Clive Lewis – 2016 Speech on the Iraq Inquiry Report

Below is the text of the speech made by Clive Lewis, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 14 July 2016.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) took the words right out of my mouth with regard to your presence, Mr Speaker. One can tell how good a debate has been when Members find themselves nodding vigorously, no matter from which side of the House the points are being made. I think that that has happened quite a lot over the past two days.

I am honoured to be closing this debate on behalf of the Opposition. The Chilcot report is an extraordinary piece of work and I hope the whole House will join me in congratulating Sir John Chilcot on his efforts. He took a fair amount of flak during the lengthy writing of it, but it seems clear that it has been worth the wait. The report is in the very highest and noblest traditions of our country. It has unflinchingly shone a light both on crucial decisions made by our leaders and on how those decisions were made. It has not ducked from shining that light at the very highest levels of our Government—indeed, at the very top.

It would be naive to suppose that complete openness is always possible in government, especially over matters as grave as going to war. None the less, openness will always ensure that our policies have a firm moral foundation. As a great American jurist once said,

“If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, if would purify them as the sun disinfects”.

The report has let sunlight in on much that some would prefer to remain hidden. It is the most comprehensive and devastating critique we have had of the individual, collective and systemic errors that added up to the failure in Iraq—a failure whose consequences we are still dealing with and will have to deal with for many years to come.

I wish to pay tribute to comments by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Over two days, we have heard contributions from, among others, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on the opportunities the report provides to learn lessons for the future, from the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who emphasised the need for war to be seen always as a measure of last resort, and from the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who ably chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee and spoke with particular insight about some of the legal questions involved in the decision to go to war and about the failures of intelligence, which were also raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), who has served as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and therefore speaks with considerable authority on these issues.

Many Members, including the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax), talked about problems with military equipment, as did the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) in what I thought was one of the finest speeches of the debate. The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) were among the many contributors yesterday who spoke about the lack of adequate planning for the post-war reconstruction phase. As the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) pointed out, the same mistake was repeated in Libya, where the Government spent 13 times more on the military campaign than on post-war reconstruction.

The hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) made the case for better leadership on such matters and urged that the House and the Government learn from the Iraq report to build public trust in politics, politicians and the big decisions we inevitably must make on the public’s behalf. The knowledgeable and right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee, reminded us that it did not require hindsight to predict the many tribal and religious hatreds unleashed by the war and its aftermath. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) reminded us that we are elected to act in good faith, yes, but also with good judgment.

The speech that I felt best captured my personal anxieties was that of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who made more insightful comments than I have time to list. He spoke of the need for a more holistic approach to defence in both soft and hard power, and warned us that the continual budget cuts to the FCO undermine our ability not just to respond to global security threats, but to pre-empt them.

I want to focus on two topics that stand out to me: civilian casualties and equipment failures. Sir John estimates that there were at least 150,000 Iraqi fatalities, but suggests that the number is probably much higher. He notes that a proper assessment of the likely number of civilian casualties was not made before the invasion and that there was no systematic recording of casualties after the war had started. In one of his most scathing remarks, his report concludes:

“More time was devoted to the question of which department should have responsibility for the issue of civilian casualties than it was to efforts to determine the actual number.”

Today, it seems that Whitehall has yet to learn from this mistake. In the air campaign against Daesh, the Government insist that not a single civilian has been lost in almost two years of UK airstrikes. This seems literally incredible. Ministers give cryptic answers to questions about how they assess the damage caused by airstrikes, how they distinguish between combatants and civilians, and what they mean when they say they will consider all credible reports of civilian loss of life. The Government’s continued lack of transparency on this issue is troubling. I urge the Secretary of State, in the light of the report, to look again at how his Department monitors and collates information on civilian casualties.

The exposure of equipment failures is one of the gravest findings in the report. Chilcot sheds new light on this by documenting the sheer scale of the problem. Shortages of helicopters and armoured vehicles had terrible consequences. Day after day we saw Snatch Land Rovers that were designed for riot duty in Northern Ireland blown to bits by huge roadside bombs. There were also shortages of uniforms, boots and even such basic necessities as toilet paper. Some units even had to borrow rations from the Americans; one unit became known as “the Borrowers”. Some of the soldiers who died in Iraq were still teenagers, and it is a disgrace that they were sent there so woefully prepared. Although we understand that it is literally impossible to plan for every equipment need and contingency, we can never again let such catastrophic failure occur.

I want to pay a personal tribute to the families of our troops who died for their dogged and persistent pursuit of the truth about these equipment failures. Their steadfastness to the cause was heroic. I and everyone who saw some active service in the years that followed owe them a deep debt of gratitude. We got the kit their sons and daughters did not get. I, for one, will never forget the commitment to this cause that they showed. It undoubtedly saved many lives, and I hope that that knowledge can bring them some small consolation.

I have spoken about some of the specific failings identified in the report, but I must also speak of the much wider failings that a report of this scale and quality makes clear, such as the failure of this House sufficiently to hold the Executive to account on matters as grave as taking this country to war. Chilcot tells us that we must never allow a rush to war to blind us to facts or their absence. We must never allow a debate to be closed down with snide imputations of a lack of patriotism, or by the kind of macho posturing that suggests that those who urge caution, who demand evidence and who want proof when allegations of the gravest seriousness are made are somehow cowardly or undeserving of a voice.

The guardianship of this country’s future and the future safety of the world are issues that require not the posturing bravado of adolescence, but mature wisdom and a readiness to accept that every voice in this Chamber is worthy of our fullest respect, because those voices have been sent here as representatives of the British people, in all their variety and complexity, and we all speak for Britain here. If we speak again of a rush to bomb the odious Government of President Assad, we should not be derided as supporters of the Assad regime. When, just two years later, we are told that we must now bomb President Assad’s enemies in Daesh and we ask the question, “How will this bombing achieve our aims?”, we must not be told that we are soft on terrorism. We are demanding evidence of a coherent long-term plan that is backed with credible evidence and sufficient resources to achieve a lasting peace, founded on justice.

I am not a pacifist. My grandfather, of whose armed service I am deeply proud, was a paratrooper in the Normandy landings, and I have already mentioned my own service. I will always demand, however, the highest standard of proof for taking our country to war, and I will never apologise for that. These are literally matters of life and death, and the British people deserve better than political posturing.

Ultimately, if we cannot face and accept the consequences of our actions, we cannot learn the lessons and we cannot make wiser choices in the future. I hope that when we discuss issues of the gravest possible importance next week—those relating to Britain’s nuclear capability—this House will do so in a spirit of due humility and awareness of our shortcomings. We are not infallible, and when we are making choices of such gravity, we must speak with the very best part of ourselves and not stoop to political point scoring.

Let me conclude by quoting the words of the former Foreign Secretary and now deceased Member for Livingston, Robin Cook. In his resignation speech, he said:

“The longer that I have served in this place, the greater the respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people. On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain. They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect that they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US Administration with an agenda of its own. Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 728.]
There it is in a nutshell: we went to war without the support of international alliances, institutions or our allies, without sufficient evidence and without the support of the British people. Some Members saw that, and they are to be congratulated on their honesty and moral integrity in saying so at the time. We were railroaded into war. That was shameful, and it must not happen again.