Skip to main content
denis macshane

Denis MacShane was a parliamentary private secretary and minister at the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1997 to 2005

The long-awaited report on the origins and conduct of the Iraq War can be summed up in the limpid remark to Napoleon after the pointless murder of an opponent – "Sire, it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake."

Sir John Chilcot, a charter member of the British establishment, has produced a report of more than two million words which describes in detail how Britain made one of its worst-ever mistakes – as bad as the invasion of Suez and perhaps the more recent Brexit plebiscite – namely to take part in the invasion of Iraq.

I confess my own mea culpa, as I was a No. 2 in the Foreign Office as minister of state, and I, along with 417 other MPs, including most Tories, voted for the war that turned into the disaster of disasters from which Europe and the world is still suffering.

The destruction of the Iraq state in 2003 opened the gates of hell to a Shia-Sunni war that reverberates to this day.

Sir John has exposed in pitiless detail the failure of the British state to say "No, Prime Minister" and stop the march to British involvement in the Iraq war.

Sir John shows how the most senior figures in British intelligence and diplomacy provided Tony Blair with inaccurate information that justified the then-prime minister in his decision not to break with Washington.

His report is harsh on the failings of the army generals to provide their men with the right equipment or the sheer hubris of senior officers in thinking that 5,000 British soldiers could pacify the 2.2 million inhabitants of the Basra region, who went on an orgy of settling scores once Saddam Hussein and his dictatorial rule had been removed.

In the run-up to Iraq, I was a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). I kept a daily diary and I can report that I met no one in the state apparatus who so much as raised a finger or an eyebrow about the need to tackle Saddam Hussein. Why did not a single FCO insider, other than a junior lawyer who to her eternal honour resigned in protest, raise any questions?

Every political generation wants not to repeat the errors of the team they succeed in office. In the 1990s, the main foreign policy charge against the Tory government of John Major was that it was weak and failed to stand up to the human rights abuses associated with Slobodan Milosevic in Srebrenica and Kosovo. British diplomats at the United Nations were accused by many of failing to stop a genocide in Rwanda or the mass murders in Somalia and Sudan.

The concepts of the "right to intervene" or the "responsibility to protect" or the need for an International Criminal Court to deal with the Milosevics and Saddams of the world were developed by intellectuals such as Michael Ignatieff and promoted by human rights activists and human rights lawyers. Saddam Hussein was seen as another Serbian or Hutu warlord, one that a Labour government willing to use military force as it had in Kosovo, or Indonesia, or Sierra Leone, could sort out.

A decade later, British Prime Minister David Cameron made the same mistake by intervening to get rid of an ugly dictator in Libya, thus helping to destroy the Libyan state as Iraq had been destroyed, and opening the doors to the tsunami of refugees, jihadis and economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa now flooding into Europe.

One tragedy of Iraq was not the mistakes made at the time, but the failure to learn from them. Britain, like the United States, has now turned away from interventionism and some believe the decision to isolate Britain from Europe and pull up the drawbridge is also a reaction to Mr. Blair's hubris in Iraq.

Right now, there is an orgy of a blame game in London. But the collective failure of the political elites – Tory as well as ruling Labour ministers and the mandarins who form the deep state in Britain – to take the right decision on Iraq, will weigh heavily for decades to come.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct