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  • Dr Christopher Featherstone

How Labour can learn lessons from Iraq

By Dr Christopher Featherstone

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The legacy of the Iraq war is a poisonous one for all those involved. The civilian death toll in the Iraq war can only be estimated, but ranges from 186,694 to 306,495. For the UK, the Iraq War represents a painful legacy. The decision to invade was arguably the most controversial foreign policy decision of the past fifty years, and as the party who took the UK into Iraq, this legacy is perhaps even more painful and poisonous for the Labour party.

Given the human cost associated with the Iraq War, it’s not surprising Labour has found this legacy difficult to address. However, Labour both can and should confront this legacy. Not only have lessons been identified from the decision-making flaws that afflicted the decision to invade Iraq, some by Labour, but also these would be low-cost and achievable policy changes to implement. Further, by confronting this painful legacy, Labour can distinguish its new foreign policy agenda from previous foreign policy actions, and again show a greater level of responsibility in foreign policy than the Tories.

Reflecting the controversy that surrounds the Iraq war, the UK has held three separate public inquiries into decision-making on Iraq, commonly referred to as the Hutton, Butler, and Chilcot inquiries. The Iraq Inquiry, also called the Chilcot inquiry, had the greatest scope of these three inquiries, and so inevitably it was this inquiry that drew the most significant lessons from the results of their investigation.

There were three key lessons identified by the Chilcot inquiry for UK government decision-making. Firstly, the Iraq Inquiry report highlighted the important role of Prime Ministerial culture, building on the conclusions from the Butler Report that heavily criticised the role of “sofa government” in Blair’s decision-making. Secondly, the Iraq Inquiry re-emphasised the importance of government structures, highlighting collective cabinet decision making. Thirdly, Chilcott emphasised the need to reaffirm the commitment to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence.

However, whilst public inquiries have highlighted lessons from the Iraq War, the implementation of these lessons is a mixed picture. The Cameron government started making changes prior to the publication of the Chilcot report, establishing a National Security Council that reported to a National Security Adviser. This new intelligence infrastructure was designed to improve the coordination of intelligence services, addressing intelligence failures that they had identified in the case for invading Iraq. After accepting Chilcot’s findings, the Cameron government committed to further debate on the lessons to be learned from the process that led to the war in Iraq.

This further debate on the lessons continued, and yet, the output of this debate is highly debated. The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has twice called on the government to take the recommendations of the Chilcot report onboard, outlining how some of these recommendations could be operationalised within existing government procedures. These PACAC recommendations were rejected by the May government, who argued that the procedures in place were sufficient to prevent similar flaws in decision-making that were scrutinised by the Chilcot inquiry. Essentially, the Conservatives rejected the need for further changes to demonstrate learning from Chilcot.

So, why should Labour care? Why should Labour commit to learning the lessons that have been rejected by the Conservative party? There are three key reasons why Labour should commit to implementing changes to address these lessons. Firstly, by learning the lessons drawn from the Iraq War, Labour can confront its legacy, demonstrating commitment to never making these mistakes again. Secondly, Labour has previously made commitments to implementing these changes. The 2019 Labour manifesto committed to fully implementing the recommendations from the Chilcot Report, demonstrating exactly this commitment to confronting the Labour legacy of Iraq. Failing to restate this commitment will raise more questions and consternation than would arise from implementing these changes. Thirdly, Sir Keir Starmer in a Guardian opinion piece outlined an effective mechanism to implement one of the lessons highlighted by the Chilcot report.

He argued that a “robust framework” is needed to improve cabinet decision-making. The framework he proposed focused especially on the Legal Advice and planning. Firstly, he proposed a new law should require the Attorney General to provide a thoroughly evidenced and robust legal framework, and this advice should be fully available to ministers in a timely manner. Secondly, the proposed that this law should require cabinet to be presented with a fully prepared plan with risk assessments, and similarly available to ministers. Thirdly, he argued that there should be no military action without a Commons vote, and as such, MPs should be provided with a summary of legal advice.

These combined recommendations would address the three key lessons highlighted by the Chilcot Inquiry and do so in a way that makes objection difficult. Arguing against Cabinet being provided with a fully evidenced legal framework for military action, especially in the light of the Iraq War, would appear ridiculous. It could not be argued that such a measure is unnecessary, given that Chilcot highlights the consequences of the restricted discussions of the legal advice in the decision to invade Iraq. An effective addition to this measure would be to require the Attorney General to present all previous drafts of legal advice to Cabinet. This would directly address the issues that arose in the Iraq case, as Cabinet were only presented with a summary of the Legal Advice, rather than the full advice and conflicting arguments. In the same vein, arguing against requiring the provision of a fully prepared plan with risk-assessments would appear ludicrous considering the consequences of lacking such plans in Iraq.

Finally, there is an emerging convention to require Commons votes on the deployment of the UK military in significant interventions post-Iraq (Libya, Syria). Reinforcing this through legal statute and ensuring this is an informed debate only increases the efficacy of parliamentary oversight and increases public trust in UK military operations.

The Iraq War casts a long shadow over UK politics and UK foreign policy, a shadow that affects Labour more than other parties. Lessons have been highlighted from the experience of the Iraq War, and yet they have been discarded by the Conservative Party. Labour can and should confront its Iraq legacy, implementing changes that it has already proposed. Doing so not only confronts a painful legacy, but also demonstrates responsibility in foreign policy decision-making at a time when the Tory government routinely exemplifies its astounding inability to do so.


Dr Christopher Featherstone’s research fits at the intersection between International Relations, US and UK Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy decision-making, and policy-making. He has published on Foreign Policy Analysis, and US Presidential foreign policy decision-making. His current research builds on this, focusing on UK foreign policy decision-making structures. He tweets @ChrisFeatherst4

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