Charles Kennedy was right on Iraq. And 15 years after the war, in the light of Brexit, it is of far more than historical importance to say so.
Fifteen years ago, November 2003, was a bleak milestone: 100 British soldiers already killed and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives lost. It was becoming painfully clear that the weapons of mass destruction that had justified the war were non-existent.
At this stage, we had failed even to locate Saddam Hussein. American helicopters were being shot out of the sky. The long, bloody insurgency had begun that would end up trapping US and British troops in Iraq for a decade, serving as midwife to Isis, destabilising the region, and fostering an exodus of refugees.
It was a repeat of the Vietnam War – less bloody but no less misguided. But whereas Harold Wilson skilfully kept Britain out of Vietnam, despite huge pressure from LBJ, Tony Blair decided to make Iraq a joint venture with George W Bush. This was a fateful judgement that bitterly divided Britain and Europe – and his own Labour party – divisions which have still not fully healed because the consequences were so great.
As it happens, I thought Iraq a mistake at the time and said so to Blair. But I claim no moral high ground. I didn’t resign, partly out of loyalty to a leader who I admired and still admire, partly because I worked on domestic policy, and partly because I never saw the intelligence justifying an invasion which in every other respect was wrong and ill-advised. My friend Roy Jenkins said this to me – and to Blair – with vehemence before he died, shortly before the invasion. He drew the Vietnam parallel explicitly.
However, Kennedy, as leader of the Lib Dems, did oppose the war publicly at the time. He was courageous, he was right, and he sends a powerful message to us today.
Kennedy was a lonely voice of opposition to the war, yet spoke with strength and composure throughout.
In the Commons, he was jeered and heckled by both government and Tory MPs when he spoke during the key debate authorising the invasion. The press mobilised synthetic outrage, The Sun calling him a “spineless reptile that spits venom”, and a snake. There was even a special pull-out for people to throw darts at “traitors”, including Kennedy and Robin Cook.
Jenkins told him he was doing the right thing, but other prominent party figures – including his predecessor Paddy Ashdown – were less supportive. I recall a conversation with a senior Lib Dem MP who called him “spineless” and another who said: “while Charles is hawking his conscience around, we’re going to lose every election in sight as Blair wins his Falklands.”
Many at the time did see Iraq as Blair’s Falklands, maybe including Blair himself. There was even a meeting in No 10 on how we would use the “Baghdad bounce”. But in law and morality the situations were radically different. At its most simple, in the Falklands we were invaded; in Iraq we were the invader. And the wider Middle East context made the invasion not only wrong in principle, but extremely hazardous in practice, and it didn't require hindsight to see this at the time.
Kennedy said all this at the time. What he also appreciated was that the scale of the public concern was a whole order greater than for run-of-the-mill politics. “There is huge public anxiety in Britain,” he said in the key parliamentary debate.
“That is the mark of a fundamentally decent society. All of us, whatever our views, whatever our parties, know that the kind of people contacting us are very different from many of those with whom we deal regularly. They are people who have never gone on a march or attended a vigil before. They are not persuaded that the case for war has been adequately made at this point, they are worried about the new doctrine of regime change, they are wary of the Bush administration's motives, and they do not like to see Britain separated from its natural international allies.”
Vitally, Kennedy also resisted the temptation to abstain in the key vote, although many colleagues recommended this. “If I’ve got it wrong, I go,” he told me at the time. “What I’m not doing is playing both sides. People who oppose this war have got to know I’m with them, not on the fence.”
In fact, he was proven right in each and every one of his arguments. He yielded a huge political dividend and legitimised the whole political system, since without him all three major parties in the 2005 election would have been pro-war. As Churchill was on Munich, so Kennedy was on Iraq.
Why am I thinking now of Kennedy and his bravery and leadership?
Partly because of the 15th anniversary of the war and because of my great respect for Kennedy. But also because of the uncanny parallels with Brexit as we approach the key parliamentary votes.
Brexit is not, thankfully, a question of war. But, like Iraq, Brexit is an act of unprovoked self-harm and a massive strategic mistake that threatens Britain’s credibility and authority in the world. Like Iraq, Brexit is being taken forward on an establishment consensus, led by the government, that it is now inevitable and unavoidable, and that mis-steps taken so far, however regrettable, are irreversible.
Also like Iraq, Brexit has brought out the very worst in our press – the language of “traitors” is back on the front pages – while bringing out the best in so many voters and activists. Witness the almost 700,000 people who marched in October to demand a Final Say with an option to halt Brexit entirely.
In his speech to Lib Dem conference 15 years ago, Kennedy concluded with a powerful warning that is as right on Brexit as it was on Iraq.
“This is a leadership of charlatans and chancers. At the time, they asked none of the key questions. That was left to us. Whatever the eventual judgment, the political implications are already clear. A devastating indictment of… our political system itself.”
In today’s crisis, let’s not hand power to the charlatans and the chancers. I have not the slightest doubt what Kennedy – and Jenkins – would have said and done. No Brexit. Period.
Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer
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