Of the 659 MPs who were serving MPs in 2003, 172 are MPs today. Of the 149 who voted against the war only 21 are still MPs. I am one of them.
I give you these figures because they illustrate rather well the way in which parliament has changed in the intervening years – in no small measure due to that decision itself.
I don’t think any of us who were there at the time will ever forget these debates. That came across yesterday as those who had been there at the time questioned the Prime Minister on the Chilcott Report. As references were made to Charles Kennedy or Robin Cook they would point towards, or their eyes would be drawn to, the places where they had stood. The debates had moments of high drama. Robin Cook’s resignation statement stands out for me as one of the most memorable moments in my time in parliament.
Tony Blair was at the height of his power at the despatch box and it should not be forgotten just how persuasive an orator he was. He commanded the House of Commons in a way that few could have done or have done since and spoke with a charisma and conviction that could be compelling. Remember also this was not the Tony Blair we see today – a man without public support, unable to admit the error that he made. This was the Tony Blair who was two years on from winning a second massive majority in a general election – the man whose government had given us devolution, a Human Rights Act and even dared to dream of a foreign policy with an ethical dimension.
The debates, however, were not entirely characterised by great rhetoric and high principles. Much of the time they were ill-tempered and intolerant affairs where those who sought to ask questions and who wanted evidence were heckled and barracked. Reading again the Hansard of Charles Kennedy’s speech in the final debate on 18th March 2003 you see the repeated interventions, not least from the Speaker demanding that he should be allowed to have his say. Hansard does not record the wall of sound that I remember greeting Charles when he got to his feet in these debates or, for that matter, every week at Prime Ministers Questions.
Parliament will spend two days next week debating the Chilcott Report. We shall scrutinise the conduct of the government, the army chiefs, the intelligence services and others. Parliament itself must not escape scrutiny. Too many of those who now say, “Of course, if I had known then what I know now…” must be called out. For the most part they could not have known then what they know now because they were not prepared to ask the questions or to demand the evidence.
Attention focuses on the actions of the Prime Minister and Government of the day and rightly so - they failed to do what they should have done. That is, however, equally true of the Conservative opposition. Where they should have questioned, they acquiesced. Where they should have demanded evidence, they accepted assertions. As a party of the establishment they could not allow themselves to believe that the various arms of government would not be embarking on a war without a sound basis in law. Our parliament failed us and as a result we embarked on a war that was a catastrophic error of judgement the consequences of which shall be with us for decades to come.
I spoke in one of the two full debates, on 26th February 2003. As an MP still in my first term I was well down the speaking order and I remember, as the day progressed, my speech being whittled down as the time that would be available to me was cut back and cut back. By the time I spoke it was pretty much the Reader’s Digest version that was delivered but the basis of our opposition is there. We were not opposed to war in any circumstance but the case had not been made so we would not support it. I also made a plea then for equal focus to be given to tackling other long running sores in the Middle East, in particular the situation in Palestine.
On what the war in Iraq would do for our own politics I said this, “The Government cannot be allowed to ignore the fact that they have not persuaded the public of the case for war. They must understand that the consequence of entering a war supported by the British Government but not by the British people will be to see an acceleration of that process of disengagement between people and politics. It would be a grotesque irony if we went to war in order to bring democracy to Iraq and in so doing dealt a fatal blow to the democratic institutions of our own country.”
The blow may not have been fatal but it nearly crippled them and our democratic institutions of our country will never be the same again.