“The invasion was illegal – no-one put the arguments more powerfully than Robin Cook in his resignation speech.”
By Lynne Jones
The aircraft heading to invade Iraq in 2003 took off in the early hours of March 20. I’ll never forget the date – it was my mother’s birthday. Speaking to her that morning, she said it was not going to be a happy birthday. She knew I’d been arguing for months that invasion would be illegal and do more harm than any possible benefit of ousting Saddam Hussein and she’d joined in the March against the war the previous month. I’m also proud that my 13 year old son protested in Birmingham against the invasion – he was kettled by the police for his trouble. But no-one put the arguments more powerfully than Robin Cook in his resignation speech 3 days earlier.
As a former Foreign Secretary (and also famous for his forensic examination of the Scott Report on the way Britain helped arm Saddam Hussein in the eighties), he was absolutely convincing in his assessment that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And, of course, he was proved right. He knew the evidence that Saddam Hussein had been at his most powerful when he was seen as the ally of the West fighting against the common enemy, Iran. The US supplied the aircraft that enabled chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurds – ironically, used to justify the invasion!
There were many of us on the Labour benches who had taken the trouble to examine the evidence. I had been particularly incensed by the claim of a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, which was plainly ludicrous, but repeated in Blair’s response to my intervention in the debate on 18 March held to authorise war. By the time it came to votes – first an amendment to the Government motion for war, calling for more time for the weapons inspectors to do their job – the Government arguments for invasion, in what became known as the “dodgy dossier”, looked decidedly thin.
Furthermore, Hans Blix, chief weapons inspector, was clear that they could complete their job of checking Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions in months, not years. Nevertheless, despite the evidence that Saddam was far less powerful and that the moral basis for war was lacking, British participation in the invasion came about because so many of my parliamentary colleagues had managed to convince themselves that it was justified.
In the end, 84 Labour MPs followed their consciences and voted against the war. 69 abstained. Blair only won a majority with the support of 146 Tory MPs. It’s also important to record that were two other government ministers that resigned, John Denham and (Lord) Phil Hunt.
Many Labour MPs who voted for war later expressed their resentment. To understand why MPs are so capable of going along with things they know are wrong (I could give many examples of this), we need to understand what motivates those in power and how their strings are being pulled. At that time, most MPs entered parliament because they wanted to make a difference but our “winner takes all system” gives enormous power of patronage to the Prime Minister, who, in turn, knows they achieve power through the approval of ex pat billionaires in control of mainstream media. One tactic used by Blair was to threaten to resign if he didn’t get his way. I know this had an effect and, as a result, many MPs, voted for war, despite their misgivings. Several, especially in university towns, lost their seats in 2005.
Claire Short, threatened to resign but was convinced to support the war because, like many others, she was taken in by the deliberate twisting of the French president’s words on why he would not support invasion “at this moment”. I raised this in the debate but no-one wanted to hear the truth, Claire certainly wasn’t listening and didn’t bother to read accurate reports readily available to the inquiring mind. Yet she later stated this misinformation as a reason for resigning from the government. I still feel that the resignation of two cabinet ministers – Short as well as Cook, might have prevented British collusion with the US and we know that Bush, in the absence of a UN mandate, wanted cover from Blair.
Jeremy Corbyn succeeded in financing the Labour Party through mass membership but that was insufficient to overcome the toxic effect of a media, including the BBC, determined to portray him as a supporter of terrorism when the opposite was the case. The irony is that our intelligence service warned that the invasion of Iraq would heighten the terrorist threat and this has proved to be the case. In 2005, shortly before his untimely death, and in the aftermath of the London bombings, Robin Cook wrote “There may be room for debate over whether there is a connection between the war in Iraq and the bombings but there is no escaping from the hard truth that the chaos in that country is a direct threat of the decision to invade it, taken in defiance of intelligence warning that it would heighten the terrorist threat”.
So 20 years on, we see, quite rightly, Putin indicted for war crimes but those responsible for the Iraq invasion, more than half a million deaths there, millions displaced and still no human rights, regularly wheeled out to pontificate on the state of the world. If we are ever to have a peaceful world, this lack of objectivity has to stop. There’s little hope that Starmer, the current Labour Leader has any inclination to face up to past failures. He’s clearly preferring the backing of the rich and powerful to the alternative of inspiring party members to campaign to get people out to vote Labour.
- Llyne Jones is a former Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak from 1992-2010.
- For full arguments, see Llyne Jones’ submission to the Chilcot Inquiry and other information in the MP archive.