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.