Wednesday, March 26, 2008 

Just how long exactly is this piece of string?

And 18 months later, it still isn't.

139 Labour MPs voted against the war in Iraq. Some of those who voted against that night have either left parliament or lost their seats since then, but even so you would have expected a higher figure to have rebelled than the number who ultimately supported the Conservative motion for an immediate inquiry into the war last night: just 12 bothered to do so, most of them members of the usual "awkward squad".

Reading the debate on TheyWorkForYou, it's easy to see why. While on that night five years ago party politics was mostly eschewed, except perhaps on the Conservative side, yesterday's debate was almost a summation of everything that is wrong with parliament. Each side, and every political party, with the exception perhaps of the nationalists, was blowing their own trumpet or falling back entirely on blaming the other side for their reasons for either voting for or against.

William Hague, opening the debate for the Conservatives makes a valiant effort and it's easy to see why he's such an assured parliamentarian whose time with the Conservatives still might come again. The case for an inquiry now is simple: the government itself has promised one, with its single argument being that it's "time is not now". This has been its position for 18 months, since the execrable Margaret Beckett made the self-same arguments that David Miliband made yesterday. An inquiry cannot apparently be held now for four reasons, or rather, the Conservative amendment deserved to be defeated because: the government has promised an inquiry but "now is not the time"; because the armed forces are still involved in "important operations" and these "important operations" are not as limited as the opposition parties make out; that despite the other parties suggesting that important lessons are to be learned from an inquiry, something that the government apparently agrees with as it also wants an inquiry, just not one now, the military has been learning "on the job"; and finally that memories will not fade and emails won't be lost because there have already been four inquires into the Iraq war and so apparently most of the material that will be gone over in an eventual inquiry is already available.

You have to give credit to Miliband: for someone who apparently secretly held anti-war views, he sure can talk bollocks at length in the chamber in an ultimately successful attempt to stop the perfidious Conservatives from opportunistically whacking Labour about over Iraq. That, in a nutshell, is the real government argument against an inquiry now, and one which some unsubtle MPs even made directly against the Conservatives. All four of Miliband's arguments are completely spurious: the first on the basis that this inquiry will if the government has its way never happen, especially as there continues to be no end in sight to the occupation whatsoever; the second, breathtakingly, for the exact opposite reason that Miliband states, concerning the uprising in Basra, where our troops are not involved, showing just deep these important operations actually go; the third, the idea being that the military has learned on the job is valid if you consider that there haven't been any abuse scandals since the early days of the war, when it's actually always been the government itself and its complete lack of influence over the American policy which really needs to be answered for; and the last is utterly redundant because up until recently the government was arguing against any further inquiries because the four themselves had been wholly sufficient!

To be fair to some of the MPs, they make all these points and more along the way, repeatedly interrupting Miliband and his pathetic justifications. The real rhetorical gymnastics was being performed by the loyalist Labour backbenchers who want an inquiry but have no intentions of letting the Tories be the ones who take the credit for forcing one; hence why Mike Gapes and others have stood up and said they won't support an inquiry that doesn't also look back over the decades and examine policy over Iraq since Domesday. This enables them to whack the Tories over their arming and courting of Saddam whilst meaning that they can still profess to support an inquiry in principle, just not a Conservative one. That such an inquiry would be potentially as endless as the Bloody Sunday fiasco, and that it would take years before anything was actually published, let alone any lessons learned doesn't seem to matter to the loyalists while it allows them to oppose the Conservatives. It's difficult to agree with Michael Howard, but the Scott Inquiry, limited as that was, has dealt with the arms-to-Iraq scandal for now; it's ridiculous to dredge that up again when what is of real concern is what happened from 2001 up until the present day. What it does allow is for the Labour loyalists who actually want an inquiry but don't want to damage the government any further at the moment to keep a clean conscience. Forget about learning from the mistakes of the past, what's more important and what always will be more important is the party's public standing, rock bottom as it deservedly is.

It seems remarkable that it's the Conservatives, by far the most gung-ho for war that now have the clearest and cleanest reasons for calling for an inquiry. While it is undoubtedly opportunistic and a further attempt to damage the government, it's also clear that Hague, if not the other smirking brats on the front bench, genuinely believes there needs to be one, as do the other Tory old guard that are now being squeezed out, such as Ken Clarke and Malcolm Rifkind. At least those two can reasonably claim that they opposed the war from the outset, as the Liberal Democrats can, but the Lib Dems have muddied their influence by now harping on about how the Conservatives provided the government with its mandate for the war. This is a reasonable enough point, but it's time to move beyond the finger jabbing and who was wrong and who was right and instead use this to ensure that nothing so calamitous both for this country and especially for Iraq itself is allowed to happen again. Towards their short-term gain, the Lib Dems have thusly launched, which is something that should have been done in previous elections and in some cases indeed was. To still be going on about holding individual MPs to account in 2008 is ridiculous and far, far more opportunistic than the Conservatives themselves are being. That they're doing this because the Lib Dems' one sole-memorable policy after the abolition of their 10p on the top rate of tax for those earning over £100,000, apart from perhaps Vince Cable's prescience over Northern Rock, is their opposition to the war ought to consign it the dustbin of political gimmicks.

The whole debate was, and as parliament increasingly seems to be, a complete waste of time and effort. While America has held inquiry after inquiry into the war even while over 100,000 of their troops remain in action, all without damaging their morale or their ability to fight effectively, we're left with all the main political parties squabbling amongst themselves while the blood and treasure continue to be spent. We're left in the age-old position of wondering just how long a piece of string really is, the answer being, as always, that it's as long as you want it to be. Like others, I reason that a Labour government, on the whole, will always be better than a Conservative one. That doesn't mean however that when these obscurantist, lying, two-faced time-wasters are deservedly thrown out of office that I won't be one of those cheering from the rooftops. Those 12 MPs that voted for the Conservative amendment therefore deserve the praise and final mention in this post.

The 12 Labour MPs who supported Conservative calls for a full-scale inquiry were:

  • Harry Cohen (Leyton & Wanstead)
  • Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North)
  • Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent Central)
  • Paul Flynn (Newport West)
  • Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North)
  • Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak)
  • John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)
  • Bob Marshall-Andrews (Medway)
  • Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
  • Linda Riordan (Halifax)
  • Alan Simpson (Nottingham South)
  • Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South)
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    Tuesday, March 18, 2008 

    Iraq week - the parliamentary vote.

    I wrote yesterday that the parliamentary vote was one of the illusions offered to placate the opponents of the war, full in the knowledge that the chances of Blair losing and having to face the ignominy of having to resign were very slight indeed.

    That was and certainly is true. But there was another side of the parliamentary vote. Although referred to as the mother of all parliaments, the House of Commons at its worst can be an insult to all the supposed values and principles which it is meant to uphold. While its very worst days have since passed, mainly because drunkenness is no longer acceptable any form while at the despatch box, the most well-known incident being when Clare Short accused Alan Clark of being inebriated and had to leave the chamber rather than the philanderer and historian himself, the "Punch and Judy" side of parliamentary politics continues, and while it would be a poorer place if it was to disappear entirely, few would mourn the loss of Tory MPs sarcastically going "awww" when Gerald Kaufman spoke recently of his relatives who died in the Holocaust.

    All those things that detract from Westminster and make individuals cynical about politics were almost entirely absent on that Tuesday. Yes, Blair was almost as messianic as he had ever been, referring laughably now to the links between Saddam and al-Qaida, dismissing the Liberal Democrats as "unified, as ever, in opportunism and error", scaremongering about the possibility of a dirty bomb and shamefully blaming France for promising a veto whatever the circumstances, something Chirac never did, but he was always a sideshow, regardless of how some newspapers continued to describe him as impressive and that he felt the argument was swinging his way, something that only properly occurred in the bounce after the beginning of war.

    The real meat was amongst the backbenchers who so powerfully intervened, making their arguments felt while some of them wrestled with their consciences like they never had before and never have since, as the two Labour MPs featured in the 10 days to war short admitted tonight on Newsnight. With the hindsight we now have, it's easy to make the exact arguments against why the war should never have taken place, and many of us viscerally did beforehand, but reading the MPs themselves that stood up and subjected themselves to mockery, especially among the egregiously pro-war press and those that honestly believed it was going to be a cakewalk still deserve credit. The ex-father of the house and much missed Tam Dalyell was first up, saying that the bombs would be "a recruiting sergeant" for the next generation of Islamic extremists. Nor he nor the rest of us could possibly have known how right he would be subsequently proved. He was followed by Peter Kilfoyle, John Denham, another of the individuals who resigned, Alex Salmond, one of the few Tories to vote against, John Randall, Tony Worthington, who also presciently described Iraq as having the complexity of the Balkans, and many others.

    None of them however reached the simplicity but also the strength of the speech by the one man who has come out of the whole debacle the best, and his intervention was in actual fact the day before. In parts moving, honourable and disapproving, Robin Cook made the address that spoke for so many in the country that had been denied a voice, that weren't with any particular side, but simply didn't think that the case for war had been made. While since then we've endlessly discussed the lies and the deceptions, Cook simply took apart every single argument that had been made, and did so effortlessly. Whatever you thought of how he treated his wife after Alastair Campbell in effect made him chose between her and his mistress, his death in 2005 deprived us of one of the great parliamentarians who may well otherwise have since been trying desperately to redirect the Labour party away from the dead-end of Blairism.

    As said yesterday, this should be Iraq's week, rather than Iraq week, but if there is even the slightest good to come out of the last five years, it's that the parliamentary vote set a precedent for the public, even if only through their elected representatives, to have their voice heard over the matters of war and peace. No prime minister could now justify ordering military action without a similar vote being passed, and the reform programmes proposed from all sides all recognise that this is now the case. If we cannot learn from the lessons of the past five years when we next have to consider a similar situation, then there will remain but one thing to do with parliament - close it down.

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    Monday, March 17, 2008 

    Iraq week.

    It is then, Iraq week, decreed by those of many opinions and those of none, by those of few and by those of one. "Each day this week we'll be reliving the build-up to war", all of us of course safe in the knowledge that nothing we do or say will make any difference, just as it didn't back then. Then there's that other comfort, knowing full well that we weren't and aren't going to be the ones subject to the shock and awe, as the missiles that we are safely informed can now be dropped onto the eye of a needle inexplicably explode right in the middle of civilians areas/and or markets. Perhaps, grimly and deathly, those first blows were a portent of the carnage to come, and most of it not inflicted from the skies as the opening salvo was.

    Iraq week. Or perhaps it would be better to refer to it by a more accurate moniker, such as wank week. Channel 4 announced back in 2006 that it was to screen 7 days of delights under that banner, only for even they to eventually decide that maybe that was taking it just a few steps too far. It seems perfect to resurrect now however; what better way to describe the mass of individuals, bloggers, columnists and newspapers that will pour forth their vested interests, much self-abasement in evidence as the extent of their view fails to go past their own navel? It'll feel good at the time, best to get it out as it were, but then afterwards that familiar feeling of self-hatred, impotence and overall failure, sated only for those who get paid for their work by the delivery of the latest cheque.

    Perhaps it feels oh so pointless because never have words themselves felt so empty and meaningless as they did in the run-up to the war, nor have they ever recovered their potency which we require in order to be moved enough to do something or demand something. When so many did feel moved enough to do that something, it was already too late. We most likely will never reach a proper understanding of when war was actually agreed upon whatever the circumstances and when our involvement in it was also set in stone, but it certainly wasn't something that could be changed by us, whenever that decision was taken. The parliamentary vote was another of the illusions, offered up when both sides who had already decided knew that they would get their way, even if for a while it looked as though there might just be enough Labour backbenchers determined enough to go with their consciences, defy the whip, and also, if the numbers were enough, undoubtedly unseat the most successful leader they had ever had.

    As others have commented, the noise of war and suffering has become so routine and monotonous that we've screened it out. This is coupled to how so much of the reporting from Iraq itself has become anodyne and safe, ironically because the country itself is so unsafe. Reading and watching the reports from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad today, how many of us could honestly say we knew that Baghdad had become almost entirely one gated community after enough, neighbourhood protected against neighbourhood by the blast proof concrete walls, by the checkpoints manned by the militias of both Sunni and Shia? Sure, we knew that it had occurred to a certain extent, that the walls had gone in and the barricades had gone up, but that most of the capital city of a country was a series of ghettoes that could only be travelled to if you had the appropriate identity cards, the right clothing or rings on one of your hands? That this was the city that some of the more optimistic have said was now getting on for returning to normal, or that was at least more safe than it had been? I keep referring to the collective rather than the singular, but I don't think I'm being too bold in invoking that most perhaps didn't know just what had happened.

    Part of this is down to the media itself, and it's not all entirely its own fault. You can't blame newspapers for not sending journalists to Baghdad; few of them are up for living in possibly the most dangerous place on the planet. Those few that are there have made their content more difficult to access: the excellent IraqSlogger which had helped to illuminate what was happening there so well having gone subscription only. Instead we rely to some extent on Iraqis themselves, and the death toll of journalists, which is at least 126, attests to how those dedicated to informing have paid the price look the so many thousands of others. We instead now turn to those who take the time to aggregate the information that comes through, whether it be Juan Cole or the Iraq Today blog. For a while, these sources seemed to be drying up, but that was because the casualties, at least for a time, were down, although to those of us in the angst-ridden West, menaced as we are by the curse of the feral yobs here in violent, broken Britain, even those would be utterly horrific if experienced here. Now they're going up again, and with it that cautious optimism has also gone.

    Optimism itself has perhaps been the real casualty of this conflict, or looking at it now, it should be. The whole plan for war itself was based on hopeless, unabashed optimism: optimism that the weapons of mass destruction were there; optimism that the war would be over quickly, the one thing that again at the time seemed to have come about; optimism that the Iraqis themselves would welcome their liberators with open arms; optimism that democracy would take off almost immediately; optimism that few on both sides would die; optimism that the plans which were drawn up for "afterwards" weren't going to be needed; optimism that the cost could be offset almost immediately by the expected oil-boom; optimism that the Iraqis wouldn't mind their main utilities being sold off and most of their laws being not drawn up by themselves but by the occupation forces; optimism that the looting was just a natural occurrence of a country getting used to its new-found freedom; optimism that the Iraqis wouldn't mind the troops on their streets, even when they turned out to think that the best way to respond to protests was to shoot into crowds; optimism that "outside actors" wouldn't take advantage of the vacuum to start the most significant jihad since the war against the Soviets; optimism that the Iraqis, feeling the power vacuum and waiting for their reward, the elections, wouldn't turn to their own sects and militias for protection; optimism that the troops, engineers and workers would quickly turn a society and country crippled by the self-same sanctions imposed by the coalition into a land of milk and honey, or at least somewhere where the lights stayed on and where the sewerage system worked; and an unspoken optimism, that this whole experience wouldn't destroy a generation not just of Iraqis, but also a generation like those destroyed in Vietnam, not just in the truest sense of the word, but also destroyed in faith, in word and in deed.

    Writing all of this, I have quite openly fell foul of the exact same disease outlined in the second paragraph. I'll doubtless write more, both this week and in time to come, all while openly being in breach of not looking further than my navel. The truth is, this was never about us, and it most definitely shouldn't be about us now. Yesterday's terrible Observer leader on Iraq which will probably be a distillation of all that will be wrong about this week's coverage got three things completely and utterly askew: firstly, that it didn't say it got it wrong, that it was a mistake and that the readers who complained at the time were right; secondly that the very last thing that matters right now is that the blessed liberal interventionism that so many continue to defend and call for in relation to problems such as Darfur, where the very last thing that place needs is yet more soliders; and thirdly, that it didn't make clear this is Iraq's week, not Iraq week. Rather than fulminating over what we got wrong and why, we ought to be investigating exactly how and why Iraq is currently suffering. We need to know what's happening right now. We need to know from Iraqis personally whether we can actually help or not. All the signs previously suggest they want us out; is that still the case, or is the view that seeing as we broke it do they want us to fix it? Boiled do it the very bones, that's what matters now. The Observer leader talks about hindsight, about not retreating "chastened into wound-licking parochialism and diplomatic isolation". That's all well and good for us, but this is not just about us, just as it never been about us, something that has been forgotten all too easily over this past 5 years. Let the Iraqis speak. Everything else can come later.

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