Tony Blair and the Road from Baghdad to Boris Johnson’s Brexit

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, October 26th 2019

Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and others from the New Labour era have of late been on our airwaves talking endlessly of the evils of Brexit and the need for a second referendum on Europe. But seldom if ever do they publicly reflect on their own disastrous role in fanning the flames which led to the current Brexit debacle.

Blair and Campbell advocated and led the case for the Iraq war – an illegal war based on a campaign of disinformation, deceit and lies that distorted the processes of government decision-making. In so doing, apart from contributing to untold deaths and misery as well as Middle East instability, in the UK they fed the corrosion of public trust and standards in public life.

We now know that the Iraq conflict was an illegal war – based on the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s legal advice of March 7th 2003 which he reversed ten days later. Without the Iraq war, public cynicism and distrust would not have reached the incendiary levels it did. Iraq did systematic harm to the progressive case for government, and the case for social democratic, interventionist government with the intention of aiding the public good.

This isn’t to argue that in recent times public discontent and dismay at party politicians was created by Iraq. Even after the war, we have had the banking crash of 2008 and the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, both of which also contributed to a culture of corrosiveness.

The Common Thread of Munich, Suez and Iraq

A pattern can be discerned from the Iraq war and the most calamitous decisions of UK Government in the past century – Munich, Suez and Iraq. All had a UK Prime Minister – Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, Tony Blair – who engaged in freelancing foreign policy as they thought they knew best about world affairs and by-passed ministers and civil servants, misused intelligence, and deliberately trashed the traditional ways of doing government statecraft.

Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937 in an environment of rising international tension and increasing aggressive actions by Hitler and Mussolini. Chamberlain’s response was to marginalise the Foreign Office, traditional diplomacy, and intelligence reports.

Instead, he engaged in his own private diplomacy, even involving his own family with his sister Ida acting as a go-between with Mussolini, and with trusted sources telling him what he wanted to hear such as Neville Henderson, UK ambassador to Berlin, who was close to Hermann Goring. This was the backdrop to Chamberlain’s colossal misreading of Hitler, when numerous intelligence sources and eyewitness accounts were warning him of the intentions of the Nazis, which led to Munich in 1938, appeasement and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, aided by the British and French.

Before Anthony Eden became Prime Minister in April 1955, he had been Foreign Secretary for ten years in three stints in three different decades, and felt he was well-equipped to judge foreign affairs. Yet, when the Suez crisis emerged and General Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian leader, moved to nationalise the Suez Canal, Eden by-passed Foreign Office channels, undermined Cabinet policy, cherry-picked intelligence, and co-opted individual MI6 officers. This led to the Franco-British invasion of Egypt in collusion with Israel, with Eden lying to the Commons, leading to his subsequent resignation and humiliation.

Tony Blair corroded and trashed conventional decision-making processes in numerous ways but fatally so in relation to Iraq. He politically intervened in and misrepresented intelligence, using it for politically charged and dishonest public presentation, all of which contributed to the decision to support the illegal war in Iraq. Blair, aided by his chief spokesman, Alastair Campbell, humiliated proper government decision-making, ignored Cabinet, made key strategic decisions without any proper discussions or evidence, and presided over a dysfunctional Downing Street which ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Another factor in these cases was the supportive cheerleading role of the right-wing press and papers: ‘the Daily Mail’, ‘Daily Express’, ‘Daily Telegraph’ and from Rupert Murdoch’s purchase in 1969, ‘The Sun’. The right wing press supported appeasement, Suez, Iraq, and of course, Brexit. As Will Hutton commented this week: ‘On big issues there is a cardinal principle. The right wing media is always wrong.’ And it has cost British society and politics dear.

There is an another common thread running from Munich to Suez to Iraq which has relevance to current deliberations. This is the increasing power of a caricatured version of a mythical British past. Munich and appeasement was shaped by painful memories of the horrors of the mass carnage of the First World War. Eden’s decision-making over Suez was overshadowed by Munich and the disaster of appeasement of dictators: Eden having resigned as Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary pre-Munich over government policy towards Mussolini. This is an argument touched on in Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac’s brilliant critique of UK Prime Ministers and intelligence, ‘The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers’.

For Blair and his allies Iraq was motivated by a fear of appeasement and being seen as soft towards aggressive dictators; as the rationale of war became fraudulent the spectre of Suez and a disgraced Prime Minister came to prominence. When we come to Brexit, we see the rising tide of nostalgia and a selective retelling of World War Two and ‘our finest hour’. With Britain supposedly ‘standing alone’ in 1940-41, if we can survive such difficult times then why should we worry about Brexit?

Baghdad to Brexit and the emergence of a Pro-European Movement

The road from Baghdad to Brexit is a dramatic and tragic one. It has been aided by the lack of closure on events sixteen years ago despite Hutton, Butler and Chilcot. This was underlined by the recent release of Gavin Hood’s new film ‘Official Secrets’ about the case of whistleblower Katharine Gun (played by Keira Knightley), the story of the US memo asking the UK to spy on UN Security Council members to attempt to persuade them to vote for the Iraq war which Gun put into the public domain in 2003.

Gun was charged under the Official Secrets Act, with the defence of public interest no longer available after the Thatcher Government tightened up the Act to make it even more draconian in light of the Clive Ponting case. Civil servant Ponting leaked information that showed that the government had misled the public on the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano, was charged and acquitted, citing a public interest defence. Dramatically, all charges against Gun were dropped on the first day of her trial because the government knew that the Attorney General’s original advice ruling the Iraq war illegal without UN approval would become public, which of course it eventually did.

The story of how we ended up with Brexit and the debacle of the past three years has many influences, one of which also has to be the failure of pro-European politicians and public opinion to unapologetically make the case for EU membership and the UK as a fully fledged European state that was part of the European project.

Paradoxically, as the UK prepares to leave the EU the country now has a pro-European popular movement with significant reach and an ability to mobilise people. However, its public figureheads – namely Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson – alongside the Lib Dems, with the SNP and Greens playing a supportive role, have deleteriously affected its impact. Think what its potential could be if it had a different and less discredited leadership.

Brexit is repeating the same misinformation and deceits as the Iraq war

Brexit is not an accident. It is not an isolated diversion from the road of sanity and proper statecraft. It has happened because our political and public life has failed millions of people to use the forces of government and the common good to transform and make lives better and enhance and liberate people: which is the purpose of progressive politics.

That cause was withering on the vine at the height of New Labour: the scene of the party’s greatest electoral triumphs being the point of its most questionable ideological anchoring. The Iraq war was the pinnacle of that and one which destroyed the credo of the Blair-Brown government, after which even though it unconvincingly won the 2005 UK general election, it existed in office shorn of the confidence to be radical and social democratic.

The ignominy of the Iraq war leads directly to Brexit – and the leading figures in the former – Blair, Campbell, Mandelson and others – should at least have the small grace if they cannot apologise to remove themselves from the public stage and never be heard from again. Gordon Brown who sees himself as some kind of moral compass cannot escape the harshest of judgements in this as he chose office over principle and colluded in the disaster that was war.

The story to Brexit has consequences for the present and the future. Iraq led to the diminishing of Britain internationally and domestically, brought the role of governments and politicians into question, and fuelled the populist revolt of Brexit. It contributed to the very visible pulling apart of the union of the United Kingdom, tarnishing the idea of Britain while Brexit itself has accelerated these faultlines and tensions into overdriven driven by an intolerant, reactionary English nationalism.

The parallels do not end there. Helen Lewis in a persuasive essay in ‘The Atlantic’ on Brexit and the failure of journalism underlines how large parts of the mainstream media such as the BBC and SKY News – not just the right-wing newspaper cheerleaders – have diminished how we understand the seriousness of the situation. Brexit has been reduced again and again she writes to the dramas of ‘the fake countdown’ and politics as a ‘horse race’ and about who wins a particular parliamentary vote, with substance and detail left neglected.

Lewis charts the descent from the Iraq war to the present Brexit debacle and Johnson’s current antics: ‘That war was mounted in a needless hurry … Then, as now, the role of a “patriot” was to accept the government’s line; anyone who questioned it risked being branded a “traitor.”’

The approach of Boris Johnson draws directly from Tony Blair in his most disastrous period – and with earlier echoes of Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden. Johnson’s style of government is deliberately by-passing traditional centres of authority, diplomacy and expertise, with the biggest decision in post-war Britain being contemplated with no economic impact assessment and precious few facts.

It makes you wonder about the calibre of people Johnson is being advised by, Dominic Cummings apart, and how decisions are made, with this government already having a cavalier disregard for the truth, democracy and the rule of law. If that were not enough of a charge sheet, this notionally Conservative and Unionist government is seemingly intent on pushing the pressure points on the maintenance of the union, while showing no understanding or respect for Scotland and Northern Ireland – which goes well beyond the need to acknowledge their pro-EU majorities.

When the history books of Brexit are written pride of place in the pantheon of culprits will be obvious figures of Nigel Farage and David Cameron. But given equal place and culpability will be Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson along with others from the New Labour era, and given the human tragedy of Iraq, it is inarguable that their sins are much more heinous, deserving of condemnation and need to be held to account if not legally at least politically and in the court of public opinion.

This leaves the UK not in a good place, with how government is seen severely damaged, and its reputation for statecraft, honesty and honouring the rule of law now under question. This is a crisis which goes way beyond the rhetoric and mythology of ‘getting Brexit done’ and is one which could like Brexit have no foreseeable end, unless people collectively decide that they are not prepared to put up with such a contemptible, dishonest politics of the elites for the elites.