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 appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers