‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Democracy simply doesn’t work,” said The Simpsons news anchor Kent Brockman in a memorable satire on the workings of the United States government.
Such feelings of frustration over the decisions taken by elected politicians was keenly felt by millions of Britons in 2003, when parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the imminent invasion of Iraq, despite the biggest mass protests the country had ever seen. One month before 412 MPs backed military action on the basis of the seriously flawed military intelligence in the September Dossier, hundreds of thousands — the exact number is impossible to know, but estimates have been as high as three million — of people from all walks of life descended on London to participate in the largest protest march in the history of the United Kingdom.
Euan Ferguson wrote in the Guardian at the time that the march attracted the backing of “[as well as the] usual suspects, there were nuns. Toddlers. Women barristers ... There were country-folk and lecturers, dentists and poulterers, a hairdresser from Cardiff and a poet from Cheltenham”.
The public had seen enough of the UK blindly following America’s post-9/11 military whims in Afghanistan. They could see that a war in Iraq would be unwise, unwinnable and for them it was unthinkable. So the House of Commons vote was a spectacular snub to the overwhelming will of the people. It led to 28,000 British troops joining the coalition that invaded Iraq on March 20, quickly toppling the then president, Saddam Hussain, before failing to find any evidence of the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that the intelligence claimed was proof that the Hussain regime was a threat to its neighbours and western powers.
While Baghdad fell quickly, the post-invasion management of the country was a disaster, with sectarian and anti-occupation violence rampant. In total, 179 UK soldiers were killed during the six years the armed forces spent in Iraq — not to mention the near half-million Iraqi deaths and 4,500 American troops who died in the conflict.
Now Britain finally looks set to discover what really happened in the build-up to that 2003 vote — as well as the failings during the subsequent war in Iraq — when Sir John Chilcot publishes his report, following the long-running public inquiry into Britain’s involvement. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, foreign secretary Jack Straw and ex-MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove are expected to come in for heavy criticism, with Blair in particular facing the prospect of possible war crimes charges if the report delivers a damning verdict.
Some campaigners have already hinted at suing Blair or the Ministry of Defence, depending on Chilcot’s findings. Roger Bacon, whose son Matthew was killed in Basra in 2005, is a member of the Iraq Families Action Group and he has said Blair “committed an illegal act in taking us [the UK] there”, adding that if the report says inadequate equipment was to blame for some deaths then legal action to claim damages would be a possibility.
But, aside from key officials being brought to account, the Chilcot Report is also a wonderful opportunity to tell the public why their protests were ignored and explain to the families of the 179 victims the reasons their loved ones were placed in mortal danger. The people of Britain are owed an explanation and the inquiry must deliver — this is no time for a whitewash.
The much-delayed 2.6 million-word tome is due to be published on July 6 and hopes are high that Chilcot won’t hold back his criticism, unlike the Hutton Inquiry that, in July 2003, had absolved the government of any blame over the suicide of Dr David Kelly, the scientist who was unmasked as the source who told the BBC that the September Dossier had been ‘sexed up’ in order to make the case for war more compelling.
Hopes of total transparency have been dashed after the government vetoed the release of the minutes of cabinet meetings held in the days leading up to the invasion, while the Foreign Office successfully appealed against a judge’s order to disclose details of a key conversation between Blair and the then US president George W. Bush, as it would have presented a ‘significant danger’ to UK-US relations.
There is still plenty of dirt to be dug up, however, and a warts-and-all breakdown of what went wrong and who is to blame is what people expect. If Chilcot delivers, then maybe some of the damage democracy suffered 13 years ago will finally be repaired.
Martin Downer is a freelance journalist based in the UK.