Iraq, the MOD and class warfare

How the 'positive' story of the Iraq war could be taught to British children


Few would now dispute the case for the US-led invasion of Iraq was built on misinformation and half-truths but nearly five years on from the dodgy dossier, the government’s propaganda offensive has opened on a new front: the classroom.

"After Iraq was expelled from Kuwait, the United Nations passed a cease-fire resolution. This resolution obligated Iraq to discontinue its nuclear weapons program. Iraq did not honour the cease-fire agreement by surrendering their weapons of mass destruction, and so resolution 678 was revived by the US government."

"Invasion was necessary to allow the opportunity to remove Saddam Hussein, an oppressive dictator, from power, and to bring democracy to Iraq."

This isn’t an extract from Blair’s diaries or a White House press release. It comes from Defence Dynamics, an online teaching resource of forty lesson plans produced by the Ministry of Defence, which it hopes will reach thousands of GCSE classes from this September.

Now newstatesman.com has obtained a draft of an English lesson devised by children’s advertising agency Kids Connections, which has been commissioned by the MoD to produce and market the £200,000 project.

Part of a module entitled ‘Promoting peace and security in Iraq’ it instructs classes to hold a vote on the war, and to produce a piece writing arguing for or against the withdrawal of soldiers from the Gulf.

The teachers’ notes state: "Most students will vote against the ongoing maintenance of troops. Ask students to justify their opinions."

It continues: "Throughout the lesson, students should come to understand that this activity is representative of democracy on a micro scale and by voting, they have exercised their democratic right, a right that is newly available to Iraqis."

A student ‘fact sheet’ states that the occupation has resulted in “Over 150 healthcare facilities completed and many more are in progress. 20 hospitals rehabilitated. Immunisation programme re-started in 2003. 70 million new text books distributed to schools. Sewage and wastewater treatment plants operating again.”

Yet this rosy picture seems woefully at odds with a report by the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq, backed by Oxfam, which states that Iraq is facing a humanitarian crisis "of alarming scale and severity".

It finds that four million Iraqis are ‘food-insecure’ and that four million have fled, creating "the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world". The number of Iraqis without access to adequate water supplies has risen from 50 percent to 70 percent since 2003, while 80 percent lack effective sanitation; and of 180 hospitals countrywide, “90 percent lack key resources including medical and surgical supplies". Whilst one of the resources, an anti-war newspaper article, notes that a majority of Iraqis do not support the occupation, no mention of this human catastrophe, nor of the 600,000 Iraqi dead and the daily car bombings, hostage takings and assassinations, is made in the draft.

It is not known how closely the MoD has controlled the content of the lesson plans, or whether the original brief stipulated that it should aim to portray the occupation in an positive light.

On 2 August Schools Students Against the War (SSAW) part of the original Stop the War Coalition and now dedicated to campaigning against recruitment in schools, demonstrated outside the Camden offices of Kids Connections, whose clients include Asda, Nestle and Npower. A letter demanding that they sever relations with the MoD signed by Tony Benn and Lyndsey German was to be handed over. When no-one appeared it was pushed through the letter box.

"We are angry that the Army is being so underhand in getting children to join up under a false impression of what Iraq has become” said Tali Janner-Klausner, convener of SSAW. “The military has no place in education.”

Kids Connections last night declined to comment.

In February the New Statesman revealed how a retention crisis that saw a 12,000 soldiers leaving the Army last year alone, was forcing the military recruiters to target children as young as 14 via their Camouflage youth information scheme and schools visits to barracks.

Defence Dynamics has been introduced to replace the Defence Schools Presentation Teams, which toured 460 secondary schools a year at a cost of £2.1m. Derek Twigg, parliamentary undersecretary of state for defence, told Parliament that the teams “allow us to get our message over about the importance of defence” and that “civilian and military staff are seen as excellent role models and there are consequently significant benefits for future recruiting.”

He further noted that Defence Dynamics “will enable us to reach many more children than are visited by the touring Defence Presentation Schools Teams, and at a significantly lower cost.”

However, the MoD denies that Defence Dynamics is an attempt to target potential soldiers. A letter from Twigg to Conservative MP Mark Harper stated “Neither the Presentation Teams nor Defence Dynamics have a direct link to recruiting into the Armed Forces, and it is not their purpose. We therefore have not measured a recruiting effect as the teams’ purpose is to increase awareness and understanding of our work.”

Asked why else the MoD would wish to increase awareness of its work amongst school children, a spokesman said: “I can’t explain it any other way: it’s literally to raise our profile and let people know what we do, the same as any other company.”

“We recognise that this isn’t necessarily a direct attempt at recruitment” says Sam Fairbairn, who organised the demo. “It’s propaganda to give a falsely positive image of Iraq, so when the Army attends careers days children have been softened up and are less hostile to the military.”

Kids Connections had asked the Stop the War Coalition to contribute a leaflet from a 2006 demo to the English teaching resources, stating that “there is categorically no recruitment agenda to this initiative.” The Coalition declined, citing the “inherent pro-war bias within the project.”

The MoD is by no means the first controversial group to target schools: British Nuclear Fuels, BP and arms manufacturers BAe and Rolls Royce have also produced online teaching resources explaining the importance of their work.

Despite claims by the MoD that pilot schemes have had a ‘very positive’ feedback, teachers are unimpressed.

“As a lesson plan it’s insanely complicated,” says Victoria Elliott, a secondary English teacher. “The focus is not really on the skills supposedly being taught, but is instead about getting information across, which is completely irrelevant to English teaching.”

“Lots of firms try and get us to use their material but it always reflects their interests and agenda. The insidious comments about Iraqi’s new-found democracy made me laugh aloud. I certainly wouldn’t allow myself to be used a recruiting sergeant in the classroom.”

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.