AMOMENT in global history, a rare articulation of political connectedness and consciousness happened on 15 February in 2003.
From London to Glasgow to Ullapool to New York, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Tokyo, people took to the streets to protest about the Blair-Bush march to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi dictatorship.
George W Bush and Tony Blair were determined on war; Bush to complete the job his father didn’t in the first Gulf War; Blair as a true believer in liberal intervention and enlightened imperialism investing his political being in the notion of the power of military force to do good.
At the last minute, Bush offered Blair a way out for Britain militarily, only for Blair to respond, “I’m here to the very end”.
What then were the consequences of the anti-war marches and Blair and Bush’s decision to go to war? First and obviously, Iraq was freed of one of the most murderous, tyrannical dictatorships of recent times.
However, what came with liberation was chaos and civil war. According to Iraqi Body Count, a web-based attempt to record civilian deaths, 157,531 Iraqis died in the eight years after the invasion. A 2006 study by the Lancet estimated that 655,000 Iraqi “excess deaths” occurred related to the war. And there was the loss of 4,488 American and 179 British military personnel, and the financial cost estimated by one study to be as high as $3 trillion (£1.9trn) for the US.
The huge anti-war marches had a discernable effect on British and American politics. They mobilised new constituencies beyond the traditional left, shocked at the brazenness and hubris of their political elites, and this created a seismic shock in trust levels between people and politicians which have never fully recovered.
Blair post-9/11 departed from the mainstream, buying into a near-messianic view of the world as one of good guys and bad guys, and seeing from Egypt to Libya and today in Syria and Chad, the menace of al-Qaeda and a perverted form of Islam which he believed the West and Muslims needed to take on uncompromisingly.
As crucially in Britain, there was a direct lineage from the disasters and humiliations of Munich to Suez to Iraq. This was centred on the obsession of the British political classes with the Second World War, misreading the lessons of the 1930s into numerous conflicts and wanting to stand up to dictators and not make the mistake of appeasement as Britain had done with Hitler.
Anthony Eden read Suez this way, calling the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser “a little Hitler”; Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands conflict used the same language invoking the Churchillian rhetoric of standing up to a fascist dictatorship, while Blair saw Saddam as a threat to the West who had to be dealt with.
Thatcher was transformed by the Falklands, but both Eden and Blair’s reputations never recovered from their respective foreign policy expeditions.
Blair’s wounded government won an unconvincing third term on 35 per cent of the vote, but it had been drained of its political energy, and his dreams of European integration involving Britain and membership of the euro were left in tatters.
Iraq, and Blair’s numerous wars, according to the respected sociologist Colin Crouch, tell us something about the West.
Britain, the US, Australia and others were, he argued, changing fundamentally as societies, from welfare states, in which support and solidarity were the benchmarks of the body politic, to what he saw as warfare states, nations which were nearly permanently in a state of conflict or heightened anxiety and paranoia about imminent threats. Governments which explicitly said we cannot look after you in welfare, pensions or other social rights, would now promise to keep you safe at night in your home from those bad guys all over the world out to get you.
Then there is the story of accountability, and learning the lessons and mistakes of Iraq. In June 2009, the Chilcot inquiry was finally announced six years after the war, but despite the fact it stopped taking evidence at the start of 2011, it will not produce a draft private report for witnesses to see until this summer at the earliest, and will not publicly report until 2014, or 2015. This is, after the farces of the Hutton and Butler reports, further evidence of how the British administrative elite has traditionally done things.
Since Iraq, there have been a series of systematic crises at the heart of the British establishment, which our politicians, Blair, Brown and Cameron, have shown themselves increasingly out of touch with, hardly understanding the scale and depth of public anger, and failing to offer any credible solutions beyond platitudes.
While this has all occurred the British public still waits patiently for what should be the ultimate verdict on Iraq, the Chilcot inquiry, to report on what was done in our name in Basra and Fallujah. By the time it comes out it is possible that three UK general elections will have passed and many of its central figures such as Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell show no signs of understanding the moral, political and humanitarian disaster that they embroiled this country in.
It is a sad statement on the condition of British democracy that we await a judge to bring some sense of account for such a set of disasters which have so tarnished Britain’s reputation. And we need to reflect not just on the road to a war that was one of choice, not necessity, but a political system which repeatedly cannot bring failed politicians (and other public figures) to account.