David Blackburn

Why does the Iraq war still fascinate the politics of the present?

Why does the Iraq war still fascinate the politics of the present?
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This week has seen confirmation that social mobility has stagnated, that the economic recovery is dangerously anaemic and that peace in Northern Ireland is threatened. Yet a conflict that was declared won nearly 7 years ago has been ever present on the frontpages. Bagehot is not at all surprised that the Iraq war remains definitive:

‘There is one way in which, despite the inquiry, Iraq has come to seem a less definitive issue: in Mr Brown’s handling of the public finances, it has a rival for the status of Labour’s worst mistake. Yet Iraq remains the most important single decision the government has made. Even taking a generous view of its behaviour—that it was cavalier and naive, rather than actively mendacious—the war remains an enormous stain. Those commentators who accept that verdict but think Mr Brown’s approach to, say, tax credits, somehow compensates, seem morally confused. Of course other issues matter too; but if you hate the war, you must surely now be seriously disenchanted with the warrior.

As Bagehot notes, Iraq casts doubt on Labour’s ability to decide and deliver foreign policy, an observation that extends to Afghanistan. Disregard the professions of innocence, Labour’s ineptitude is collective. Cabinet ministers maintain that Labour’s wars, especially Iraq, were Blair’s hobbies. Ministers were silent partners harbouring intense moral reservations. That nauseating testimony is not born out in the documentation – Straw and Brown have left their mark on paper for the electorate to see. A new Politics Home poll suggests that a majority of the public believe the cabinet, the intelligence services and Blair were responsible; it was New Labour's war.

From the British perspective, Iraq was the right cause fought for the wrong reasons and executed atrociously. It was the very worst expression of New Labour’s modus operandi for government: a great big glossy headline narrative with no conception of how to implement a long-term plan for success. As Fraser writes in this week’s magazine, the government abrogated its responsibility to the British army and the Iraqi people – a bloodbath ensued. If Labour has become synonymous with high-minded blunders, Iraq remains its most damaging failure. For that reason, it still matter to the electorate.