Rory Stuart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
It seems to me that the challenge in relation to the Chilcot inquiry is our inability in Britain to come to terms with failure, our inability to come to terms with what exactly went wrong with Iraq, and our inability to reform. As a result of all that, we have a real problem when it comes to acting in the world in the future. Unless we go through the process of coming to terms with who we are and how we got this wrong—whether through the Chilcot inquiry, through our Parliament, or by some other means—we will remain paralysed.

At present, Iraq is sitting like some rotting corpse in a cupboard, the nature of which we do not quite understand. We can see the consequences of that in the problems of British foreign and defence policy in the last 13 years. We can see the inability to come to terms with Iraq in our mistakes in Afghanistan. We can also see the inability to come to terms with Iraq in our current inaction. Britain is currently in a very paralysed state. There is a deep insecurity, and an anxiety. We are not pulling enough weight in NATO, and we are not pulling enough weight in the United Nations. We are failing to commit ourselves to spending 2% of our GDP on defence, which is symptomatic of our inability to come of terms with Putin or Ukraine.

All that brings us back to the four-letter word “Iraq”. Iraq has become, for us, a kind of Vietnam. It has become, in the British consciousness, something that we cannot get beyond, something that we cannot see through. The Chilcot report needs to be published to enable us in Britain to understand what happened in Iraq—understand exactly what happened in Iraq—to enable us to introduce the reforms that the Government need in order to be able to act again in the future, and to enable us to recover our confidence as a nation.

One of our problems with the debate, and, perhaps, with the Chilcot inquiry, has been that the understanding of what went wrong in Iraq is still too limited. We are still understandably obsessed with the legality of the war, and also with the issue of post-war planning. In Afghanistan we went into a war that was legal, in those terms, and in which, at least in Helmand, a great deal of planning took place; yet the results there were also a mess. In other words, the problem of Iraq cannot simply be reduced to legality and post-war planning. There is a deeper problem in Iraq, and the deeper problem in Iraq, with which I think we all struggle to deal, is a problem with ourselves. It is the problem of who Britain is, and what Britain does in the world. One way of expressing it is that we are failing to come to terms with our limits—the limits of our knowledge, the limits of our capacity, and the limits of our legitimacy.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
The hon. Gentleman has called for reflection. He may recall the reaction of the American ambassador, when he appeared on “Question Time” after 9/11, to some of the things that were being said to him. There seemed to be an inability to look in the mirror, and to see the effects of foreign policy in the west pre-9/11 in the form of some of the things that were happening in the world and the anger that was being created in the world. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his call for us to use a mirror to look at ourselves, and to look at ourselves very hard.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman in that I am calling for more confidence and more seriousness, not less. The problem with our interpretation of Iraq is that we have ended up with despair. This empty House, the lack of interest among journalists, and the general lack of focus on the issue imply that Britain wants to put this in the past—to put it in its history—and to behave as though it related to some other country and some other Government rather than to us.

The lessons of Iraq must be, among other things, lessons of seriousness. We are not serious, as a country. What Chilcot needs to focus on, above all, is our lack of seriousness on the ground—one problem with the Chilcot inquiry is that it did not spend enough time taking evidence from people who had operated in civilian roles in provincial areas—and that will involve our criticising ourselves in ways that we do not like to criticise ourselves. It will involve us, as a country, getting beyond our anxieties—and this is a very difficult thing to say—about soldiers dying in vain.

A soldier’s life cannot be held relative to the decisions of politicians. A soldier’s courage, a soldier’s sacrifice, is a commitment to his or her country. The danger of reducing every mistake that this country has made—from the Boer war to the Afghan war of 1842 to our recent debacle in Iraq—to the question of a soldiers’ life is that it stifles debate. No one can stand up and criticise what we did for fear that someone might say that soldiers died in vain.

Criticism begins with accepting that we were not serious enough in our commitment to Iraq. American soldiers did 13-month tours; why did we only do six-month tours? American civilians took leave once every six months; British diplomats took leave every six weeks, for two weeks. We remained highly isolated in compounds, under security restrictions which made it very difficult for us to engage with the local population. There was a serious failure to reach out to people who understood Iraq and the area. There was a lack of seriousness and commitment on the ground.

There was also an obsession with abstraction and jargon. We stood up in the House, and we stood up in the foreign service, talking all the time about “the rule of law”, “governance”, “civil society” and “human rights”. We had absolutely no idea how to relate that kind of jargon to the reality on the ground in Iraq. In fact, what we were doing, again and again, was using words that looked like a plan, but were simply a description of what we did not have. Every time we said that what we needed to bring to Iraq were “governance, the rule of law and security”, we were simply saying that Iraq was corrupt, unjust and violent. Every time we said that we needed to create transparent, predictable, accountable financial processes, we were simply saying what we did not have.

As we move forward, and as Chilcot—hopefully—helps us to come to terms with this catastrophe, we must reform, but what does reform mean? Reform means becoming serious. What I hope we can take from the Chilcot inquiry is that seriousness begins with investing in knowledge and understanding of other people’s countries. Where I differ, perhaps, from the Scottish nationalists is that I do not think that this means that the future for Britain is to become Denmark. I do not think that the future for Britain is to withdraw. I think that the future for Britain is to reach out, and to understand.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)
I have got to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Denmark was once in the empire game, but historians have noted that Denmark withdrew itself from that. It is time for us to learn from Denmark.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
I understand absolutely that that is the hon. Gentleman’s position, but our position should be different, and this is where Britain differs from a country like Denmark. First, we should be investing in knowledge—investing in knowledge in the Foreign Office, which means ensuring that there are proper language allowances and that we dismantle the grisly core competency framework for promotion, and that we get out of the situation of there being only three out of 15 ambassadors in the middle east who can speak Arabic.

Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham, Conservative)
I do not know whether my hon. Friend remembers this, but in 2007 or 2008, I think, there were no fluent Pashto speakers across the Foreign Office, the MOD or DFID in Afghanistan.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
There were absolutely no fluent Pashto speakers, and only two operational Dari speakers in our embassy in Kabul.

We must also develop the habit of challenge.

George Galloway (Bradford West, Respect)
I admire the hon. Gentleman, but as he is speaking I can almost see him in his pith helmet striding across the Punjab as a district commissioner in another era, and his remarks about Denmark compound that. He and I both know that we almost lost our own country just last September; we were almost severed—dismembered—because of the collapse in the credibility of the British political class, and I promise him that we are not going to get that back by being better imperialists than the last group of politicians.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
We will get it back by being serious again. We will get it back by showing the British public that we have acknowledged the failure and we have understood that failure—that we have learned the lessons and that we have reformed—and we will get it back by showing the superiority of Britain through a smaller conception of ourselves that is ultimately to do not with wearing pith helmets but with being an engaged global power. That does include, within the Ministry of Defence, having an ability to challenge ourselves, and having an ability, which we have lost in Iraq today, to provide an independent assessment of US missions. It includes, ultimately, our chiefs of staff recovering their confidence.

This is a good time to remember that, because I think where I and Opposition Members will agree is that on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau the conclusion that Britain should draw from Iraq is not one of isolation. It should not be that we should be doing nothing; it should instead be that we need to recover our confidence as a country—recover the confidence that we are the fifth largest economy in the world, that we have unique skills and expertise, that we have an enormous amount to contribute to the world—and that what we should take from the Chilcot inquiry is not despair or paralysis, but a need to recover our compassion, our common sense and our confidence.

Print Friendly and PDF