A theme of essays marking the 10th anniversary of the gigantic anti-war march in London has been that the government’s indifference to it proved that British democracy is fraudulent. This is not a great argument as politicians are not obliged to respect the wishes of the loudest contingent of the populace. Much of the British public, and, more relevantly, most MPs were in favour of the war. People who have made this observation, though, have wrongly jumped to the conclusion that this absolves the system. Norman Geras writes that the war “wasn’t a blow against the state of…democracy…in this country”; Alex Massie claims that it had “all the legitimacy it needed”; Rob Marchant insists that “democracy is fully intact”.
Now, I am no democracy fetishist. Wars are not made virtuous or wicked on the basis of their popular support in the aggressive nations. If the French decided tomorrow that invading Britain was a sensible idea it would not justify attack. Still, it seems to me that an intriguing question might be why the public and, indeed, parliamentarians decided that war in Iraq was necessary.
It was sold to us largely as an attempt to obstruct Saddam Hussein’s production and deployment of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The idea that he intended to and, indeed, was able to do this was reliant on the September Dossier – an assessment of the findings of the British intelligence services. This is infamous as being “dodgy” and that, if anything, is a generous description.
Alastair Campbell tried to claim that the dossier was the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee but this was misleading. The evidence that the spooks had come up with was limited and their opinions regarding it were often uncertain. A pack of spin doctors, though, had dressed the data up as being more substantive than it was and cloaked it in the rhetoric of certitude. As the admirable Chris Ames demonstrates, possible threats were presented as existing dangers, and indications of malice were adduced as actual proofs. Campbell himself was influential in this process: demanding that evidence be overblown, or, in his words, made “stronger”.
A notorious example is the claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. This was inserted into the dossier after the spin doctors had placed their hands on it, and described as something Iraq may be capable of. A spook objected to its prominence “since it [was] based on a single source” yet it was not merely included but presented as something that Hussein was able to do. It was over evidence such as this that Tony Blair claimed that the dossier had “established beyond doubt” that the Baathist state had continued to produce and seek to develop weapons of mass destruction. The empty hands of the inspectors were, of course, soon to prove that doubt was the least that one should have been experiencing.
The government, then, did not offer citizens the evidence on which to base their views but seem to have made them the target of a PR campaign. This suspicion was bolstered by Major General Michael Laurie, director general of the Defence Intelligence Staff, who told the Chilcot Inquiry that its “purpose…was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the…sparse and inconclusive intelligence”.
If this was dishonest, the presentation of the Dossier’s claims in the media was befitting of the most farcical of Communist states. The Sun, for example, roared atop one page that Britons were “45mins FROM DOOM”. Further down the page it bellowed that Hussein was “ONE YEAR away” from nuclear capability, while to the left a headline simply howled “GET HIM”.
The Daily Star, meanwhile, made its cousin appear to be a model of reserve with the front page headline: “Mad Saddam Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War”. The Times and The Telegraph both had less deranged but nonetheless doom-mongering accouncements in their publications.
These events took place at the same time as an American campaign of warmongering that was even more bovine and feculent. Its fumes drifted into Britain. David Rose, who, before the invasion, was writing in The Evening Standard that “Iraq’s support for terror” made regime change “integral”, lamented five years later that a U.S. official had “told [him] time and again that Saddam really did have operational links with al-Qaeda”. ITN’s Washington correspondent, meanwhile, was to insist that, “As Dick Cheney…warned, Iraq may soon be armed with a nuclear weapon”. Well, if Dick Cheney said it…
This was also in an environment where people were extremely scared of terrorism. There was cause to be afraid of terrorism, naturally, but not on the scale that people were in that period. On the fifth day of 2003 police had raided a flat in Wood Green and arrested six men on suspicion of manufacturing ricin. I remember how scary it was to think of this toxin that could slay thousands in minute quantities. The papers, of course, affirmed these fears. The Sun wrote of a “factory of death”; The Mail warned of a “Poison Gang on the Loose” and The Mirror – which, it should be granted, was openly anti-war – showed a gigantic skull on its front page beneath the headline, “IT’S HERE!”
Such was the fear among some Britons in those months that army surplus stores were doing a brisk trade in gas masks. That this was directed towards Iraq is not a matter of supposition. In the middle of his fantastically dishonest speech to the UN Colin Powell cited the case as evidence of a “sinister nexus” between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The problem was that there was that there was no ricin and no plot but one thuggish fantasist with cack-handed ambitions of manufacturing poisons. Moreover, within two days of the arrests government scientists had known there was no ricin. Why this did not filter out to the rest of us is an unanswered question.
When people, whether in Parliament or in the streets, decided to endorse the invasion of Iraq, then, they did it not merely in the context of fears of widespread, devastating terrorist assaults but a concerted effort to direct these fears onto the personage of Saddam Hussein. This was a deceptive attempt to manipulate citizens at their most vulnerable. One can draw no conclusion other than that it was a blow to democracy, and a fairly injurious one, which makes what legitimacy the war ever had spurious.
He whose advisers present only that information which is convenient to their aims – or, indeed, simply make it up – is not much of a ruler. And, more particularly, they who promote an invasion on dishonest premises; carry it out with brutal recklessness and observe the ensuing carnage from a distance would shame any people and political system.