It started as an accident of geography: after one RAF runway closed, the bodies of British soldiers killed in action were repatriated from Iraq and Afghanistan to RAF Lyneham and then through the Wiltshire market town of Wootton Bassett, on their way to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. From April 2007 until August 2011 the town became the site of unofficial national mourning: relatives, tourists, foreign media, politicians and dignitaries came to pay their respects as the funeral corteges made their way down the high street. In 2010 the town became a site of political conflict: Anjem Choudary’s Islam4UK threatened to protest the murders of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was met by a pre-emptive rally of Tommy Robinson’s far-right English Defence League.
In this rich and deeply reported long read, the New Statesman’s editor, Jason Cowley, revisits the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion. He tells the story of one fallen soldier – a relative – and of the town at the centre of England’s response to wars that were increasingly unpopular. He talks to Tony Blair, who justifies the invasion as an opportunity for Britain to redefine its role in the world; and to the former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who describes it as a “disaster… because Blair used his presentational skills to persuade people of something that turned out not to be true, namely the existence of weapons of mass destruction”. Twenty years on, the consequences are still being felt, in the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 – and in the small market town of Wootton Bassett.
Written by Jason Cowley and read by Hugh Smiley.
This article originally appeared in the 17 March edition of the New Statesman, and is an edited extract from the new edition of Jason Cowley’s Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England, published in paperback on 31 March (Picador). You can read the text version here.
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[See also: Explainer: The A-Z of the Iraq War]
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