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25 Mar 2008 : Column 114

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Angus Robertson: I will give way, as the hon. Gentleman might not get the chance to speak.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am a bit of a recidivist on this, so I will once again be voting for an inquiry. Should we not be successful tonight, however, will he confirm that this issue will be returned to, in the spirit of Members of all parties who are in favour of an inquiry being signatories to the motion?

Angus Robertson: I am happy to confirm that the Scottish National party will continue to co-operate with members of all parties and none on this issue. We will look at using our parliamentary time if we need to bring this matter back.

I want briefly to go through the case for an inquiry. I believe that we need one because we need to learn the lessons of why we went to war in the first place. That is an obvious point, both domestically and internationally, for all of us who support the international community and the institution of the United Nations. We also need to learn the lessons regarding rebuilding. This is work in progress; it is ongoing. There are lessons to be learned. Surely that is important for the people of Iraq, so if we are going to learn lessons that are important for the people of Iraq, please let us get on with it. Many of them live in the most extreme circumstances, and we need to learn those lessons as soon as possible in order to assist those people. We also need to learn the military lessons, because our service personnel and those from other countries are there, whether or not we supported their presence in the first place. Surely learning lessons would help our troops in the field.

The case against an inquiry has possibly been the most unconvincing case that I have heard in my time in the House of Commons. I usually find the Foreign Secretary, who is no longer in his place, extremely persuasive. He is a good and engaging speaker, but today he was sent out to bat with a broken bat— [Interruption.] And on a sticky wicket. He was unconvincing; he did not convince even Government Members on the issue.

Some people have suggested that having an inquiry would undermine the efforts of our service community while on operations. Goodness me, that has not prevented the US from having a host of inquiries. If that was true for the US, surely it is true for us. Neither has such a problem stopped the UK in the past, as we have heard a number of examples showing precedent whereby inquiries have been allowed to take place. If it is to be argued that we should not have inquiries in times of conflict, let me remind those who have not been to the Imperial War museum that one of the first items one sees there underlines the fact that there has been only one year since 1945 when the UK has not had service personnel in combat situations. The argument put forward by a few Government Members as to why we should not have an inquiry now or in the immediate future is, frankly, given that troops serving in our name are in permanent conflict situations, an argument for never having an inquiry.


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Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Angus Robertson: I would be delighted to do so.

Jim Sheridan: In expressing his concern for British troops, will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to remind the House that senior members of his party refer to the Union Jack as the butcher’s apron and that only today active members of his party were looking forward to the day when they could burn the Union Jack in Scotland?

Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber for only the smallest part of our proceedings today, but if that is the only contribution he can make, it speaks for itself. It is sad and misguided.

Let me return to the points made by the Foreign Secretary. We heard two very important concessions from the Government Front Bench. The first was that the President of the United States was wrong and that mission has not been accomplished. It is important that the record shows that. The Foreign Secretary also confirmed that the four previous inquiries were limited; in the past, the Government have argued the exact opposite—that they have covered all the bases—so we have had an interesting change in the Government’s position. They have stood their own warped logic on this question on its head this evening. The case for war and the continuing disaster that has engulfed Iraq has been exposed for the sham that it is.

I would like to explain why, five years on from the start of the Iraq war, there is one new reason for holding an inquiry. It concerns our casualties and how we can avoid them. Many of us in different parts of the UK have had bad experiences, suffering heavy casualties in previous conflicts. Going back to world war one, Professor Niall Ferguson pointed out in “The Pity of War” that, relative to population, Scotland suffered the third highest casualties of any country; it came after Serbia and Turkey. As to the number killed as a proportion of the total number of troops mobilised, Scotland provided 26.4 per cent., while the UK average was 11.8 per cent. We know that in the second world war, 50,000 names of Scottish service personnel out of a UK total of 388,000 were added to the rolls of honour for having died in conflict. On the basis of the writings of Trevor Royle, probably Scotland’s best known military authority, we also know that a quarter of all UK service personnel killed in action in the Korean war never came home to Scotland.

Some of those conflicts, and certainly the second world war, were just wars, and perhaps the fact that we lost more people than did other nations was the price that had to be paid. Five years into the Iraq war, however, the statistics on deaths from various nations greatly concerns me. We find that of the 23 coalition nations, the United States leads, which is unsurprising, given the number of its troops there. The next nation on loss of troops relative to population is Wales, and the next after that is Scotland. Some 38 per cent. behind is England. The list goes on. On these islands, we have lost more lives than have many other countries—some larger than our own, but almost all larger than Scotland or Wales.


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On one level, those statistics do not matter to mothers and fathers—wherever they are, on these islands or elsewhere—who have lost their loved ones. Every loss is a tragic loss. But the fact remains that the number of Scottish military casualties is higher than the number of casualties in almost every other coalition country, and I want to know why that is. I do not know why it is, and I think that we deserve an answer.

Mr. Keetch: I apologise for missing the first minute of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I hope he is not taking the path that I think he is taking. Many people who join the armed forces join not as Scots, Englishmen, Welshmen or Ulstermen, but to fight for a regiment. Entry to many regiments, including one closely associated with my constituency, means becoming a member of the armed forces. Whether the entrant is English, Scots, Northern Irish or even Commonwealth is irrelevant. I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that.

Angus Robertson: Although he was sitting in front of me, the hon. Gentleman obviously did not listen to what I said just a moment ago. I said that, in a sense, it did not matter where any casualties came from, and I paid tribute to all personnel. Nevertheless, just as it was right for someone to ask at the beginning of the last century why the establishment of “pals” regiments was not appropriate, it is right now to ask why the rate of casualties suffered in Iraq, as in previous conflicts, is heavily skewed.

I do not know the answer to that question, but I think it worthy of answer, and worthy of answer in an inquiry. Perhaps the Minister can give us the answer this evening. Why have we suffered so many casualties? I am certain that it has nothing to do with the bravery of the troops in question or their leadership on the ground, and I do not think that they were any more or less brave than coalition soldiers from any other country; but the fact remains that our casualty rates are substantially higher, and I think we deserve to know why.

As for the wider question of an inquiry, I have no doubt that, as others have said, the real reason why the Government are not acceding to the request for one this evening is purely to do with the electoral cycle. The Government do not want to go into the next general election after being exposed over the worst foreign policy disaster in which the United Kingdom has involved itself in the last 100 years. It has been a disaster for our service personnel, who have served bravely in our name, and for hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, and it has destabilised the world.

The current Prime Minister was intimately involved. He sat at the Cabinet table at the right hand of Tony Blair. Not only did he agree to this military conflict; he has signed the cheques for it from the start, and any inquiry would show that to be the case. But for all that, and all that, it is not the reason for having an inquiry. The reason is that after five years—longer than the duration of the first world war and than the United States’ involvement in the second—we deserve answers to many, many questions, and an inquiry of the kind proposed has long been needed. I hope that Members in all parts of the House agree that it is right for it to take place now.


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9.18 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): A number of right hon. and hon. Members were not in the House on 18 March 2003, when we were able to debate an amendment that would have meant resolving that the case for a war on Iraq had not yet been established. In retrospect, I suspect that even more Members wish that they had not been in the House at that time, because many of them were taken in by the arguments with which they were being bombarded by the Government—and the Prime Minister in particular—about the inevitability of a case for war.

Debates among Labour Members in the Tea Room and in the Corridors of the House legitimately addressed many of the claims that were being made about the necessity for a war: the threat to Britain of a 45-minute strike from Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction, the threat that Iraq posed to the United Kingdom, the importation of uranium cake, and the prospect of a restarted nuclear programme and a concealed chemical weapons programme. All those issues were of legitimate concern to Labour Members, yet they were consistently shrouded in claims that have proved to be utterly groundless, and which at the time must have been known to be untrue.

The question is: to whom do we owe an inquiry? There is a long list of people. We owe it to the families of the 175 British soldiers who have died in Iraq. We owe it to the 4,000 troops who have been injured, and their families. We owe it to the military generals who came to the House before the war and expressed to Members of Parliament their concerns about the legality of going into Iraq and the logistics of getting out. We also owe it to the families of the anything between 250,000 and 500,000 Iraqis who have died as a result of the war, and to the 2 million Iraqis who are now refugees, primarily in countries surrounding Iraq. But most of all we owe it to ourselves, because although several million people in Britain were opposed to the war on any terms, tens of millions made the same judgment, which was that, with reluctance, they believed what the Government were saying because the Prime Minister had consistently said, “If you only knew what I know from the intelligence briefings, you would understand why there is a compelling case for a war.” Those tens of millions of people have a right to say to us, “So now that we know there was not a shred of truth in that, where do you stand on insisting that you hold yourselves accountable so that we learn the lessons from the last war folly in order that you do not mislead us into the next war folly?”

I want to remind Labour Members that, in the days before that debate, those of us who formed Labour Against the War took the liberty of circulating to every Labour Member our counter-dossier to the dodgy dossier that was to come out a day later. We did so with great trepidation, because all of us were hugely fearful that we might have somehow missed something that the weapons inspectors or the International Atomic Energy Agency had said that was not part of the international evidence base of the case against a war, and that at the last minute the Government would pull out a smoking gun and there would be something in their report. It was therefore with a sense of perverse relief that we read the dodgy dossier on the morning of its release and realised that there was nothing there.
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We circulated all that evidence and those arguments to our colleagues at the time, and we have to take responsibility for the decisions we made in which we knowingly chose not to believe evidence that was internationally available to us; we owe it to ourselves to ask how we were misled.

There are different issues in terms of the Conservatives’ position. I have heard it argued that the objections to having this inquiry now are threefold. The first of them is that it would be a gift to the friends of al-Qaeda. The answer to that is that the greatest gift to al-Qaeda was the war itself. The second objection is that an inquiry would endanger our troops. The reality is that 4,000 British troops are now stationed in a base 8 miles outside Basra at the airport: it is a bunker. They do not do any training outside the base; people have to go in. The idea that more missiles will be fired at the base because there is an inquiry seems ludicrous.

If there is an issue to do with opportunism, we must address it. That is my principal reason for voting for the motion tonight—I want to put the Conservatives on the spot. In the months leading up to the war, I toured the television stations arguing the case against it, but invariably I was preceded or followed by Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen who said, “We would declare our allegiance to the US war initiative a week before Labour. So it is not a question about whether there is evidence. We would prove our credentials earlier than you guys would.”

I want to put the Conservatives on the block over this inquiry. People who ask what led us into that war need only look at the voting record from the debate on 18 March 2003 to find out. Some 245 Labour Members voted for the war—the Government were provided with a majority of 179—but 140 Conservatives also did so. [Interruption.] Some 16 extremely honourable Conservative Members voted against, but we ended up in the war because the principal Opposition refused to be an Opposition. Their loyalty was to the President of the United States and to being on the front line, or to having other people there, a week before Labour. So let us put the Conservatives on the block.

I welcome the prospect of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) being able to give evidence to an inquiry. I wish he could give evidence in his own defence before an inquiry at The Hague, because those who knowingly voted for that war and continue to try to justify that illegal act ought to be required to answer before an international criminal court. That is not within our jurisdiction, but being able to set up an inquiry of our own is. We should not be afraid to say that in a catastrophic experience for the British Government we have led ourselves into a disastrous, dishonest, destabilising and downright illegal war. We owe it to our credibility with our own people and our own armed forces to address the questions of why and at what point people signed up to a war that was a betrayal of the interest of the UK rather than an honouring of it.

9.27 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It will take me just three minutes to put together what I would like to say. I am one of those people who was not elected when the debate on Iraq first took place. I
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made it clear that I was against the war at that stage, but I am more concerned about what happened in the aftermath of the decision to go to war—the peacekeeping that took place. It is why I strongly believe that it is time for a review.

The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is a useful time to take stock of what is going on there. This weekend’s attacks left 47 people dead, and it is clear that that is a typical weekend death count. We do not see the headlines as much as we used to, because not so many British deaths are taking place, but Basra is involved in a turf war and the Anbar province has been ethnically cleansed almost across the board. In Baghdad, where the surge has had an impact, again areas are being cleared of one type of population or another, unemployment is rife, electricity is intermittent and the queues for petrol remain long. More than 4,000 US soldiers have died, as have 175 from the British side, including 11 from my regiment, so now is the time to ask whether we can call this a success story.

The counter-argument is that we got rid of a tyrant, but as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pointed out, we could have used the military in many other different capacities to end up with a better result. The justification for war moved from weapons of mass destruction to regime change, and intelligence was cherry-picked to make a case. As happens with these things, details are now emerging to suggest that the WMD argument came from a spy codenamed Curveball, who was involved with German federal intelligence, and the Americans never had an opportunity to speak to him directly.

This has been a fascinating debate. It has focused a lot on what has happened to the justification for going to war—but we have made a complete mess of the peace process. We could have done a lot better in the direct aftermath—from the days when President Bush stood on his ship declaring that the mission was accomplished—because that was when the hard work should have begun. There was clearly no plan. Even Colin Powell felt embarrassed having to justify the invasion when he went to the United Nations. The consequence is that we are living in Iraq today and our military are picking up a lot of the criticism, if I can put it that way, for the fact that international development agencies could not take advantage of the fragile peace when we moved in after the invasion. A lot of work needs to be done. There are many questions outstanding, and I believe that an inquiry is well overdue.

9.30 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): This has been a significant debate, in terms both of the passion and quality of the speeches by Members from all parties and of the sheer flimsiness of the arguments advanced by Ministers in defence of the Government’s position.

A couple of speeches will stay in my mind. The historical knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) and his references to the Ems telegram, Cavour and successive
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Iraqi leaders certainly set the debate in context. I confess that I was somewhat entertained when I listened to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) give the House a lecture on the importance of constant principle in the context of politics today.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Of course, I have been extraordinarily constant on this issue. I publicly dissociated myself from the Conservative party when it first supported the Scottish National party’s proposal for an inquiry. I explained back in 2006 why I thought it was an extraordinarily irresponsible idea. I did exactly the same last year.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman has been constant on this issue; I doubt whether many of his constituents would believe that he had been consistent in many others.

We have heard agreement in the debate, the common ground being that we should have an inquiry. The argument has been over its timing and, to some extent, its scope. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), concentrated on its scope. I want to reassure him that, as the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said in his speech, the motion was deliberately chosen. It follows the terms of a Scottish Nationalist and Plaid Cymru motion that was debated in the House in 2006. That wording was the outcome of cross-party discussions, which included Labour Members.

Our purpose in choosing that motion rather than one that could easily have been phrased to score party political points was to try to unite as many Members as possible throughout the House in support of a measure that we believe it is in our national interest to support. Its scope is wide, rather than as narrow as the hon. Member for Ilford, South said. I draw his attention to the words in the motion, particularly those that state that an inquiry would have power


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