The war that changed us

It began with a blinding flash and promises of speedy victory. Five years on the mission far from ac

The show began with blinding flashes, heart-stopping thunder, sparks which had been palaces and hovels soaring up to decorate the night sky. The Shock and Awe military tattoo had started. It was only a few weeks until its climax as the great black evil one, suddenly floodlit, bowed to the crowd and fell slowly forward on his face.

Author, director! In flier's kit, backed by a chorus line of cute American sailors, the boss advanced downstage to harvest the cheers. "Mission accomplished!" But the noise was not all applause and was not coming from the audience and seemed, improperly, to persist. Something was wrong. Would the audience please remain in their seats until a technical problem with the exit was sorted? We are still there.

What have we done to Iraq? Until we are allowed to escape from the arena, it is impossible to look back and guess. What has Iraq done to us? Here it is easier to study the damage. The fearful act of 9/11, the utter success with which that spear of hatred pierced America's heart, left the United States a smaller country. But by joining in the retaliations for that act, Britain also became smaller. "Britishness", supposed to be a brand or a list of values, was already in a poor state. Iraq - and Afghanistan - diminished the probity and reliability of the United Kingdom in almost all its overseas dealings. In European but also Atlantic affairs, the UK has become a slighter, less interesting partner in the past five years.

At home, if that's the right term for a house that has become so draughty and noisy, democracy has diminished. In the vapid lists of "British values" served up by the Prime Minister and his supporters, "fair play" always recurs. It is not fair for civilians in Peterborough to abuse RAF men and women in uniform because of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the government has not played fair with the public, or even with the politicians, over those wars. The citizens are aware that they have been lied to and misled, that the independence of the British state has been rendered hollow, that control of the executive through parliament has become an old bedtime story told to make them close their eyes, that the five-year narrative of British military success in those two countries - still ela borated every day in the media - is no more than propaganda to conceal long-term mission failure, that a people can march in millions and be ignored.

All Blair's fault? All caused by what John Major's election team used to call the "Tango Bravo Factor"? Not entirely. Every one of these offences originated before 2003, some in new Labour's handling of power from 1997 onwards and others inherent in Britain's archaic institutions. The importance of Iraq was that it violently accelerated democratic decay and linked it to a short-term crisis in government ethics. People felt the jar of wheels falling off and asked: "Why are we being lied to?" Then they asked: "Who will tell us the truth about these wars and speak for us?" It's wrong to say that nobody did. At different moments, individuals such as Sir Menzies Campbell, Robin Cook or George Galloway spoke truth both to power and to the people. But none of them was able to wipe away the sense of national and personal humiliation that Iraq has left behind. Too many big men and women, who could and should have spoken out too, kept silent.

So Britain is smaller abroad. For the first time (as many commentators have pointed out), Britain abandoned its balance-of-power tradition and identified completely with the foreign policy of a stronger state. The UK was not the victim of 9/11 and had no direct motive for armed conflict with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, let alone with Saddam Hussein. The decision to go along with American retaliation through regime change did not defend British interests in the region but sacrificed them.

Sir Geoffrey Howe, speaking a few days after 9/11, listed four conditions that could justify American military action. These were that the action should be deterrent or self- defensive and not retaliatory, that there should be hard evidence of the target's responsibility for the 2001 atrocity, that long-term international support could be guaranteed and that any attack should be accompanied by a new effort to solve the Palestine question. None was fulfilled. Blair did attempt to link a token Middle East initiative to his support for Bush over Iraq, but it was never - could never have been - taken seriously by either Israel or the United States.

In spite of these omens, Tony Blair took Britain to war. His rhetoric changed from "humanitarian rescue" to "the defence of civilisation and civilised values". Many voices, from foreign statesmen to our own Foreign Office, tried to warn him that George W Bush and the neocons were an entirely new species of American leadership. It would be a fatal mistake to think he could steer and persuade them, as he had persuaded Bill Clinton and his White House over Kosovo in 1999.

Uncritical loyalty

Blair ignored them. The statesmen shrugged. The Foreign Office put its face in its hands, suddenly feeling very old. For 50 years, British diplomats had acted as the rearguard, preventing Britain's long retreat from power from turning into a rout. Now this! In the years that followed, the FO watched Blair govern from a sofa; few if any of its careful, brilliant position papers reached him or his inner circle. The vital connections between a prime minister and the "great offices of state" - Foreign Office, Home Office, Treasury - fell into neglect.

What has Britain got out of the Iraq War? Uncritical loyalty is always abused. The June 2003 extradition agreement deman ded by the US is a horrifying abdication of legal self-respect. Perhaps the most shaming, revealing moment came when Donald Rumsfeld placed his tactless call to London on the eve of war, suggesting that British troops were not really needed for the fighting and that if Blair was under pressure at home, they could restrict themselves to rear-area guard duties. But the British did fight, and Britain's reward has been to be loathed and dismissed throughout the Muslim world as America's poodle, to suffer a small but very painful Islamic terror campaign at home, and to lose credibility in Europe. It is noticeable, for example, that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are now given much warmer welcomes in Washington than British visitors; German and French opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 turns out to have cost them nothing in American attention. (One of the most stubborn British myths is that the Americans want the UK to remain semi-detached from Europe, loyally preventing the formation of a rival superstate. On the contrary, the Americans have always wanted Britain to get closer in there, and they long for a coherent EU with a single voice.)

So the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the relationship less "special" than ever. Britain is weaker and more suspect in the world, and therefore less useful to American policies. Even the promised Trident warheads, token of renewed British nuclear dependence, are held up because the Americans have apparently used the wrong detergent to clean them up. Meanwhile, British forces have retreated into Basra airbase - the longest wait for a return flight in history - and in Afghanistan they do their best in a pointless war that everyone knows will be settled by a deal between the Pashtun and the other warlords.

How about the impact of the Iraq War on Britain itself? More accurately, how has this highly unpopular war affected the political climate, especially on the left? Organised pro-test against wars, especially expeditionary ones, has a long history in Britain. None of those movements succeeded, and yet the legacy of the protest has sometimes been as potent as that of the war itself. The "pro-Boer" campaigns against the South African war were a nursery for radical Liberal and socialist policies in the next generation. The "Law Not War" protest against the Suez invasion in 1956 abruptly ended the innocence of the postwar young, who had not imagined that the police could club women or that a British government could use criminal deceit to invade another nation. The Vietnam demonstrations were an induction into the social critique of the 1960s, even if the marchers learned little about Vietnam.

But "Not in My Name" was not the same as "Law Not War". To start with, these demonstrations were far bigger. They were also peaceful, marches of the non-marchers, whereas the Suez crowds tried to storm Downing Street and fought the police. Last, but very important, the Iraq protest had almost no articulation within parliamentary democracy. In 1956, the main opposition party - Labour, headed by Hugh Gait skell and Aneurin Bevan - used the whole labour movement infrastructure to pull people out on to the streets. In 2003, the Tories completely failed to recognise that the Iraq War was not a matter of "supporting our boys", but a menace to international order and a threat to their vision of Great Britain as a sovereign and independent state. A few - Malcolm Rifkind and Geoffrey Howe among them - saw what was at stake. But by refusing to support the Liberal Democrats and Labour rebels against the war, let alone to endorse the sea of outraged citizens with banners, the Conservatives betrayed their principles and, perhaps, their country.

Hate figures

War, which had rescued Margaret Thatcher's popularity in 1982, did the opposite for new Labour. Tony Blair became a hate figure in the same working-class parts of the United Kingdom that had once anchored their politics on hatred of Thatcher. But his grand "modernisation" project has driven ahead apparently undeterred; under Brown as under Blair as under Thatcher and Major, public services continue to be devolved to private speculators in spite of an accumulating pile of failures. New Labour's migration to the right leaves formations like the Scottish National Party commanding the social-democratic heights. At the 2005 elections, this convergence with the Tories made Tony Benn write in his diaries that "it's like three managing directors competing for the job of running Tesco's".

Has the war hastened the process? New Labour operates within exactly the same dialectic as Thatcher's governments did: as the state retreats from public service, so it advances its powers of social control. More "freedom of choice" for the consumer turns out to mean less freedom for the citizen. Fewer subsidies means more policemen. The Iraq War tempted the Blair governments and especially their home secretaries to snatch up the "war on terror" fantasy and use it to justify one repressive measure after another: extended detention without trial, new powers to search, bug and deport, the national identity database scheme, the crackdowns on asylum-seekers and immigrants, and all the other threatened or real erosions of civil liberty.

No wonder Baroness Thatcher said that new Labour was her greatest achievement. No wonder Tony Benn, looking back at the long disaster of the Iraq War, observes that, for the first time ever, the public has ended up to the left of a Labour government. Could this be the same party that, within months of winning power back in 1997, boldly handed over so much of the central state's authority to Scotland and Wales?

The outlook, after five years of war in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan, is dingy. Gordon Brown has missed the un repeatable opportunity for a new prime minister to de-nounce the war and promise "never again" for a slave rela tionship with an American president. Had he done so, he would have "spoken for Britain", transforming politics and his own prospects overnight. As it is, there are actually more Establishment voices in the US confessing that the Afghan and Iraq ventures are hopeless than there are in Britain. The longer we cling to false optimism, the harder it will be to extract ourselves from this mess.

And you happy, angry millions who flooded the streets five years ago - what do you feel now? "Not in My Name"? But a few days later it was done in your name, in spite of your passion. Blair pretended to take no notice; the next election did not throw him out; the killing has not stopped.

Does that mean that it's time to shrug and move on, that all passion against unjust war is futile? I don't think so. Demonstrations frighten governments more than they admit. Those who take part in them are changed, remembering a sense of strength that can last a lifetime. Meanwhile, the world has not moved on, but continues to burn; the madmen on all sides do not shrug but are laying new plots. Marchers with a passion for justice will be needed again, perhaps sooner than we think.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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An English tragedy: how Boris, Dave and Brexit were formed by Eton college

It's said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Was Britain's relationship with Europe wrecked there?

The brief window in which it was cool to be an Etonian has closed. That period was marked not just by Etonian success and visibility – in politics, on the stage, in the media, even on the balcony of Buckingham Palace – but also by a new-found unabashedness in expressing pride at having attended King Henry VI’s Thames-side ­college, founded for 70 poor scholars in 1440. David Cameron summed it up when he said he was “not embarrassed” that he had gone to “a fantastic school . . . because I had a great education and I know what a great education means”.

All this was quite strange and ­perturbing to me, as an alumnus of an older era, the 1970s, when being an Etonian seemed decidedly uncool. When asked which school we had attended, my contemporaries and I muttered that we had been to a comprehensive near Slough. It was perturbing because I always had my doubts about Etonian confidence, or arrogance.

The closing of this window can be dated precisely to the early hours of the morning of 24 June. At that moment, it became clear that David Cameron had taken an insouciant, arrogant and disastrous gamble, in the interests of maintaining Conservative Party unity, by calling an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union that he believed he was sure to
win. The window closed even more tightly a week later, when Boris Johnson, having helped to lead the Leave campaign, suddenly declared that he was no longer standing for the Tory leadership – the glittering prize for which he had apparently abandoned his principles and betrayed his friends.

If the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, it now appeared that Britain’s relationship with Europe, and even its continued integrity as a nation, had been wrecked there. It was no surprise that there should be a turning against Eton, with gleeful opinion pieces from the left-leaning commentariat mocking everything from Tom Hiddleston’s backside to the commitment to public service of one of our ablest MPs, Jesse Norman.

I find this reaction as shallow as the ­excessive pride that preceded it. Maybe that is not surprising, as I both love and feel dissatisfied, even disappointed, by the school where I spent five years of my boyhood and then two and a half years teaching English literature as a young adult. The feeling of let-down is more than personal. Eton has something to answer for, at a national level. A few years ago, I wrote these words: “I’ve often wondered whether this famous Eton confidence could be skin-deep: certainly people such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron do not lack chutzpah, but the confidence to believe you deserve the high position does not necessarily mean you possess the other talents – humility, for instance, and the ability to listen to others – needed to honour it.” Now the 11 Eton pupils who managed to secure an interview with Vladimir Putin have trumped even Cameron and Johnson
in the chutzpah department, but not necessarily added lustre to their alma mater.

I had a chance to reassess the ambivalence I feel about Eton, and to reflect on the role that this ancient and eccentric place has played in our national crisis, when I attended a reunion at my old school just three days after the dark night of 23 June.

This was not a reunion of old boys but a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Eton English department, an institution for which I feel affection and profound gratitude. As a boy, I was inspired not only to read voraciously and widely – the novels of Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Dickens, William Faulkner; the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, T S Eliot, Charles Causley, Louis MacNeice, Henry Vaughan; Shakespeare at his most intense – but also to analyse, think and feel simultaneously. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Dickens’s Hard Times opened my eyes to conditions as far from my comfortable Home Counties upbringing as you could imagine, to the realities of racial segregation and working-class ­deprivation; opened my heart, too, I hope.
I was being challenged to reflect on my privilege, even be discomfited by it – not just blindly perpetuate it.

For those reasons, I was honoured to be invited back to teach, initially for just a year, in the department that had given me so much mind-and-soul nourishment. I was not the most confident or organised of teachers, but pupils I bumped into years later said they had enjoyed and gained something from classes in which discipline was not always the tightest. A debate I set up to discuss the miners’ strike turned into a riot. Above all, I enjoyed directing motivated and talented boys in productions of Journey’s End and Death of a Salesman which moved audiences.

***

Inspiration, warmth and a streak of anarchy are, perhaps, not the qualities you associate with Eton. But they were present in the English department, which started as a sort of anti-establishment challenge to the hegemony of classics. Angus Graham-Campbell, my laconic head of department, summed up the department’s signature virtues as scholarship, exuberance and irreverence.

The English department was not exactly typical of Eton as a whole. It was, I suppose, the haven for sensitive and artistic souls, for subversives and mavericks. Eton had other, for me less attractive, sides. I particularly disliked Pop, the self-elected club of prefects who strutted their stuff and lorded it over underlings in brightly embroidered waistcoats – the club to which Boris Johnson (but not David Cameron) belonged. This was more Game of Thrones than “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.

Eton, above all, was intensely male, intensely hierarchical and intensely competitive. Like Boris, I was a King’s Scholar; successors of the original 70 poor scholars, we lived apart from other Etonians in ancient quarters close to the 15th-century chapel, wore gowns and competed more for academic honours than for social kudos. Like Boris, I won the Newcastle Scholarship in classics and divinity, a strange 19th-century leftover that involved composing verses in Greek iambics, reading the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles in Greek and answering a paper on the doctrine of the Atonement – all in the term before A-levels.

I was proud of my academic achievements. But having had a chance to reflect on the Etonian male culture of competition from the outside, and then seeing it from a different angle when I went back to teach there, I began to doubt how healthy it was. I realised that coming top of the form and winning prizes had mattered far too much to me. It had even affected my choice of A-levels; I was good at classics and felt fairly confident of being the biggest fish in that smallish pond, rather than swimming in the broader waters of history and modern languages. Surely what mattered was finding yourself, your passion and your vocation?

I was artistically minded and Eton provided wonderful opportunities in drama (the groundwork was being laid for the flowering of acting talent we have seen recently) and music; but “creative writing” and painting, encouraged up to the age of 14, were suddenly put away as childish things when you reached adolescence (this, mind you, is not unique to Eton). From the age of 15, I never even considered choosing to go to music, art or drama school rather than taking the well-worn path to an Oxbridge scholarship. Achieving that seemed to be the pinnacle of Etonian success, and the only thing my worldly housemaster ever cared about.

Certainly no one talked much about happiness or emotional health. Eton’s pastoral care seemed close to non-existent. I kept my unhappiness to myself, with unhelpful consequences. For four of my contemporaries in college, who committed suicide in their late teens or twenties, the consequen­ces were more dire.

This may be sounding too much like a personal lament, or a reprise of Cyril Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence in Enemies of Promise. I found my way eventually to what I wanted to be and do (it involved a lot of psychotherapy and a wonderfully liberating year in Barcelona). But I think my criticisms of Eton have a bearing on our national tragedy.

The atmosphere at the Eton English department celebration a few weeks ago did not lack the appropriate exuberance and irreverence, and the setting in the provost’s garden, surrounded with sculptures by Rodin, Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, was exquisitely beautiful. Yet I could not help sensing the unquiet ghosts of Dave and Boris stalking the corridors behind us. I imagined them locked in an immature male rivalry that has ended up inflicting incalculable damage on a nation. Now Dave has decided to quit the political stage, leaving rather little in the way of legacy behind him.

Perhaps Boris, the King’s Scholar, could not forgive Dave for winning the ultimate prize. However, in taking revenge, he found himself hoist with his own petard, before somehow managing to emerge with a lesser prize, which some see as a ­poisoned chalice.

It all made me think of that supremely pointless sport, the Eton wall game. I played once or twice before giving up, repelled by the sheer unpleasantness of being ground into either brick or mud, and the tedium of a game in which the last goal had been scored in 1909. As a Colleger, though, I supported our team of brainboxes, drawn from the 70 scholars to play against the brawn of the Oppidans (the rest of the school, 1,200 of them). No doubting that it was antler-to-antler stuff, or like the contests of male musk oxen that knock each other senseless.

Eton remains archaic in its attitude towards women. It is still a boys-only boarding school (though a small number of girls, mainly the daughters of teachers, have been pupils there), and the staff are overwhelmingly male. Being largely cut off from women and girls for much of your boyhood and adolescence does not seem to me an ideal recipe for emotional health, or for regarding women as equals.

The school that has educated 19 prime ministers may provide a brilliant academic education and countless other opportunities, but it can leave its pupils emotionally floundering behind a façade of polish and charm. The effects of that emotional impoverishment can be far-reaching indeed. I am encouraged that the new headmaster, Simon Henderson, has signalled a change of tone at Eton, with more stress on “emotional intelligence” and “mental health”. That change is long overdue.

Harry Eyres is the author of “Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet”, published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation