Kenneth Clarke on Iraq


Kenneth Clarke made the best anti-war speech in the House of Commons before the invasion of Iraq (on 26 February 2003), and on 22 October 2003 he made the best anti-war speech since the invasion, in a debate initiated by the Conservative Party calling for a judicial inquiry.  Clarke’s speech was hardly reported in the press at all.


The following is an edited version:


I think that the decision to go to war in Iraq was the worst military decision taken by this country since the Suez invasion, and history will judge that it poses several of the same issues: a bogus reason was given to the House of Commons for embarking on the war in the first place; no clear forethought had been given to what would happen in the event of our being militarily successful, which was strongly likely in both cases; and when we are sufficiently far from now and able to look back properly, it will pose quite big questions about what the role of this country is in the modern world. I think that most hon. Members are committed to the Atlantic alliance, but this issue poses the biggest questions yet about what kind of Atlantic alliance we are in and what is Britain's part in getting the balance right on both sides of the Atlantic and trying to exercise some influence on the formation of policy.

I shall not rehearse the arguments that I have advanced in the past because that is not the purpose of today's debate. I only briefly remind the House of the view that I always took from the first: I opposed the war because I was not persuaded—I had expressed strong doubts—that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, or biological or chemical weapons, that posed any current threat to his neighbours or to ourselves.

I also expressed strong reservations about the aftermath of warfare, which I think correctly anticipated that we would win with comparative ease and very little loss to our side. I doubted that it would be easy to put in place a stable new regime in Iraq. I feared that it would not add to the stability of the middle east or make it significantly easier to make much progress on the wider middle eastern problems. In addition, I thought it might set us back in the war against terrorism.

I hope that the forebodings I have always expressed about this matter prove to be wrong; I hope that my forecasts of difficulty are gainsaid by the facts, because I do not wish to see such cheerless conclusions unfold. However, as we are all agreed, the most important thing we should turn to in due course is the question of what happens next, and at the moment things are not going well. I believe that the world is a more dangerous place than it was before the invasion of Iraq and I am not satisfied that we are going in the right direction in Iraq, or in the middle east, or in the war against terrorism, as a result of what we have done. …

We must achieve the most stable and democratic regime possible in Iraq as quickly as we possibly can. I am not convinced that the conquering and occupying forces there now are able, without a change of policy, to achieve that very quickly. If I have time, I will return to the case that we must make for internationalising the process much more, giving the United Nations a bigger role, bringing in other countries and getting away from the policy of thinking that a largely Iraqi exile-dominated Government of very pro-western people can emerge, get elected and stay in power for long.

I would make a case for a judicial inquiry on the basis of the first argument that I advanced: that I still believe, and nothing that has happened since has persuaded me to the contrary, that we were given a bogus reason for the war. We certainly were not given the full reasons that had played a part in the making of the decision. It has been said that there have been inquiries into that, and the Hutton inquiry was mentioned.

The Hutton inquiry obviously turns on the tragic death of Dr. Kelly. I am not sure why the Prime Minister so promptly announced a judicial inquiry into that, when he has been resisting a judicial inquiry into the bigger questions of why we went to war, when we went to war and whether Parliament was told the truth about it. The Hutton inquiry, although important, is essentially about a footnote issue. I do not want to be too flippant about it, but it is essentially about the warfare between Alastair Campbell and the BBC and how far that affected the conduct of business inside the Government.

What the Hutton inquiry has done is, first, to cast light on the way in which business was being transacted, which was not very attractive; I hope that those in Whitehall will address the way in which they conduct these things in future. It has also given us insights into what lay behind the veil of the intelligence and the arguments that were going on to make the case on weapons of mass destruction, and they merely add to my doubts that we were ever given the true reason, and my feeling that what was going on was an attempt to manufacture a case that this was all about weapons of mass destruction and United Nations resolutions and so on, to which people unfortunately lent themselves.

I listened to the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell). She still clings to the view that in the end we shall all find out there really were programmes for weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat. I admire her sturdy confidence. I have not even heard the Prime Minister advance that view for the past month, and I thought he was the last person in the country who believed that. It is obvious now that no programmes had reached a stage where there was any likely deployment against anybody.

We discover that intelligence officials were warning that if Saddam had already got them he would use them when we had an invasion. We crushed and overran the regime and there was no appearance of any biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, because he had none that he could use in defence of the regime. So even those who believe that case must surely, eventually—I do not know when—come to accept that it was totally and utterly wrong, and that our forces conquered, indeed, massacred, an army that had only rather inadequate conventional equipment and was incapable of defending itself against the huge force that was deployed.

Therefore, the main issue is, why did we go to war? The more we look at what has just begun to emerge from Hutton and other inquiries, the less able we become to get rid of the idea that this war was never decided on in this country on the grounds of the threat from weapons of mass destruction anyway. I suspect that most of us in the House know American politicians of one kind or another. We all follow the debate on the senior side of the Atlantic, where the real power is held, and most of us have quite a lot of contact with people who hold positions of authority there, or who have held them in the past.

The debate in this country about the war always ran in curious parallel to the debate in the United States, which has always been about slightly different things. The reason that the Foreign Secretary was engaging in these arguments in the United Nations at the end of last year, using convoluted language worthy of "Animal Farm" or "Nineteen Eighty-Four" to explain the history of the motions he was resolutely defending, is that the rumblings of warfare were already sounding. In my opinion, the real decisions to go to war had been taken in Washington months before, and the arguments there were quite openly about regime change. They were advancing what they regarded as a worthwhile case for regime change. To popularise it in America, they were linking it with the war against terrorism and al-Qaeda—they still do.

I can assure the House that a very senior American, favourable to the present Administration and in a position of great influence and control, once expressed exasperation to me, saying, "I do not understand why we are making all this fuss about weapons of mass destruction. We only raised them because our European friends wished us to do so."

The problem in the United States was that it had a clear policy. The Republican Administration believed that the Clinton Administration had been wet and useless, along with its European allies, on all these things and that they would strengthen America's forces. There was a case for the proactive use of force for good, and they thought that they could change the Middle East by taking the opportunity to invade Iraq and putting in a more pro-western and democratic regime. They thought that they would do that easily because they would be greeted as liberators and that Mr Chalabi, or someone like him, and his friends would take over, which would lead to a further succession of benign events throughout the middle east. They thought that they would be able to coerce Syria and that there would be an uprising in Iran, which would produce a more democratic regime there, and so the process would unfold. It did not work. There was no plan B when it did not work once they had conquered Baghdad, and we now need to turn to finding a plan B to see how we move on because those hopes were not realised.

I believe that that was the true background of the war, and it has never been debated in the House, so what we need a judicial inquiry to look at is not who drafted which sentence of the dossier …. The unfortunate Attorney-General and the unfortunate intelligence community were doing their best to serve their colleagues and their masters when they drafted what they did. I do not think that even the legalities turn on that.

The key issue is whether we all feel confident that we know when the decision was made by our Prime Minister to support the President of the United States in warfare in Iraq. Do we believe that we have all been told exactly what policy was behind that? Do we believe that all the accounts given to the House were an accurate narrative of what led to the events that have since unfolded? I do not hold that view. I think that, if we do not hold a judicial inquiry into these matters, in due course, in the fullness of history, there will be an exposition of what really lay behind the whole escapade.

It was 10 or 20 years before we discovered from memoirs and such papers as have emerged that what most sensible people suspected in their bones about Suez was true. If we are not careful, we will wait another 10 or 20 years and we will probably discover that the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and his colleagues were telling us the plain obvious, and that Parliament ignored it.