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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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad