8.5.5        The British Political Perspective on Invading Iraq

(This is an archived extract from the book Patterns of Power: Edition 2)

Britain’s two largest political parties were each divided on the decision to invade Iraq.  Robin Cook, the Leader of the House, gave the most eloquent summary of the reasons not to invade Iraq during his resignation speech on 17 March 2003,[1] in which he said:

“On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain.

They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect that they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US Administration with an agenda of its own.

Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies.”

Robin Cook resigned because he disagreed with what Tony Blair was trying to do, and because he wished to oppose him in the Parliamentary debate which followed on 18 March 2003, just before the invasion.[2]  The full width of the British political spectrum was visible in that debate and there was vigorous disagreement, including a further ministerial resignation,[3] but Tony Blair was able to persuade the House to support him.  He reminded MPs of the attempts to appease Hitler before the Second World War, and argued that the UN should not fall into a similar trap:

“The UN should be the focus both of diplomacy and of action. That is what [Resolution] 1441 said. That was the deal. And I simply say to the House that to break it now, and to will the ends but not the means, would do more damage in the long term to the UN than any other single course that we could pursue. To fall back into the lassitude of the past 12 years; to talk, to discuss, to debate but never to act; to declare our will but not to enforce it; and to continue with strong language but with weak intentions—that is the worst course imaginable. If we pursue that course, when the threat returns, from Iraq or elsewhere, who will then believe us? What price our credibility with the next tyrant?” [4]

This argument amounted to a declaration that America and Britain would be strengthening the UN by overriding it in the case of Iraq.  The motion to support “the decision of Her Majesty's Government that the United Kingdom should use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction” was carried by 412 votes to 149.

The Parliamentary debate had been dominated by the personality of Tony Blair.  He was able to convince people to follow him, despite opposition.  He was following his own instincts, despite the advice he had received.  Professor Raymond Geuss cited the occasion when Blair was being advised that changing the regime in Iraq would run the risk of unleashing sectarian conflict and that rebuilding the country would be difficult:

“Blair is said to have listened with evident lack of interest and increasing annoyance, and to have repeatedly interrupted the experts with the rhetorical question: ‘But Saddam is evil, isn’t he?’ In his own later formulation, his political credo was: ‘All I know is what I believe’”.[5]

This is an example of hubris in personality politics (, where an individual leader dominates a political system and is able to override advice.

Tony Blair personally shared George W. Bush’s perception of Saddam Hussein as being “evil”, so he supported the American policy to bring about regime change in Iraq (8.4.5).  He searched for the political message which was most likely to convince both Parliament and the British people that the war was necessary.[6]  Like Bush, he based his argument on Iraq’s WMD,[7] and published British intelligence reports which had had their caveats removed to strengthen his case.[8]  He also tried to harness moral indignation, at Saddam’s behaviour, to persuade the British people that regime change was a cause worth fighting for.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014

[1] The BBC reported Robin Cook’s resignation speech, in which he said "I cannot support a war without international agreement or domestic support" on 18 March 2003 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/2859431.stm (available in April 2014).

[2] The official Hansard record of the debate was available in April 2014 as a sequence of web pages, starting at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo030318/debtext/30318-06.htm (column 760).

[3] John Denham, the Minister of State for Policing, gave his resignation speech during the debate on 18 March 2003.  The Hansard record of this speech was available in April 2014 at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo030318/debtext/30318-16.htm (column 797ff).

[4] Ibid: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo030318/debtext/30318-08.htm (column 769ff).

[5] Raymond Geuss, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, wrote an article entitled When morality fails, which was published in the RSA Autumn Journal 2008 and was available in April 2014 at http://www.thersa.org/fellowship/journal/archive/autumn-2008/features/when-morality-fails.  It argued that “To achieve truly effective politics we need to shift the focus away from our moral intuitions and the importance of their consistency”.  His book Philosophy and Real Politics was published by Princeton University Press in 2008.

[6] John Gray, in his book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, described Blair’s political and moral convictions and the way in which Blair was prepared to be devious in order to achieve his aims:

“..Blair has been the modern man he claims to be: for him, a sense of subjective certainty is all that is needed for an action to be right. If deception is needed to realise the providential design, it cannot be truly deceitful.

Deception has been integral at every stage of the Iraq War.  ….  Blair always insisted publicly that its goal was not regime change - which he knew to be legally unacceptable as a ground for attacking the country - but the threat posed by Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction.”

This text appeared in an extract from Gray’s book, which was published by The Independent on 22 June 2007 under the title Neoconned!: How Blair Took New Labour for a Ride.  The text of this article was available in April 2014 (after some trenchant comments on liberal interventionism) at http://retort.ludd.net/msg00849.html.

[7] Richard Sanders described Blair’s reasons for believing in the existence of the WMD, his religiosity, and his support for George W. Bush, in an article entitled The Blair mission, which was published in Prospect on 27th January 2010 and was available in April 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/01/the-blair-mission/.

[8] The ‘Butler report’, entitled Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction, was published on 14 July 2004 and was available in April 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/14_07_04_butler.pdf.  It said, of the government’s dossier which had been made available to the public in September 2002:

“We conclude that it was a serious weakness that the JIC’s warnings on the limitations of the intelligence underlying its judgements were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier.” (p. 114, para. 465 – which shows as p.128 in the pdf version of the report).