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Being right about the Iraq war has made the left insufferable

Iraq gave a whole section of the British left a sense of burning, brilliant superiority. But that isn’t a good enough foundation for political life.

I was right about the 2003 Iraq war. I thought it was a bad idea, and it was a bad idea. For a long time this fact was very important to me. From late 2002 till the start of hostilities, the prospect of war, and whether it could be averted, was the guiding obsession of my life: I consumed all the news I could, hunting out signs and omens of what was coming. I was 21, a student with a baby, and had never cared about anything so much. The stakes were so high, and the issue so staggeringly obvious: of course Al Qaeda was not in Iraq, of course 45 minutes was a nonsense, of course this was really about oil, unfinished Bush family business, and some other hard-to-define international pressures that it definitely wouldn’t be anti-Semitic to discuss.

The wrongness of the war, and my rightness about that wrongness, mattered to me a great deal – not just in the run-up to the invasion, but for years afterwards. The division between pro-war and anti-war cleaved a sharp line through the world between the lost and the saved. For the remainder of the decade, I would judge an MP on their voting record on Iraq; a journalist on their coverage of Iraq; a publication on its editorial line on Iraq. And the moral certainty of that period was simply blissful. I do not believe I am alone in this: being right about Iraq gave a whole section of the British left a sense of burning, brilliant superiority.

This is particularly true for the part of the left that felt generally alienated by New Labour. Uncharitably, one might describe this as the part of the left that didn’t know how to win. That includes the hard-left factions that have always been, frankly, unpopular. It also includes a lot of people like me who were young enough to have never known Labour as a party of government before 1997 – people for whom supporting Labour was synonymous with opposing the party in power. Once your avatar of resistance to the government was the government, what were you to do? Feel deeply and painfully disappointed, over and over again, it transpired. The legacy of Blair’s tenure is not unmixed, but it is easier – much easier – to be right about everything when you don’t have to enact your policies.

It’s fortunate that losing felt like home, because losing over the Iraq war was otherwise desperately sad. I remember taking part in the Stop the War march in Sheffield, and I remember it being a drizzly and defeated sort of day as we shuffled around Barker’s Pool, me pushing a pram with one hand, holding my crying baby with the other. I remember thinking, we’re not stopping anything. This has already happened. I remember hearing something drifting over from a loudspeaker, something about Israel that I felt not entirely comfortable with, but then anti-Zionism wasn’t anti-Semitism and wasn’t it important to be able to question Israel? (An aside: over ten years later, I am very sure that if you "question" the existence of Israel, a state that has given refuge to a universally persecuted people, you are in fact an anti-Semite.)

I was right that the case for war was bad, and rushed. But there was a case for war – maybe a sufficient one, maybe not, but a better one than 45 minutes. Saddam Hussein was monstrous. He killed and killed and killed. The choice was never a simple one between the good of non-intervention and the ill of intervention: doing nothing and leaving a genocidal dictator in power was an ill too, and the fact that what was done was done badly does not change that. Now, it is bloodily, horribly obvious that the plan for post-invasion Iraq was barely thought out, but I do not think that the anti-war left should take much comfort in that. It would have been better to be wrong. It would have been better, in fact, to prove ourselves wrong – to divert political energies from stopping the war (or being right that the war should never have started) and into building a plan for Iraq after Saddam.

This did not happen. I was right, and my being right helped no one, ameliorated no violence, saved no lives. Or rather, it helped one person, meaning me – helped by giving my world a gleaming sense of right and wrong that made an otherwise morally awkward universe much easier to navigate. It took until 2012 for rape apologist Assange supporters to kill that certainty off in me, but by 2010 it had begun to pall, and if I wasn't exactly over it (I wanted Ed Miliband to become Labour leader in part because his short parliamentary career meant he was unscathed by Iraq), I was certainly looking forward to being over it, and hoped that the accession of Miliband jr would allow for a break with the war-rifted recent history of Labour.

That, I was wrong about. The left is not even nearly done with the comforting confidence of an Iraq-based ethics system – for example, the organisation Media Lens, while claiming to criticise the biases of corporate news, is in practice largely engaged in an endless project of separating the anti-war sheep from the goats to be purged. Iraq is part of the reason for Corbyn's breezy rise: he's pure of war taint. The fact that his anti-war credentials have led him into associations with Holocaust deniers and other unsavoury types is of no import when he can promise an apology for the Iraq war – at last, a politician willing to say sorry for a decision he bears no responsibility for and win rectitude by blaming his predecessors. The new politics we've all been waiting for. Being right about Iraq is not, ultimately, a good enough foundation for political life. The longer the left behaves as though it is, the closer we get to redundancy and death.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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