How Iraq war caused a tipping point in trust

A decade on from the conflict Anthony Barnett says the resulting contempt the ruled have for their rulers has not diminished

In 2003 the fundamental terms of British politics were reversed. The basic axiom of Britain’s uncodified constitution, the unquestioned first premise on which its legitimacy is based, is – or until 2003 was – that the elite knows better, sees further, has greater wisdom than the greedy, gullible, prejudiced unwashed. Yes, the generals can be donkeys and the elite headed by appeasers. But in the end our betters produce a Churchill to save the day. Yes the BBC can screw up, but trust in it must be restored. The alternative is barbarism.

It is not that British rulers are without fault, not at all, but that relative to the ‘masses’ they are the guardians of the interests of all. We do not need a codified constitution to protect us from them and their control of the State, as in other more benighted countries. On the contrary our rulers deserve and must have the flexibility to use the State as they see best in order to protect us the public, who should be suitably grateful.

The belief in this argument was not changed by Iraq, but the facts were. The claim no longer holds: the first premise of British rule was upturned. When it came to Britain invading Iraq the vast strength of public opposition was a considered judgement against an unnecessary war that undermined the principle that force must only and genuinely be a last resort. It was our ruling classes who were shown to be grasping, short-sighted and desperate to participate in American pleasures. On the most fundamental issue on which we are capable of coming to a well thought-out opinion and on which we have it within our powers to act, that of war and peace, the British elite was wrong and those they rule were more far-sighted.

A rearguard action is under way to attempt to reverse this fact by having it re-perceived. Those who supported the war did so in good faith but were understandably mistaken while those who opposed them were thoughtless and prejudiced!

British opponents of invading Iraq are still to this day caricatured as being the plaything of unwise, head-banging anti-Americans who might have been right by accident in this case, but are essentially wrong and untrustworthy. It turned out, however, that in their desperate concern to be banged-up by Washington it was the leaders of Britain, the Labour government and the Conservative Party, the Foreign Office, the military, the media and business who forced a totally ill-conceived strategy upon a rightly sceptical country. Our leaders: elected and unelected, the government and the opposition, parliament and press, the mandarins and the Murdochites, combined in such a way that any dissent was spat out and we can say that the ruling system as a whole backed the war.

The Lib Dem leadership broke ranks (although not their leading figure Paddy Ashdown), but made no impression with their reasonable ‘on balance’ conclusion. One senior public servant resigned, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a lawyer working in the Foreign Office, who could not tolerate the “lamentable” procedures that permitted the government to declare the invasion “legal” when it clearly wasn’t. The Director of the BBC, Greg Dyke, oversaw a modest cough of doubt from the Corporation when one of its news staff reported accurately that the Dossier justifying the war had been “sexed up”. The BBC was savaged and Dyke fired. Robin Cook left the Cabinet and spoke against the war in parliament – a fine moment: but he had already been humiliated by Blair and the tabloids as a maverick who believed in an ‘ethical foreign policy’.

Cook describes in his memoir how as a senior Cabinet member and Leader of the House, he asked for a private briefing from John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Security Committee, and came away convinced that there were no WMD in Iraq. A recent FoI request by Chris Ames of the Observer revealed a memo from Scarlett who was in charge of what become known as the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ where he wrote about “the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD Iraq is not that exceptional”. In plain language he helped make sure the public was deceived.

Scarlett sent his message about how best to mislead us to Sir David Manning, both public school and Oxford. Doubtless, they are cultivated and civilised men. What is significant is not that their background is ‘unrepresentative’ but that the country’s ‘finest education’ now serves to remove the spine of judgment, ensuring it is no longer capable of resisting the corruption of principle by neo-liberal power.

Like Cook, neither Wilmshurst nor Dyke were ‘products’ of Oxford and Cambridge. Nor were the half of the parliamentary Labour Party that was not on the government payroll who voted against the war, organised by Graham Allen MP (from Nottingham). Who recalls let alone celebrates this gigantic rebellion? It has been vaporised from official memory. The Murdoch and the Mandarin wings of the political class united to flap in unison as the entire ruling order rallied to the war. Still they continue to caricature and minimise the opposition at the time as they sense the threat to the balance of power.

The disquiet can be felt in the way the tenth anniversary of the war is being covered in Britain. It is quite amazing how much coverage is being given as to who knew what about there not being WMD. The BBC reports that “on this anniversary the BBC has learned that two key pieces of intelligence, which could have prevented the conflict, were either dismissed or used selectively” – as if the UK actually went to war over an empirical mistake.

What seems like an exposé is legitimising pure bollocks. . . David Miliband, who was a member of Blair’s team in 2003 and became Foreign Secretary in 2007 only to insist that the Iraq invasion was justified, recently stated that had he known then what he knows now about the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction he would have taken a different view. Doesn’t this claim simply extend duplicity in a new form? We did know then. Or rather, anyone could have known if they had wanted to. WMD were settled on for “bureaucratic reasons”, as Paul Wolfowitz, US Deputy Secretary of Defence under Donald Rumsfeld, told Vanity Fair in May 2003. Picking weapons of mass destruction, he told the magazine, was “the one reason everyone could agree on”.

We did know then that the issue of WMD was designed to create an illusion of a threat, when the invasion was prepared in the knowledge that military victory would be easy given Saddam’s military weakness. The issue was never about WMD and always about the wisdom of attempting to conquer Mesopotamia and whether to support an American President, Vice-president and Secretary of State for Defence who were, there is no better word for it than John le Carré’s, “mad”.

Yet it was enormous, the largest demonstration in British history. Chris Nineham describes some of its impact and takes on the superficial view that the size of the opposition to the Iraq war shows the public is powerless and protest pointless. However great the pressure, the ‘realists’ of both right and left conclude that when there is opposition on the streets and outside the structures, those in control can just “tough it out”.

The resulting gap between the people and our rulers is new. A younger generation have grown up with an articulate, justified contempt for the Whitehall and Westminster regime and its main political parties quite distinct from previous generations in its self-confidence and which goes well beyond the ‘end of deference’. Their distrust of the stupidity, greed, love of power and lack of democratic legitimacy of the dominant order was confirmed and reinforced by the financial crash and the bailing out of the bankers.

An inner confidence comes with being right and knowing you are right, even if you are sad and angry about what you know. Ed Miliband, who at least is aware of the outgoing tide, says he wants to restore trust in British politics. But why? The distrust is based on good judgment. Surely it would be far better and more original if he sent his party the task of trusting the public.

If you look at what happened to British politics when it comes to Iraq from the optic of the political system, which is what almost all comment does, then you see far-reaching damage. But if you look at it from the perspective of popular politics you see a positive demystification, a sense that the public can reach its own better and more honest view. Whereas the political class is struggling to get the public to believe in it, the public is learning to believe in itself.

A reshaping of British politics is under way as a result of this shift, as the political class seeks to incorporate and, in so far as it can, tame the new forces it has energised. A fascinating outcome is the agreement over a Royal Charter to regulate the press that was arrived at on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion.

For decades the Murdoch empire had intimidated and bullied as it exercised its influence. One shocking example will suffice. When a House of Commons committee asked Rebekah Brooks, then Chief Executive of News International, to appear before it she refused. When they considered a subpoena to force her they were threatened with being worked over by the News of the World. The reaction on the Committee was “Well, yeh, we knew that from the beginning”. The supposed sovereignty of parliament was tossed aside as so much waste paper.

After the political class did everything it could to ignore the hacking scandal, the Milly Dowler episode finally unleashed popular opinion on an unsuspecting House of Commons. Once again the failure of our rulers was exposed. This time the political class had to follow the judgment of the public. Murdoch, the single most powerful figure of the previous 30 years was humiliated and his takeover of BSkyB rejected. Not by law but by force of opinion. The Leveson Enquiry was established by the Prime Minister, who pledged to implement its proposals provided they were not “bonkers”.

They were not, whatever else you might think of them. Leveson recommended some statutory backing to prevent the press from continuing to abuse its frightful power. Cameron, who pays little attention to his own words, backtracked on them as if they meant no more than a headline in the Daily Express. Newspapers thundered that they were the last defence of our freedom, not as much a threat to honest government as the government itself.

But the might of the media was humbled. In the final hours of the negotiations the party leaders were joined not by the editors but Hacked Off, who with a skilful combination of celebrities, victims and lobbying, succeeded in becoming and remaining the representative of popular opinion. The Mail denounced them as a “self-appointed cadre of Press-hating zealots”.

Some of us are still waiting to hear who appointed the press-loving proprietors. The novel point is that Hacked Off succeeded in becoming the voice of the public and the representatives of those the public supported. Until now, it was the media that had usurped this role to exploit it for its own ends. Now something has changed. It is as if, uncertain whether to support the US invasion or not, the politicians had included the invasions’ opponents into their deliberations.

We can already see how a shameless media will do what it can to take its revenge on ‘celebrities exploiting the voice of victims’. But we are witnessing a turning point in Westminster-style democracy. The system failure that was Iraq led into an unprecedented series of calamities of the institutions: Parliament and MPs, the banks and the City, the Lords, the BBC, the NHS, the police, the press, political parties. All suffered acute crises of trust and legitimacy as their hyper-active, market-driven political bubble burst alongside the financial one.

A wiser, more self-confident public, a superbly organised campaign, spokespeople who have been hardened by their experience of the media, celebrities who have won their day in court, have humbled a political class and led to a new way to negotiate legislation.

This is not to endorse the outcome necessarily, not least because the proposed regulation does nothing to address the ownership of the press. It seems there might be a threat of exemplary damages that could enforce a form of prior restraint on freedom of expression that must be unacceptable. For sure, attempts will be made to draw Hacked Off into becoming part of the ruling arc as a gatekeeper rather than a force that is influential while retaining its independence.

But the fact is this. Without the battering ram of the Murdoch press especially, and the media generally, Parliament could not have voted for the Iraq invasion. The absence of WMD could easily have been exposed. It wasn’t. A lawless, untruthful and uncontrolled political class turned its face away from the wisdom of the people and the superior quality of their – our – judgment. Its political system is now starting to pay the price, now that it has deservedly lost our trust.

The success of Hacked Off is rooted in this development. It is now accepted in a way it simply was not in the last century that politicians as a whole cannot be trusted, that the media broadsheets and tabloids are mendacious, that their owners dissimulate, that the system is loaded against us, that political parties are useless in protecting us, that we have to take action ourselves and that regular people are fair-minded and can be trusted.

Everything will now be thrown at us to reverse this set of judgments. Iraq was always a war on public opinion and this war is not over yet.

Anthony Barnett is the founder of openDemocracy and a Co-Editor of its UK section, OurKingdom where this article first appeared.

2 thoughts on “How Iraq war caused a tipping point in trust

  1. The Iraq war held no surprises for me as far as trust in the political class goes… Nothing else on the contemporary scene has really added to my long-held opinion that the political class is guilty until proven innocent.

    I guess everybody will have their own tipping point – for me it was probably the day Harold Wilson devalued and then told me the pound in my pocket was still worth a pound! Duh? That was 1967…

    I have little doubt that people older than me will have their own even earlier seminal moments that defined their terminal loss of trust in the political class.

    Anybody who hasn’t noticed that it’s ‘us and them’ really hasn’t been paying attention!

  2. If it’s ‘us and them’ then it’s our fault. We vote for them. The British electorate returned Blair to power after Iraq. The truth is most people are too lazy, inattentive and self-centred to be good democratic citizens and they get exactly the government they deserve. Jack may be as good as his master but unfortunately he is no better.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy