Democracy on Trial: Lessons from Iraq.

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The referendum on our membership of the European Union seems to have become a national festival of nonsense. You would think that in a moment of absent-mindedness, the Prime Minister had decided to grant a referendum on whether or not we should have a recession and cut all of our ties with the international community. Now he and his Chancellor are frantically pleading with the public not to vote for this obvious irrationality. It will, according to treasury forecasts and independent assessments, wipe away years of economic growth and weaken Western civilisation in the face of extremism. It will simultaneously reduce the value of housing and make it less affordable.

Has so much nonsense ever been said about anything? Well, in a word, yes. In 2003, much of the political class had similarly supported a military intervention in Iraq, and eminent civil servants had hastily produced some suitable material to set every head in the media helpfully talking. There were lurid claims that Iraq could deploy “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) within forty-five minutes’ notice (fictional), that it was attempting to obtain uranium for a nuclear weapon (fictional), and that it was led by a uniquely depraved individual who inserted his victims feet-first into a “people shredding” machine (fictional).

Normally boring politicians had suddenly unleashed their imaginations and the result was a magnificent flight of fantasy. Nonetheless, a 2011 FoI request from the Observer found that behind the scenes, John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, was commending “the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD Iraq is not that exceptional.” John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, privately thought that the intelligence on which parliament had voted was “tittle tattle.”

The numbers stacked up then as they do now: 412 MPs voted to bomb Iraq, 491 have declared for the EU. No doubt in ten years’ time, the political consensus will finally wheel around to the notion that the UK was deceived by dubious intelligence into voting to Remain. MPs will all solemnly lament that they were misled – that they wouldn’t have voted to Remain if they knew then what they know now. Political nobodies will remind everybody interminably that they were one of the few to question the government’s position at the time. There will be feeble calls for David Cameron, now a jet-setting international statesman, to stand trial. And at last, when the humbug cannot get any more richly hypocritical, there will be the slowly rising media outcry for that grand climax of pomp and evasion: the objective, judge-led, independent public inquiry.

Let us grow slightly more serious about this. Over the last decade, it has proved easier to turn the buildup to the Iraq war into a handy fable than it has been to learn the uncomfortable lessons that the war actually affords. People often complain that many MPs voted for war simply because they were not brave or scrupulous enough to defy their leaders. The Green MP Caroline Lucas, for example, recalled in 2013 that MPs were “were whipped massively through a system in this House that means they give up their responsibility to make their own decisions… too many Members put loyalty to their leader and to their party above their own judgment.”

Supposing, however, that there had been a referendum on the Iraq war, just as there is today a referendum on our EU membership. How would the public have voted? I am afraid that it does not look so good. YouGov’s polling throughout 2003 found an average of 54% of the voters declaring that the UK was “Right” to go to war. But if you add in the dynamic of a referendum, then the war is no longer a lone political issue – it is now mixed up with broader questions of governance and stability. Before the parliamentary vote on Iraq, Tony Blair and many of his cabinet ministers were determined to resign if they did not get their war. However sincere they were in this, there was no alternative establishment or professional political class waiting to take over if Blair and his regime were discredited. Blair had accrued such power that there was nobody else who could have realistically formed a lasting government. Just picture Robin Cook, Clare Short and Charles Kennedy trying to string together a cabinet.

In the March of 2003, there was an unspoken understanding between Blair and the rest of the country. He would continue to provide the only stable centrist administration that was available and in return he could exact his mad March war as a kind of personal fee. In this respect, the Iraq war was ultimately a perk of the job for Blair. I campaigned against the Iraq war in 2003 and the experience was so nightmarish because the case for war always rolled on unstoppably like runaway molten lava, over facts, reasonable objections, and even the most naked common sense. We were about to attack a faraway country, which was visibly in ruins, on the basis that it might one day drop a nuclear bomb on us. But the parliamentary debate might as well have been quacking for all that it influenced anybody in power. The entire political mainstream was for war – a handful of moralists and no-hopers were against. The war was, simply by dint of this imbalance, a political fact.

Unfortunately, Brexit is conforming to the same pattern. We are currently going through exactly the same airless, nightmarish atmosphere as during the buildup to war. There is exactly the same fanciful, even outlandish rhetoric from the political class and exactly the same gloomy fatalism amongst the public.

The public has already taken a cold look at the Brexiteers and decided that this lot is in no position to ever run the country. Yes, the Leave campaign can boast of some energetic, admirable politicians such as Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell. They look and sound like Victorian cabinet ministers, but it is all play-acting. There are too few of them and they are never going to get anywhere near to the centre of power. This leaves Boris Johnson and his transparent, trundling calculations. Johnson is trying to manoeuvre himself into the proximity of the Tory leadership and he has calculated, rightly or wrongly, that Brexit will secure him an advantage in this. He is otherwise farcically lacking in the energy of a revolutionary or even a committed reformer. He gives the impression that Brexit is just a garden party and that one has to suavely go along with its peculiarities in order to be sporting or agreeable to the hosts. In a while there will be another party. Lesser Brexiteers such as Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith offer more moralistic contributions, but they are isolated media performers rather than the leaders of a mass political campaign.

If there is to be a Brexit, the politicians who will most likely design and shape a new independent UK will be the same people who have spent months deploring the very idea of an independent UK. This is hardly acceptable politics and it places the dignity of the whole system under threat. Brexit will not be like a by-election in which the political class is satisfyingly humiliated for an afternoon. It will be instead a lengthy undemocratic jumble, in which the four biggest parliamentary parties will be forced to implement a manifesto which they did not write and do not agree with.

What none of this is about, you will have noticed, is democracy, sovereignty, or even economic growth. It is about the bare practicalities of power. It is also chillingly short-termist. In the tarot spread that I have laid out for you, the Fool is the question of turnout. People might favour Remain for its political stability but how many will show up in the end to vote for the EU?

David Cameron’s message is that the EU is admittedly falling to pieces – that it is admittedly inadequate on almost every level – but that the UK would be even worse if it was an independent democracy. The voters are being asked to emerge from their houses to confirm this vision of their own smallness and helplessness. How many are so totally lacking in self-respect that they can seriously come out and vote for this?

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