Adrian Hamilton: The Iraq effect is far from over in British politics

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One of the most depressing – and, I think, misguided – comments on Ming Campbell's fall was that his stance on Iraq was looking less and less relevant now that the subject was slipping off the political agenda. Perhaps it is in terms of the parliamentary debate. Perhaps it is true that the politicians in Westminster would rather write off the whole thing as a chapter of misjudgements which can now be closed as the main players leave the stage and the troops come home, allowing today's MPs to forget the whole unhappy incident.

But that is not how those who opposed the war feel. Not by a long chalk. For a great many people – several million probably – the decision to wage war was a profoundly immoral act, which cannot be brushed under the carpet now that we're retreating. Nor can the politicians who voted for invasion be simply allowed to forget what they did, not at least without some public acknowledgement of their part in a decision which they took so lightly then and still don't seem to comprehend in its full enormity now.

This is not just about blame, although there has been a glaring absence of the kind of purging of those responsible that might make it possible to restore the body politic. It is also about the whole approach to foreign policy in these confused and bloody times. If Ming Campbell can be found wanting in his handling of foreign issues, it is that he never quite took on board the anger over Iraq. Nor was he able to build on it to present a really forceful alternative Lib Dem policy on foreign affairs.

On Afghanistan, the party has been strong in voicing doubts, but on the nuclear deterrent, Iran, the question of sanctions, and even over Europe, the party has appeared just woolly, preferring to make consumer-friendly noises on, say, Darfur or Burma rather than develop hard and distinctive policies.

Yet there is room for an alternative voice, and a real need for one. The Government can't provide it. For all the talk of a fresh start, a loosening of ties with the US, a more nuanced policy in the Middle East, the reality of the Brown administration is that it cannot break free from the past. It is doomed to continue on the Blair path at least until the US gets a new president. And even a change in Washington won't make that big a difference, particularly if Hillary Clinton gets in.

Yes, Brown can accelerate the exit from Iraq. But he can't break free of the "special relationship", as his visit to Washington last summer showed, and he's chosen to dig in even more deeply in Afghanistan, partly in compensation for defeat in Iraq. Over Middle East peace, as over Iran, he is stuck with a European policy that has been dragged along by a White House seeking punishment of Tehran and isolation of Hamas and Hizbollah. On Europe, the Prime Minister is even more beleaguered, wriggling to get out of a commitment to holding a referendum in a way that has made him seem undemocratic in the eyes of his own country and antagonistic in the eyes of the Continent.

The Tories are no different. They may huff and puff over the mistakes in Iraq, but, like Labour, they have committed themselves to ever greater commitment to the Afghan mission. Like Brown they are committed to a replacement for Trident. And over Europe they have only been saved from exposing their own divisions by the obscene gyrations of the Government.

Into this gap the Lib Dems should be steaming with all flags flying. We don't need to follow Iraq with an equally blind entanglement in Afghanistan. There is an alternative to a policy of escalating confrontation with Iran. There is no requirement to isolate and demonise Hamas, or Hizbollah. We don't need to follow a contortionist, cowardly approach to Europe nor a vague, ill-defined policy towards the reformation of international institutions from the UN to Nato, the World Bank and the IMF.

The disappointment of the Lib Dems is that they are already half way there. They have a locus on Iraq and therefore on Afghanistan. They are by tradition and belief the most pro-European of the UK parties. They know that should develop alternative policies on Trident, Iran and the Middle East. But somehow they have so far been unable to translate this into a policy which takes them on from their history of opposing the Iraq invasion.

You can blame this on Ming Campbell for being too fair and nice, on the party for shying away so often from the implications of its own beliefs, on politics for being so wary of tackling the hard issues of the world. What you can't blame it on is a public readiness to forgive and forget the Iraq invasion. That there isn't.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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