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:

1,033,000

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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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