So, it did turn into a ‘geek’ tragedy after all, at least for David Miliband. Just as we were all digesting Brother Ed’s rather dull but worthy address to conference on Tuesday, and thinking that Labour had put the past behind it, a huge, ugly crack suddenly appeared in the facade of Labour conference unity. In a fatal lapse of self control, the defeated David turned to admonish his colleague, the deputy leader, Harriet Harman, for applauding Ed Miliband’s admission that the Iraq war had been wrong. “Why are you clapping?” said Miliband D, “You voted for it”.
Those eight words echoed around Manchester as David Miliband walked out of the shadow cabinet, the only action he could have taken. Had he remained, there was a real risk that a kind of civil war could have broken out. David Miliband wasn’t the only former minister to be outraged by Ed’s condemnation of their collective action over Iraq. Every member of the shadow cabinet is going to have to submit to the ‘were-you-clapping’ test now brother Ed has finally admitted on their behalf that Iraq was a disaster. How many, like Harriet Harman, privately agreed with him? Why did they allow it to happen?
With his “raised eyebrow” David Miliband was saying to fellow Labour ministers, in effect: ‘don’t think that you can just ‘move on’ and pretend that you had nothing to do with Iraq’. They’re all stained with the bad blood. All the members of the Labour cabinet, except for the late Robin Cook, voted in February and March 2003 to launch that invasion of Iraq, without a second UN resolution and without allowing the weapons inspector, Hans Blix, to finish the job of looking for Saddam’s non existent weapons of mass destruction. This was without doubt the worst British foreign policy disaster since Suez. But what is much worse is that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, lost their lives, and the infrastructure of an entire nation was laid waste, as recounted in the BBC’s superb Secret Iraq documentary. Selective amnesia won’t do when there are graveyards stuffed with the consequences.
Why were all ministers equally implicated? Collective cabinet responsibility requires ministers to back cabinet decisions once they have been endorsed by the majority. They are free to express their opposition in the cabinet room, but once a decision has been reached, they are obliged to support it, or to resign. This is how our system of government works. We now know that several ministers, like Jack Straw, privately expressed serious concern to the Prime Minister,Tony Blair. He ignored them of course. But only the former foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, had the courage of his convictions and walked out. Even the development secretary Clare Short,went along with the fateful cabinet decision – though she resigned later. And, of course, the invasion was endorsed by the Parliamentary Labour Party who drove it through a reluctant House of Commons.
Who knows what would have happened if Cain had been in the same cabinet as Abel? David Miliband clearly thinks that Ed is being cynical, opportunist and underhand in exploiting his predicament as a former cabinet minister who cannot now disown the war, whatever his private views might have been at the time. Moreover, David clearly suspects that Brother Ed would likely have supported the invasion too, had he been in David’s position Ed never had to wrestle with the issue because, conveniently, he was teaching abroad and didn’t enter parliament until 2005. Well, that is a matter for Brother Ed’s conscience. The new Labour leader has clearly persuaded himself that he would not have joined the war party with Tony Blair. That he would have withstood the pressure because he could clearly see that the invasion of Iraq was wrong. Possession of twenty twenty hindsight is of course an essential qualification for high office in modern politics.
But the more serious question is why Labour made such a disastrous move in the first place. Invading a sovereign country, without any kind of justification in international law in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there. And if they could make such a terrible decision then, what is to say they couldn’t do the same again? What is it about Labour ministers that makes them follow leaders when they are so clearly in the wrong, as Tony Blair was over Iraq, and so clearly out of step with public opinion. A succession of opinion polls in 2002/3 showed there was immense popular opposition to the headlong rush to war. On the eve of the invasion, a BBC/ICM poll of 1000 people indicated that fewer than 10% – one in ten – of the British people believed it was right for Britain to go to war without a second UN resolution. 45% opposed the invasion even with a resolution. A million people marched against the war in February 2003 in one of London’s biggest ever demonstrations. The rest of Europe was appalled at America’s behaviour and condemned President George W. Bush as a danger to world peace.
Any notion that Labour ministers were simply responding to the mood of the times is a serious misreading of history. So just why did ministers like Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, Jack Straw support the war when it was so clear that the government was out of touch with the country? Why did they carry on regardless? Was it the intelligence briefings about the risk of terrorist attack in Britain? No. We now know from the testimony of the former head of M15 Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, that the security and intelligence community thought that Sadaam posed no immediate threat, was not in league with al Qaeda, and that an invasion would make domestic terrorism worse. Still they went ahead.
As David Miliband embarks on his East of Eden sabbatical, the ministers he leaves behind should be asking themselves some searching questions. Now that Labour has come to terms with the past, it must ensure that never again does it go to war because of the headstrong enthusiasm of a leader who had lost touch with the voters and with reality. I can’t imagine Ed Miliband wanting to launch any illegal wars in the near future. But that only makes it that much more important for future Labour ministers to understand what went wrong and ensure that the leadership is kept on a tighter rein. They can’t move on. Labour need to set up a truth and reconciliation commission to exorcise the ghosts of Iraq.