Chilcot: a sadness reprised

So now the dust begins to settle, at least insofar as it ever will when we talk about the events of 2003 in Iraq.

I think back to that period in my life with a real sense of sadness, a feeling that has been reprised with the arrival of the Chilcot report. It was seven years in the making, probably about five years too long for all those whose lives have been put on hold, just waiting.

I will not pretend to have digested its 2.5 million words. But those of us who went through the lobbies of the House of Commons in 2003 will always be affected and in some way shaped by the events of 2003, whichever way we voted.

For what it is worth, my nine years as a member of parliament were marked by the the Iraq war. I do not celebrate voting against my party and I will never attack those who took a different view to me – I know the pressure those members of parliament were under. I felt it too.

Despite the strongest three-line whip a government has ever laid down, I felt I had to vote against the Iraq war for what were, for me, some pretty clear reasons. Reasons that did not need a seven-year inquiry to shape.

My recollection of that period in history is very vivid. We never got the second UN resolution we had promised the British people as a prerequisite for an invasion. The UN weapons inspector Hans Blix wanted more time for his work but was not afforded the opportunity – the weather was changing and the US troops would have suffered in the intense Iraqi summer heat if they were asked to wait longer. George Bush was not prepared to wait.

The night before the vote in parliament the dearly departed Robin Cook gave the most eloquent of resignation speeches explaining why, as a former foreign secretary, with all the military intelligence that entails, he felt there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. By chance rather than design I found myself sat on the bench in front of him, every sentence making a cogent case against war. Most importantly, my gut told me that this was all wrong.

In the end it was a judgement call for all 650 MPs. I think the strongest arguments for the invasion were not WMD, but the removal of a tyrant. But there are many tyrants in the world, so why this one? When the second UN resolution did not come through, another argument was pushed, not least by Clare Short – the international development secretary at the time, who argued for our involvement in order to be head of the queue to help rebuild Iraq post-conflict. But I could not be persuaded we would have that influence and, for me, it was not a strong enough case for us to join an American-led invasion.

Thirteen years after the vote for war, and seven years after the Chilcot inquiry began, perhaps a little piece of me, and perhaps a little piece of the other 139 MPs who went through the ‘aye’ lobby (those of us who are still alive) in support of Robin’s ‘rebel’ amendment, can stop wrestling with ourselves a little.

I did not want to be right, I really wanted to be proved wrong. I hoped that those who thought it would be a short battle and that the Iraqis would feel liberated would ultimately be right. But I feared it would actually make Iraq and the world a more unstable place.

It ha taken seven years, millions of words and millions of pounds for Chilcot to report. And all along I hoped that history would prove 139 of us to be wrong. Thankfully we live in a democracy and you might disagree with me to this day. Thirteen years after the event it still evokes strong feelings. But I am glad I followed my conscience, and my gut feeling.

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Parmjit Dhanda is a former minister and is a candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee. He tweets @ParmjitDhanda

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