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The point is that on 25 November Labour Back Benchers tabled an amendment to the Government motion, which said that under no
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circumstances should there be war against or invasion of Iraq. That resulted in the entire debate being on the question whether we should deploy armed force against Iraq.
Jon Trickett: I voted for the rebel amendment, but many hon. Members did not vote for it because they took seriously the words of the Government motion, which clearly envisaged the construction of a worldwide alliance centred on United Nations action. That was why the rebel amendment did not secure as much support as it might have done.
In retrospect, it is clear that the die was cast by the time of the December deployment: we were in a state of preparedness for war and the time scale had been determined. There had been no appropriate debate in the House that permitted us to proceed with the conflict.
David Wright: Does my hon. Friend accept the principle that it is legitimate for our country to deploy troops as a mechanism to try to force the hand of another nation to comply with United Nations resolutions? I fully accept and agree with his point that, in Iraq, the deployment led on to conflict that would have been difficult to stop, but the principle of deploying troops to try to provoke a positive reaction from a nation must surely be an option available to the Government, possibly without their having to come to the House.
Jon Trickett: I entirely accept that that may be the case, but, as we now know, it was not the case at the time because, some months beforehand, on that fateful day at Camp David or on somebody's ranch somewhere, the Prime Minister had committed himself to war. The Government's real intention in deploying the troops was not, as was being said in the House, part of international diplomacy, but the first act of war. That is the point of the December deployment.
Those who rest their case on the argument that a good practice was established in the run-up to Iraq because there was a vote on a substantive motion in March fundamentally misunderstand what was happening in October, November and December of the previous year. That illustrates the need for a statutory framework that does not impinge on the capacity of the Executive to operate as a true Executive, nor on our armed forces to be able to defend themselves or to act in urgent circumstances. We need a statutory framework within which we are all locked.
I shall make two confessions to the House. Firstthis will probably not be too much of a shock for those who know meI have never knowingly allowed the word "new" to come between my surname and the word "Labour". Secondly, I have many good friends who are new Labour. I have studied the Prime Minister's words in his change maker speech. As an hilarious aside, someone moved next to me when my right hon. Friend was making his speech, and I thought he said that he was a rainmaker. I thought, "Why do we need rainmakers when it always rains at party conferences?" However, he was saying that he was a change maker and that that was what new Labour was about.
What is the change for? Is it change for its own sake? [Interruption.] That may be so. A second word comes in, and that is modernisation. We are here to modernise
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the country. What is modernity? Surely that does not mean resting our case or our powers on a mediaeval legal framework that resides in the idea of absolute power and the notion of the divine right of monarchs to rule, to wage war and to do anything else with the country. Modernity surely implies a modern Parliament.
There are other buzz words in the change maker's speech, such as accountability, transparency and democracy. That is the language of new Labour. I might well aspire one day to become a member of new Labour because I can use all of those words. I say to new Labour friends who are perhaps considering not voting with the progressive consensus in the House that includes Conservative, nationalist and Liberal Democrat Members and others, thinking that this is not quite the right thing to do, to examine the words of the Prime Minister, the chief architect of new Labour.
Here is a piece of legislation that proposes modernisation, change, transparency, accountability and democracy. Come and join us in the Lobby. Come and join the progressive consensus that is clearly emerging this afternoon.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): It is significant that, with a couple of notable eccentric exceptions, the majority of Members who have spoken against the Bill have done so not on the basis of principleparliamentary scrutiny and approval of proposed armed conflictsbut on the two themes of necessity and the problems associated with implementation. I shall deal with those themes one at a time.
On necessity, it is argued that following the events in the run-up to the Iraq war a convention has been established or the principles have been set, or the promises have been made, that make any future move towards armed conflicts a matter that will inevitably come before the House for a substantive vote. That may be the case. It may be that it is inevitable, now that the precedent has been set and perhaps a convention established. However, that is not the point.
It is not the point because such conventions and such principles would not provide for a proper legal framework for consideration. They would not provide for reliable information to be in front of the House on which it could base its consideration and its decision; they would not allow for proper scrutiny; and they would not guarantee approval in advance. It is important that we have a proper legal framework. Perhaps it is even more important that that framework is established to ensure proper consideration not only in the Houses of Parliament but in the Government. If one thing is evident from the way that we went into the conflict in Iraq it is that such proper consideration did not take place. The House should support the Bill for the sake of the Government's democratic accountability and proper consideration within Government.
The Bill is not just about Iraq, although many of us still feel very bitterly the anger and betrayal of that appalling blunder, and are reminded of it with every suicide bomb that explodes and every day's newspapers
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that we open in which we read of events there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) pointed out earlier, we should support the Bill not just because of our opposition to the war in Iraq, but because of our experience of the way in which we went into that war. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber who have spoken today in support of the Bill may take very different views on the armed conflict, but they want to ensure that any future potential armed conflict is given proper consideration in the House and by the Government.
The other criticism of the Bill has related to problems associated with it. Inevitably, some legitimate issues have been raised about the Bill's implementation, but all are matters that can be sorted out in Committee. In my very limited experience, the problems with the Bill are no greater than those with many other Bills making their first appearance in the House.
When we were moving inexorably, as it seemed, towards the Iraq war, many inside and outside the House campaigned under the banner "Not in our name". The Bill gives us an opportunity to say that, in future, without proper consideration, information and consent, it will be never again in our name.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I feel very uncomfortable about the Bill. I make no great claims for myself as a lawyer or a constitutional expertI am sure that there are many such people here today, but I am definitely not one of thembut even I can see that there are major problems with the Bill.
As a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, of course I would always want Parliament to be involved in deciding in which conflicts our troops did and did not take part, but I have been happy with the way in which Parliament has been consulted on the conflicts that have taken place in the eight years that I have been in the House. I do not feel that we have been excluded, and I am pleased that the Government say that they cannot envisage a time when Members of Parliament are not involved in these decisions. I cannot even imagine a time when another Government would not involve us.
However, the Bill is not about involving us in the decision; it is about Parliament making the decision. It means that we could have to define the exact nature of what our troops can do, where they can do it and who they can do it against. That is completely unreasonable, and everyone knows that it is completely unreasonableeven the Bill's sponsorsas the Bill goes on to say that if we do not know those precise details, the military can go ahead anyway and come back to us later to check that what has been done is okay with us.
I think that that is ridiculous, but this is not about me. This is about the people who are brave enough to fight on behalf of the country; it is about the people whom I really care aboutthe people in my constituency who joined the armed services. So I have spoken to a number of people who have done precisely that. I wanted to find out from them how they would feel if the Bill became law, and doing so helped me to make up my mind for sure not to support it.
First, I spoke to Bert Wells of St. Helier avenue on the St. Helier estate. Bert is in his 70s, and still sees active service as one of the hardest working envelope-stuffers
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for Mitcham and Morden Labour party. In 1946, Bert joined the Army. He spent three years with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and served in north Africa and the middle east. He was sent to Palestine following the UN decision on partition into Jewish and Arab states. As we know only too well, that part of the middle east is extremely volatile, and some groups could not accept partition and engaged in a series of terrorist attacks. That was a frightening time, and Bert said that "troops were being attacked night after night".
The UN arbitrator, Count Bernadotte, was assassinated, and six of Bert's Army colleagues were killed in actionBert acted as a pall bearer for one of them. For Bert and for many other British soldiers Palestine was a distant place, so I asked him how he felt about a Prime Minister having the power to send troops to fight and die for causes many miles away. He has told me that he did not want to go to war and that nobody ever wants to do so, but that in his view, "If you have to go to war, you must."
Bert said that the Prime Minister must make a decision, that the military must provide advice and that the Cabinet must be involved. However, he does not want the details to be advertised in Parliament: "If you embark on active duty, you don't really want people to know. When we were allowed home on leave, we could not tell people what we were going to be doing when we got back in case it put you in danger. It is a bit like the Queenyou wouldn't necessarily want your enemies to know where she was going in case she was ambushed. I wouldn't like it if our enemies knew where I was going."
Bert feels strongly that if the Government asked troops to fight in a conflict and Parliament second-guessed their orders later, it would put more pressure on the troops. He is worried that his officers would have been unable to react when suddenly attacked if they were unclear about how their response would go down in a parliamentary debate. He said, "I don't think something like that should be debated in Parliament. It would be very worrying."
Alf Jones lives in the Ravensbury ward and is another Labour party stalwart. By trade, he is a butcher, and he joined up on 4 September 1939, the day after the second world war was declared. He was in the Royal Artillery, and although he spent most of his time in Ireland patrolling the border, he was involved in action in mainland Europe. He took part in the D-day campaign and told me that there were only five survivors from his unit. Alf told me that someone came into his butcher's shop after the war and said, "Are you Alf Jones from 241 battery?" Alf said, "Yes." The man replied, "Why aren't you dead?"
Alf also told me about the time when he had been in hospital for two months and then went back to headquarters to wait for his next assignment. Suddenly, his unit came under attack, and 40 men took a direct hit just yards from him. He said that he saw those men blown into a thousand pieces. "I've seen things I never want to see again", he said. We expect a lot from our troops; I feel that I have heard only a fraction of what he has been through. He said that he has been to hell and back, and that he feels like he has also been to heaven and back five times, because that is how many times he cheated death. He now says that if anyone ever asked him to go to war again, he would say, "No." We must
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always try to find a better way, but Alf admits that sometimes we must go to war. Like many hon. Members in the Chamber today, he did not agree with the war in Iraq, but he told me that now he has found out what Saddam Hussein was doing, we probably had no choice.
Alf also said that when he was about to start fighting, he was "thrilled"a shocking word. He said that a lot of the people with him were scared and frightened, but that he was genuinely thrilled. The only time that he was scared was when he was in the thick of it. He told me, "No one's got the forethought to know what's just about to happen. You just don't know. Things happen so quickly and you have to respond."
I asked Alf what he would have thought if he had not received final approval for what he was doing. What if he had not had the backing of his military commanders because Parliament had not yet given its approval? What would he have thought if he had had to go ahead and hope that Parliament would retrospectively give its approval? He said, "That is ridiculous. You've got to defend yourself. You've got to do what you've go to do. It'd be like fighting with one hand behind your back. I wouldn't say it would be an easy thing for Parliament. How would they know what we had to do?" I hate to think how people such as Alf would feel if he put his life on the line and then, a few days on, MPs stood up in this hallowed Chamber and said, "No. You should not have done that." I did not have the heart to ask him that question, but I know what he would think.
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