David Aaronovitch's Iraq omission

Why does the pro-war left gloss over the issue of Iraqi civilian deaths?

I like David Aaronovitch. He is one of our country's leading liberal voices, a brilliant, intelligent and passionate writer and a nice man. He and I agree on a lot. (You can watch us here debating together at the Cambridge Union in defence of political correctness -- our side won!) But he is wrong about Iraq. He always has been.

I hesitate before taking a pot shot at Aaronovitch because I did so only a few weeks ago, in a column on torture (and he emailed to point out that he had been the first to flag up the Jack Bauer angle). Nonetheless, in the language of the playground, "he started it", so I'll respond.

In his column in the Times on Tuesday, Aaronovitch ridicules those of us who opposed the war, calls the Iraqi elections a "bloody miracle" and deplores seven years of "goddamned" discussion of WMDs, legality, and so on. Time to move on, says Aaro.

Let me begin by highlighting some points on which he and I agree.

1) It is both miraculous and inspiring that Iraq is able to conduct multiparty parliamentary elections seven years on from the fall of Saddam Hussein.

2) Torture was indeed much, much worse and more widespread under Saddam Hussein than it is in Iraq today.

3) There has never been a proper debate about what would have happened to Iraq if Saddam Hussein had been left in power in 2003. What were the alternatives, if any?

But in Aaronovitch's column, entitled "Iraq has moved forward. It's time we did, too", there is a glaring omission. How many Iraqis died in order to build this new Mesopotamian democracy, what he calls "one of the most hopeful changes in recent times"? Or, to rephrase the question, how many Iraqis were unable to vote in these historic elections because they'd been killed in the period since March 2003?

He does make one passing reference to the death and destruction inflicted by the invaders and the insurgents in Iraq:

In the first place it has made it almost impossible to discuss the Iraqis themselves, to consult them or listen to them. They have become ghosts, invoked as (implausible) casualty figures, or seen on TV briefly lamenting a death or maiming.

"Ghosts" is an interesting choice of word. But I'm confused. Does he think casualty figures are not important, or that they are all "implausible"? Does he, like General Tommy Franks, not "do bodycounts"? Or can he tell us how many Iraqis he thinks have been killed in the violence unleashed by our illegal (yes, David, illegal) invasion in 2003? If not, how can he expect us to "move on"? How can we do a proper audit of the war?

Nobody knows for sure how many Iraqis died, or were killed, as a result of the invasion, but there are several different, credible and respected estimates, ranging from 100,000 to a million-plus.

There's Iraq Body Count:

95,593 to 104,291

There's the calculation by Associated Press:

more than 110,600

There's the Lancet survey:

601,027 violent deaths out of 654,965 excess deaths

There's the ORB survey:


Which one does Aaronovitch agree with? Any of them? None of them?

On a side note, I smiled to see Aaronovitch smear those of us in the "anti-war brigade" as "Shortists". But, of course, Clare Short did not oppose the Iraq war. She voted for it, and stayed in the cabinet, resigning only after the invasion had occurred.

He could have called us "Cookists" or "Denhamists", but he chose not to. Perhaps because it is much more difficult to dismiss Robin Cook and John Denham as naive peaceniks, Islamist appeasers or Saddam apologists than it is to dismiss Clare Short, George Galloway, Tony Benn or the rest of the usual suspects. I'm just wondering . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide