‘Don’t Iraqi women weep when their children die?’ asked Tony Benn

Diane Abbott

Most of what happens in parliament is theatre – symbolic and significant, but one step away from reality. But the discussion and debate in the weeks and days leading up to the Iraq war was the most intense and emotional that I have witnessed in the Commons. It was literally about matters of life and death. It was obvious from the beginning that Tony Blair was determined to go to war, shoulder to shoulder with George W Bush. The prime minister’s relationship with the US seemed to matter more more to him than opinion in his own party, and it also seemed to matter more than whether the war was even legal or not.
The public rationale was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was harbouring those responsible for 9/11: al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden. In order to shore up support, Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, was involved with the production of a dossier on Iraq’s weapons programme. Reading it at the time, I realised there was very little substance to it. The rationale began to fall apart even before the day of the big debate on going to war. The chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said that he and his teams had so far found no “smoking gun” in Iraq. On 15 February, the Stop the War Coalition mounted the biggest demonstration ever staged in London, with some sources estimating the numbers at more than a million. Jeremy Corbyn made one of his finest speeches to the demonstration, stating: “Thousands more deaths in Iraq will not make things right. It will set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation, that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.”
Local party members contacted their MPs asking them to vote against the war. Even some Tory MPs were declaring that they would vote against it. Blair must have been increasingly alarmed, frightened that he might lose the vote. In the days running up to it, the prime minister had individual MPs brought to his offices to pressure them to vote his way. He did not invite me, or other determined anti-war MPs; he must have judged us to be a lost cause. When private meetings with him did not seem to be working, I was told that Blair enlisted his wife, Cherie Blair, and the former US president Bill Clinton to ring Labour MPs to apply more pressure. Blair was always a little disdainful of ordinary MPs and parliament, but he was so desperate that he took to physically coming to the House of Commons and touring the bars, tea rooms and other places where MPs gather informally. He was buttonholing MPs and trying to make the case for war. Parliament became a pressure cooker. Everyone knew that the vote was not actually about the merits of the war. Instead, it was becoming a vote on whether you supported Blair personally or not. Everyone knew that voting against the war meant that your career was effectively over.
For days before the big vote, the house was swept by rumours that various senior Labour MPs would resign rather than vote for war. In the end, only the leader of the house, Robin Cook, stood down the day before the final debate. But he was a former foreign secretary, which gave his resignation particular significance. He was a famously good orator, and the House of Commons was packed to listen to his measured but damning speech. It was heard in complete silence, something that is relatively unusual. At the end, Labour MPs all got up to applaud him, something I have never seen before or since. Many of the MPs who clapped for him went on to vote for the war the following day. Maybe applauding Robin eased their consciences a little. On the day of the final debate, the atmosphere in parliament was electric. Blair gave his speech in support of war, threatening resignation if MPs did not vote for war. Some of the cabinet ministers sitting next to him on the frontbench were squirming, perhaps in the knowledge that they were about to do something against their consciences. Blair left the chamber after his speech, but only to go to his office in Westminster, from where he continued ringing Labour MPs even while the debate was ongoing, trying to turn the screw one last time.
That day John McDonnell got to his feet and said that the proposed war was an act of international vigilantism. Tony Benn gave one of his last big speeches, in which he said that war was an easy thing to talk about, but he had worn a uniform in the second world war and knew the reality. Benn also tried to humanise the people Blair was proposing to bomb: “Don’t Iraqi women weep when their children die?”
In the end, the grim threats and the excruciating pressure paid off, and Blair got his vote for war. One-hundred-and-thirty-nine of us rebelled – the biggest rebellion against the prime minister – but it was not enough. The next day, British troops went war alongside the Americans, but no WMDs were ever found. The war did indeed fuel the conflict and terrorism of future generations, just as some of us had foresaw. Although Blair had had some considerable political achievements, including being the only Labour leader to win three successive general elections, his reputation never recovered from the ill-fated and illegal Iraq war.
The Guardian