“The most cynical thing I have ever seen”
The Labour Party was uncomfortable debating the looming invasion of Iraq in the Scottish Parliament ten years ago and seemed equally uncomfortable debating its aftermath at Holyrood today. But why wouldn’t it be? After more than one hundred thousand civilian deaths – many the result of a civil war facilitated by the Coalition Authorities – even the architects of the invasion, not least former adviser to the Bush administration David Frum, concede things didn’t quite go to plan.
One reason Iraq remains so raw for Scottish Labour is that a large chunk of its current leadership, including shadow ministers at Westminster and Holyrood, strongly supported it. Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, Margaret Curran, Tom Harris, Jackie Baillie, Iain Gray, Alistair Darling, Ken Macintosh, Lewis Macdonald and, of course, Johann Lamont fall into this category. A few, like Harris and Murphy, remain more or less unrepentant. Others observe an awkward and undignified silence
In the run up to the invasion, the conduct of many Scottish Labour politicians towards their opponents was appalling. Helen Liddell, then Scotland Secretary, said Alex Salmond would become the “toast of [Saddam’s] Baghdad”. Tom McCabe accused the SNP of being “opportunistic and repugnant”. First Minister Jack McConnell derided the decision of Susan Deacon, one of Labour’s few rebels at Holyrood, to vote against military action as “an exercise in self-aggrandisement” and warned that her dissent “would not be forgiven”. Courageously, despite the instability it created for his government, Chancellor Gordon Brown said almost nothing at all.
This made the ultra-sanctimonious tone struck by Johann Lamont and other Labour MSPs this afternoon all the more jarring. Rather than mount a defence of the war – or apologise for having backed it – Lamont attacked the SNP for trying to hijack the issue to advance its constitutional agenda. Jenny Marra went further, calling the debate, “the most cynical thing I have ever seen in Scottish politics.” The nationalists’ cynicism lay in their attempts to link the war question to the independence one, as though the presence of Scottish soldiers in Fallujah and Basra had nothing to do with the fact Westminster controls Scotland’s foreign policy.
To his credit, and in contrast to the majority of his Labour colleagues, Lewis Macdonald at least made an effort to construct an argument in favour of regime change. Unfortunately, it rested on the assertion that US forces ‘liberated’ the Kurds from Baathism. In fact, American planes had policed a no-fly-zone over Iraqi Kurdistan for a number of years prior to 2003. This could have been reinforced with additional aircraft, from Britain if necessary, had Saddam launched another military offensive.
But these are just details. The important thing is that Labour successfully exposed the SNP’s staggering pettiness. An actual debate – about the merits of the invasion and its legacy for ordinary Iraqis, as well as the dozens of Scottish families it affected – would only have played into the scheming hands of the First Minister. Perhaps the last word should go to James Kelly, not normally the sharpest of Scotland’s elected representatives: “The public won’t be impressed by how we’ve conducted ourselves today.” No, it really won’t.