The left should stop congratulating themselves about the Iraq War being disastrous. Photo: Getty
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The answer to Iraq’s current crisis is not the left re-fighting the arguments of 2003

As soon as Iraq plunges into another disaster, the 2003 reenactment society gets back together, presenting a simple case of cause and effect  but the ISIS insurgency wasn’t inevitable.

I marched against the invasion of Iraq and I was right. Bully for me.
 
As the Sunni extremists of ISIS sweep through Iraq, the western left returns like a homing pigeon to the political battles of 2003, wrongly but understandably. Although the anti-war campaign was a defeat in practical terms, it was a resounding moral victory. We were more right than we could have possibly known. Like my fellow marchers, I knew that the war was illegal and unnecessary but I didn’t predict what a fiasco it would be. We assumed the neocons had a devious masterplan; their callous incompetence came as a shock. Whatever Blair and his dogged loyalists might say, history has utterly vindicated the demonstrators. Even Glenn Beck, of all people, has come around to agreeing with them. But that was then. What now?
 
Victory has a tendency to corrupt judgement. If not for the brevity of the first Iraq war, the toppling of the Taliban (short-lived though it turned out to be) and the effectiveness of Blair’s pet crusades in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Blair and Bush would not have been so bullishly confident about Iraq. Similarly, the left has a tendency to treat 2003 like a geopolitical skeleton key that unlocks every problem since, as if US and UK foreign policy hadn’t moved in inch.
 
In reality, the neocons have been humbled and sidelined even within the Republican party. Neither President Obama, Congress nor the American public has much appetite for another war (drone strikes, of course, are another matter). Even rapprochement with the old enemy Iran is underway. In Britain, Cameron has none of Blair’s dangerous moral conviction and nor do most of his ministers, with the notable exception of Michael Gove. The west’s most enthusiastic (and, in Mali, successful) intervener isn’t a neocon at all but France’s socialist president. It’s either ignorant or disingenuous to pretend that nothing much has changed in western capitals, let alone elsewhere.
 
What about the war’s legacy? Naturally, as soon as Iraq plunges into another disaster, the 2003 reenactment society gets back together, presenting a simple case of cause and effect. It’s a familiar dance and I know all the steps. But the ISIS insurgency wasn’t inevitable. Without the war in Syria or Nouri al-Maliki’s divisive governance, things could have been different. Conversely, there is no way of knowing how things would have unfolded if Saddam had been in power during the Arab Spring, or died of natural causes and left a weakened Ba’ath party. To hack through this forest of counterfactuals and confidently say the west caused the current crisis, or suggest that Islamists wouldn’t be pursuing their militant agenda here and elsewhere if Bush and Blair had stayed their hands, is simplistic at best.
 
The kneejerk invocation of 2003 during every foreign policy crisis has come to feel not just lazy but morally cheap. The anti-war camp won the day over Syria but the ongoing slaughter and humanitarian crisis is nothing to crow about. Might western intervention have made the situation worse? Very possibly, but the absence of it hasn’t made it better. There’s no reason to feel especially proud, unless your only concern is what the west does.
 
But then I suspect for many people it is. The solipsism of the neocons is to believe the west can and should fix all of the world's problems; the solipsism of a sector of the left is to believe the west causes all of the word's problems. Neither worldview properly takes into account the agency, history and local circumstances of other countries — the idea that they might do both great and terrible things without the west’s involvement — but each one provides a powerful sense of moral clarity.
 
Clarity is attractive. I feel confident when it comes to 2003, or the shabby Islamophobia of the tabloids, or the hysteria over the non-existent “Trojan horse” plot in Birmingham schools. It's easy to know which side you’re on. I’m almost comforted by the sporadic appearances of Tony Blair, even more grotesquely messianic now that he doesn’t have voters to worry about, because his denial is so appalling that I can say, “Ah yes, we were right. Terrible man, terrible war.”
 
But when I hear about ISIS, or Boko Haram, or Syria, or murderous Islamists in Pakistan or Kenya I just feel impotent rage and sorrow. Terrified of seeming remotely warmongering, the left hasn’t developed the intellectual machinery with which to talk about Islamist atrocities and the void is painful.
 
So I feel the tug of that solipsism and self-congratulation, nostalgic for a moment when the west was simply wrong and I felt I could do my bit by trying to prevent a useless war, because it makes me feel marginally less helpless now, even though I know it's an illusion of no real use to anyone. But I prefer honestly pained ambivalence to the hard certainty of those who obsessively hark back to 2003 in lieu of wrestling with what’s happening now and accepting how much of it cannot be pinned on western belligerence. It’s OK not to have answers to fiendishly complicated situations that bring misery to millions but the license to be smug about making the right call 11 years ago has expired.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt