that my right hon. Friend the new Prime Minister has only been in office for a day. She and I did sit together on the NSC, as well as in Cabinet, and one can always look at these things again. It is not for me to instruct the new Prime Minister on how to run her Cabinet, but I will certainly ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend’s suggestion is passed on.
The NSC is a significant improvement on what went before it, in my right hon. and learned Friend’s time in government, and it is certainly an improvement on the kind of sofa government that the Chilcot report exposes. The NSC does not operate in a vacuum. The National Security Adviser, who attends it, is now a well-established position in Government, supported by a strong team, and the NSC and the adviser are supported by a structure of cross-government boards and sub-committees, to which the Ministry of Defence makes a full contribution. To answer the point raised by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, there is no shortage of ways in which the views of the chiefs are brought forward in that structure.
I see a slight contradiction in the Secretary of State saying that it would over-complicate the machinery of the National Security Council if the heads of the armed services were allowed to form one of its sub-committees, given that there is evidently no shortage of other sub-committees. The fact remains that it is easier for politicians with bees in their bonnets to sweep aside the views of the Chief of the Defence Staff as a single individual, which appears to have happened in the case of Libya, than it is for them to sweep aside the views of the heads of the armed forces collectively. I wish that the Secretary of State would not be so resistant on this point.
As I have said, the heads of the armed forces are represented on the National Security Council by the Chief of the Defence Staff, and the Chief of the Defence Staff who has been serving up to now is certainly not likely to be disregarded by the politicians who sit on the committee. Both he and his successor—I hope that the House will welcome the arrival of the new Chief of the Defence Staff today—are well able to hold their own against the politicians.
Would the Secretary of State acknowledge that Baroness Neville-Jones, one of the architects of the NSC, has said that the secretariat that co-ordinates the NSC is understaffed and under-resourced? Another criticism is that there is a lack of outside expertise being brought into the NSC, and that more use could be made of such experts.
I read the Baroness’s speech, and I advise all Members to have a look at the debate on this matter in the other place. It had some memorable contributions, including from people who were actively involved at the time. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the need for external expertise has been made before. External expertise is of course available to the different Departments, and I am convinced that the new machinery is a massive improvement on what was there before.
I think that the Secretary of State has laid to rest the canard that the NSC operates without expertise, but I should like to reinforce that point. It is evident from the 2010 example of the strategic defence and security review that we on the NSC conducted, and from subsequent events, that expertise from the greatest experts in the country is frequently heard and always available to the NSC. Such expertise also populates the significant briefing papers that go before the NSC and informs the judgments that it makes.
I can confirm that that is exactly the position. There is no shortage of briefing for members of the NSC. They are able to bring that expertise to the regular meetings of the council and to question the experts who are present. The recent strategic defence and security review shows how a cross-Whitehall approach is being implemented in practice and leading to better decision making.
On that point about cross-departmental arrangements working more effectively, does the Secretary of State feel that any of the lessons identified in Chilcot in relation to reconstruction in Iraq might already have been fed through in relation to what happened in Libya? It is not obvious that that is the case.
I shall talk about the lesson on the importance of planning for reconstruction in a moment. I just want to finish this important point about the machinery of government.
The Ministry of Defence has revamped its strategy and policy making with the institution of an annual defence plan that reflects the outcomes of the strategic defence and security reviews, with senior leaders in the Ministry being individually held to account for their role in delivering it, and a defence strategy group, chaired by the permanent secretary and the Chief of the Defence Staff, to address how Defence can best contribute to delivering defence and security policy objectives.
I am listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend is saying, but this is not just an issue of how best to encourage communication and expertise within the system; Chilcot was also saying that there was a lack of investment and proper sighting of events on the ground. That can be put right only through long-term investment to ensure that we are better sighted, so that we have a better idea of what is actually happening on the ground and the consequences of our actions. Does he agree that that is another important lesson to take from the Chilcot report?
Yes, I do. Defence intelligence and the gathering of information on the ground have improved and are more available to those taking the key decisions back in London.
This is an important area, but the right hon. Gentleman has focused almost exclusively on the Executive. One of the most important lessons of Chilcot is that the most effective opposition to the decision, which many now accept to be wrong, was from the Back Benches. When the Front Benches agree, group-think—to use his own phrase—applies. The lesson is that we need to listen to independent-minded Back Benchers who present their views to Government honestly and passionately regardless of the consequences for their careers and who make difficult decisions that Ministers need to listen to much more closely in future.
I accept that. I was here at the time and voted in that particular Division. It is important that the Government listen to their Back Benchers. We were not in government then, but it is important that Members are free to speak their minds independently. Indeed, they have done so in the debate that we have been having over two days—on both sides of the argument. There are those who still maintain that the action taken in Iraq, although it did not turn out as well as we wanted, was justified and right.
Speaking as a Back Bencher, the right hon. Gentleman’s new colleague the Brexit Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), said that in situations of peace and war the House must rely on the Prime Minister of the day telling
“the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.—[Official Report, 13 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 362.]
Does the Defence Secretary agree?
Members and Ministers should speak the truth in this particular House, but whether the Prime Minister of the day deliberately misled the House was investigated exhaustively by Sir John Chilcot in the report and I do not want to add any more to what he said.
I turn now to the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about stabilisation. Since the Iraq war, the Government have increasingly focused first on prevention rather than intervention. We have been helping to build capability with partners and tackling the problems of fragile states at source, which has been possible only because we are now spending 0.7% of our GDP on international development. By helping fragile states to promote good governance, tackle corruption, and build capacity in defence and security forces, we can stop crises turning to the chaos that we have seen. That requires insight and understanding, often into complex situations. We have set up the cross-Government conflict stability and security fund, building on the conflict pool that had been in place for some time and supporting delivery of country or regional NSC strategies.
All that promotes a much stronger culture of cross-Government working on strategy, policy and delivery in fragile and conflict-affected countries. An example of our success in that so far was the recent deployment to Sierra Leone to combat Ebola, where diplomats, the military and officials from the Department for International Development worked alongside each other. The stabilisation unit that we set up has continued to develop, so we now have experts on hand to deploy in post-conflict situations anywhere in the world, at short notice. I have seen for myself how civilian advisers are now routinely part of military exercises, ensuring that military and civilian staff gain experience of working together before they are deployed, so that development and humanitarian needs get the consideration and attention they need, alongside the military planning.
We are now trying to make sure our armed forces are properly equipped and resourced. Not only are we meeting the NATO commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on defence, but our defence budget is growing for the first time in six years. That is on the back of the successful efforts we have been making since 2010 to return financial discipline to the Ministry of Defence and balance the defence budget. That is the foundation for the strong focus now on delivering an affordable 10-year equipment programme, allowing us to invest in the right equipment for our armed forces. That programme will total at least £178 billion on new military equipment over the next decade.
I am glad that the Secretary of State has come to this point about members of the armed forces and their equipment. Will he expand on how this learning opportunity will support those who come back from conflict—crucially, the reservists, who take up much of that challenge and who fell off the radar after Iraq?
We have taken a lot of measures to involve the reserves more closely with the regulars now. After Iraq, we have been learning more rapidly the lessons from each deployment, particularly those from Afghanistan, to ensure that in future we do not have to wait for the kind of report that Sir John Chilcot has produced, and we are able to learn the lessons as we go and as units return, so that they can be applied to the next units taking up those roles.
Strategic defence reviews take the balance of investment decisions, including where our main equipment priorities lie. Routinely, decisions on how that money will then be invested rest with the service chiefs, giving them the freedom, and the responsibility, to make decisions on how best to apply their resources, and obliging them to be very clear about where they are carrying risk in respect of potential equipment failures or shortfall. Where changing circumstances or unexpected threats lead to shortfalls, we should be ready and able, quickly and effectively, to make good any shortcomings.
The Chilcot report recognises that the MOD and the Treasury, between them, worked hard to develop and refine the urgent operational requirements process. As the former Prime Minister told this House, that process did deliver results and new, improved equipment into theatre quickly in the Afghanistan campaign, responding immediately to the needs of our armed forces there. One of Chilcot’s most troubling observations is the lack back then of a clear focus of responsibility for identifying capability gaps during enduring operations. The new post of Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff for Military Capability that has since been established fulfils that role.
As well as properly equipping and resourcing our people, the Government have a duty to ensure the welfare of our armed forces and their families, and then to ensure that they suffer no disadvantage when they return to civilian life. By putting the armed forces covenant into law and committing resources to it, we are making sure that all those who put their lives on the line for this country get the help and support they need.
But however much we have done, and however much things have changed and improved since the Iraq campaign, the question for this House is to judge whether or not we have done enough. My answer is: no, of course we have not yet done enough. It is evident that the Chilcot report contains many harsh lessons still for us to learn. Given its length and forensic detail, it will take us some more time to analyse and to do it full justice. What is clear to me is that we now need to take a long, hard look at our decision-making processes and our culture to satisfy ourselves that misjudgments similar to those made at the time could not recur.
The Secretary of State is right that we must take account of all those things, but surely the public expect somebody to be held accountable for what was the biggest foreign policy disaster, probably, since the war. What is he going to do about that? The public demand to know that somebody will be held responsible for what happened.
The Chilcot report itself holds to account those who were involved and took the key decisions, and it makes its judgments on them. It is for them, not for me, to respond to those judgments and to account for the actions and the way in which they took their decisions at that time.
On the decision-making culture, the detail of the committees and the machinery of government which we discussed a few moments ago is not the stuff of headlines and speeches, but Chilcot shows us that some of these internal procedures of government are important. He sets out in pretty stark terms what happens when those structures—and the opportunities that they provide for the proper flow of information and challenge—are missing or are bypassed.
In defence, we have transformed in recent years our approach to risk. We have a clear focus of responsibility in each key area. We have designated risk duty holders and it is their responsibility to come to me if they believe that the levels of risk in their areas are becoming excessive. I expect military chiefs and commanders now to show the same degree of rigour and transparency with respect to operational planning.
Our organisation and culture must not prevent our people from challenging and questioning institutional assumptions, even if those assumptions are made by their superiors. That was a point eloquently made yesterday by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), and it was made again by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) today.
That view is fully shared by the current Chiefs of Staff—each of whom served in different roles during the Iraq campaign, including the outgoing and the incoming Chief of the Defence Staff—and it is shared by the permanent secretary. We are committed to leading defence through a period of rigorous reflection, analysis and improvement, and I am determined to make that improvement happen. I need, and the House would want me, to be absolutely sure that when our servicemen and women are deployed in future—and, inevitably, that is when, not if—nobody will be able to point to Sir John’s report and justifiably accuse us of repeating the same mistakes. I want to give the House an assurance that Sir John’s report will not be the last word.
In conclusion, our strategic defence and security review reminds us that we are living in an ever more dangerous world. Despite the report and the Iraq campaign, we must still be ready to act, as we have shown in our participation in the international coalition campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria today. We must remain as committed as ever to protecting our people and standing up to any kind of terrorism or aggression that seeks to destroy our very way of life. Sir John and his team, I repeat, have done us all a great service. Their work will enable us to learn the vital lessons from those operations in Iraq and ensure that we are not condemned to make the same mistakes in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Report of the Iraq Inquiry.