Over at Lib Dem Voice yesterday, I put up a summary of Willie Rennie’s speech in the Iraq debate in Holyrood last week. I thought I’d put the whole thing up, and his summation, here because they are worth reading in full. It was a good and generally thoughtful debate. What was particularly interesting is that Willie’s remarks met with applause from the SNP benches who usually don’t have much good to say about him. You can read the whole debate here.
Anyway, here are Willie’s speeches:
When the sirens whined, we dived to the floor, struggling with our flak jackets and helmets, yet the local politicians carried on as if nothing had happened, despite the risk. They had become accustomed to the sirens and the missiles.
That was repeated over and over again during the three-day visit of the House of Commons Defence Committee to Basra, Umm Qasr and Baghdad. During that visit, 40 missiles fell within range. Even the green zone in Baghdad was not spared the infringements. We were due to meet the Iraqi president, but his house had been hit that very day. The missiles were a normal, daily occurrence. They were a matter of fact.
That was in 2007—four years after Tony Blair and George Bush made that fateful decision to invade.
A few weeks after I visited Iraq, I was at the funeral of Scott Kennedy. He was a young soldier who died in Iraq, blown up by a roadside bomb. His funeral was in Oakley, in my constituency. The community turned out en masse to show their support for the family. They recognised the difference between the armed forces and the Government. They recognised the talent and commitment of their soldiers, but disagreed with the war.
A normal occurrence in Iraq, which happened every day of the week at the time, cost Scott Kennedy his life, and it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends and relatives. We felt it in Fife that Scott Kennedy had lost his life, but in Iraq many others whom we did not know also lost their lives. Just today, another 48 people have died and scores have been injured in bomb attacks in Baghdad. The war cost us £1 trillion but, a decade on, Iraq is still rocked with instability and division. The war was based on a false premise. It was illegal, costly, bloody and just plain wrong. [Applause.]
Although I am proud that our party opposed the war, I am more ashamed that our country went to war in Iraq. It was a war that secured the support of the UK Parliament and this Parliament. I am ashamed that that happened, and of the intervention by the Labour Government, with the support of the Conservatives. I praise John Lamont for his contribution. I disagree with what he said, but I commend him for standing up and saying it because people need to hear why the case was made for the Iraq war.
Back in 1999, Tony Blair laid out new criteria for what he believed was humanitarian intervention. Those principles were not wrong; he just did not stick to them. His failure to adhere to those principles damaged not just the principles but, as we have heard, lives.
It is often said that countries, generals and leaders fight the last war rather than the next one. Decisions taken often reflect more the success or failure of previous conflicts rather than the special circumstances of the next. Iraq was affected by the success of Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, to a limited extent at the time, Afghanistan. However, failure in Iraq should not preclude future action elsewhere. It should not alter our collective responsibility to support freedom and protect human rights around the world. Doing nothing can be as bad as cavalier adventurism. No war is ever won; it is just that some are less bad than others. However, always sitting on our hands can be even worse.
What tests, then, would we apply to future military action? If we are to have a serious debate, that is what we should focus on. I have four simple tests. The first is whether military action is legal under international law. Secondly, does it command local and regional support? That is also important. Thirdly, are we confident that it will alleviate suffering? Finally, and often most controversially, is the United Nations behind it, or, in the absence of that support, are there reasons to intervene on clear humanitarian grounds?
Those are the questions that we need to apply to future conflicts. In Libya, I would say that the limited special forces action and air strikes relieved suffering. We secured the support of Arab countries surrounding Libya. We also secured a strong mandate from the UN and our action was judged legal. I would say that it passed the test. We also passed the test in Mali.
Syria is the biggest test because the United Nations is clearly divided. With Russia standing firmly behind its ally, we have been limited to humanitarian aid. However, thousands of people are suffering and lots of people have died. Many more will die in future. The UK Government, along with many other European Union countries, has agreed to provide non-lethal equipment to the Opposition in Syria but has refused to rule out further support. It is a really difficult test. Do we stand aside when more people die in Syria? We need constantly to reapply the tests that I set out, which are whether we have regional support, whether action is legal and whether we have UN support.
I supported the 1 million British people who marched against the war in 2003. They were not duped by Saddam Hussein and his deception and cruelty, but what they could not understand was why the containment and deterrence approach was to be abandoned; nor did they accept that military intervention was justified. They did not believe that Saddam Hussein was a good guy. They believed that the measures that were being taken were sufficient at the time and they were not convinced of the need for military action. They feared the wider consequences in the middle east, for Israel and Palestine, but also for the Iraqi people. They were anxious about Bush adventurism and revenge for the perceived failures of his father. They were concerned by the actions of a seemingly overcompliant UK Administration that was too eager to please George Bush. It is a shame that this Parliament and the Westminster Parliament did not listen to those people more carefully.
For Scott Kennedy and the hundreds of thousands of others who have lost their lives, it is imperative that we study our history and learn our lessons. That could be their legacy.
I move amendment S4M-05981.1, to insert after “UN resolution”:
“; regrets the decision of the Labour government, with the support of the Conservatives, to press ahead with the invasion despite considerable opposition and many warnings about the danger of armed conflict; is of the view that the intervention was illegal under international law”.
I woke up this morning to hear a radio report from a BBC reporter who had been in Iraq in the days immediately after the invasion. He was speaking to a man who had been sentenced by Saddam Hussein’s regime to a punishment for mistakenly writing on Saddam Hussein’s head on a currency note. The punishment was to be death by acid bath. That was Saddam Hussein. That was the brutal dictator who we were dealing with at the time. I therefore have a huge amount of sympathy for those who found it to be a difficult decision to make when they supported the Iraq war.
I fully accept that Ann Clwyd, with her stories—and I have listened to Ann Clwyd on this in the House of Commons—makes a compelling case about the minorities who were punished in Iraq. I have heard the stories that John Lamont mentioned about the thousands of Kurds and Shias who were put to death under Saddam Hussein’s regime. I have heard the stories about the marsh Arabs, who suffered after they were left high and dry after the first Gulf war.
They thought that they were going to get the full support of the allies against Saddam Hussein at that time, only to be left in the lurch. I understand all those stories, but the four tests that I mentioned earlier—that were absolutely required to be met in order to go ahead with the war—were not followed.
Tony Blair made a compelling case; the simplistic argument—“If you knew what I knew”—is very compelling. He tried to tempt us into believing that he knew much more than he was able to tell us. It was quite an attractive argument and I can understand how so many were seduced by it. I do not condemn those who took the decision to support the war. I disagreed with them fundamentally. I was opposed to the war, my party was opposed to the war and I am glad that we were opposed to the war, because we did not believe that there was justification for the war.
Kevin Stewart made an excellent speech, with his remarks about Allan Douglas and the turmoil that Allan Douglas’s family has gone through since. I have had to sit in the House of Commons when Gordon Brown—and Tony Blair before him—read out the weekly roll-call of the dead. It was a sobering experience. It brought it home that we had made a decision in the House of Commons to go to war and as a result, this roll-call was now being read out and 179 men and women died in Iraq. Allan Douglas was one of them—one of the brave. We need to remind ourselves of those personal stories. Joan McAlpine’s story about a victim on the other side, Ali Abbas, was equally compelling. He was one of hundreds of thousands who suffered as a result of what happened in Iraq.
Those stories are important. We should not just think of such things in geostrategic and geopolitical terms. It is all about the individual—what does it do to the individual? Drew Smith made a good speech about veterans. Again, this is one of the lessons that we have to learn—about looking after the people who fought for the nation on our behalf. The problems around alcohol, prison and homelessness are well recognised. The Scottish Government and the UK Government have made good progress. The priority treatment for veterans is excellent. Headley Court down in the south-east of England is a fantastic facility. If members ever get a chance to go and see it, please go and see it. Veterans first point, at the other end of Princes Street, provides an excellent service, in particular for people who are suffering from mental health problems and also from combat stress, down in Ayr and elsewhere in the UK. It provides excellent facilities to deal with the problems that Drew Smith rightly highlighted. That is one of the lessons from Iraq—that we improve the support for those who have fought on our behalf.
Iraq has been unstable since the start of the war. The shift in the balance of power between Iraq and Iran has been quite significant. Iran is quite a manipulative nation; it gets its tentacles all over that part of the world. When I was in Basra, I saw the effect of Iran’s influence in the south of Iraq. It was funding some of the terrorist groups in the south. It managed to kidnap some of our sailors in the Gulf. We should be wary whenever we intervene within a region; we have to be conscious of the balance of power between all the different stakeholders and countries, because if we unsettle that balance, there are unintended consequences.
I disagree with Fiona McLeod. I recognise that Fiona McLeod is a pacifist. We have to weigh up the people who may suffer if we fail to act. That is the balance. The four tests are critical: making sure that we alleviate suffering; making sure that we have regional and local support; the United Nations has to be on board; and it has to be legal. Those are the four tests. If we comply with those four tests, we should not leave a nation and the people who are suffering within it high and dry.
The final point that we need to remember is about those who spoke up. At the time, the momentum was in favour of war. I remember the pressure that we felt that we were under from all the compelling arguments that were being made. I am delighted that many MSPs, including Bruce Crawford, Jenny Marra and Fiona McLeod, attended the march, but I also give full praise to those who spoke up in the House of Commons— Robin Cook, Ming Campbell, Charles Kennedy and Alex Salmond all deserve credit, because they stood up when it counted.