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Leader: The Iraq War and its aftermath

The war in Iraq has emboldened violent jihadis and inflamed sectarian conflict and profoundly changed the shape of British politics.

The publication of the Chilcot inquiry report on 6 July was belated but also timely. Many of the causes of the public’s vote to leave the European Union the loathing of mainstream politicians, the distrust of the elite, the desire for the United Kingdom to disengage from the world – can be traced back to the decision to invade Iraq 13 years ago.

On 15 February 2003, one million protesters in Britain marched against the war. They were expressing not only their opposition to the impending conflict in Iraq, but their disbelief about the infamous, and now debunked, claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be activated within 45 minutes. They were also voicing their scepticism about the ambitions of Tony Blair, who responded to the atrocities of 11 September 2001 by declaring, in a speech to the Labour party conference, “The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. ­Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

The world has certainly been reordered since Blair’s speech, but not in ways that he promised. According to Iraq Body Count, up to 180,000 civilians have died in the various conflicts that have followed the invasion of Iraq in March 2003; the death toll, including combatants, exceeds 250,000. The blighted country remains in a state of war: a suicide bomb in Baghdad on 3 July killed more than 150 people. As our diarist Jeremy Bowen writes on page 21, Iraq “has not had a day of real peace since the invasion in 2003”.

The latest attack was claimed by Islamic State, which grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a militant group that became active after the invasion and because of the botched US-led occupation. The Baghdad bombing ended four horrific weeks in which Islamic State was responsible for or inspired attacks that claimed more than 800 lives in Bangladesh, France, Libya, the Philippines, Turkey and the United States.

Instead of creating a benign liberal democracy, the war in Iraq has emboldened violent jihadis and inflamed sectarian conflict. The country’s politics remain precarious and deeply unstable, defined by sectarianism that pits Arabs against Kurds, and Shias against Sunnis. Christians have fled or been “cleansed” from much of the region.

The disorder in Iraq has gravely affected the wider Middle East, empowering Iran, heightening tensions with Saudi Arabia and greatly complicating the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where as many as 400,000 people have died since 2011 and many millions have been displaced. The instability in the Middle East has also contributed to the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

This crisis was shamelessly exploited by the Leave side in  the EU referendum campaign. A week before the vote, ­Nigel Farage, who this week resigned from front-line politics, unveiled a poster showing a long queue of desolate refugees behind a caption declaring that Britain had reached “breaking point”. The mendacious claim that Turkey was on the verge of joining the EU bringing 75 million people, mostly Muslims, into a free-movement zone – was repeated constantly by the Brexiteers.

The Iraq War has also had a profound impact on the culture of British politics. It was the first in a chain of events, followed by the banking crash of 2008, the MPs’ expenses scandal, and the breaking of promises – notably the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to oppose any increase in university tuition fees – during the coalition government, which has culminated in a corrosive breakdown of trust in the elite.

“People in this country have had enough of experts,” declared Michael Gove during the EU referendum campaign. He was proved right. Many of those who cast their vote for Leave were not merely ignoring the advice of leading politicians, banks and businesses; some appear to have been motivated by an active desire to antagonise this elite. All the while, the veracity or otherwise of the grand claims made by the Leave campaign was irrelevant. As we have discovered in the days since the vote, there was little plan for Brexit, just as there was little plan for a post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq. Once again, our politicians have focused on the necessity of winning over the public to their point of view, and given scant thought to what comes once they get what they have argued for.

The UK is in an era of post-truth politics, for which the Iraq War and its legacy can take much of the blame. 

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.