Brexit as a Convenient Scapegoat

The Iraq War, Chilcot’s exculpatory report, and Brexit have certainly advanced the global-wide movements of sovereignty-ism, nationalism and secessionism.

The publication of the long overdue Chilcot report on the Iraq war and the FBI chief’s public explanation for the non-indictment of Hillary Clinton, share some common characteristics. Whilst in both, the language is severely critical of conduct – even harsh in some respects – both are fundamentally exculpatory, in that both point to grave shortcomings — what many lawyers do see as criminal derelictions -- yet exonerate clear guilt in both cases. In both accounts, alleged untainted intentions on the parts of the two principals (Blair and Clinton) are held to be sufficient to avoid legal consequences.

In the case of Chilcot, we are told, for example, that there was a ‘disparity’ between even what the (evidently flawed, but partly hedged) intelligence of Iraq was saying, and the ‘certainty’ that was ascribed to it by the then Prime Minister, Blair; we are told that both the heads of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and SIS (more commonly known as MI6) did not contest the unwarranted certainty attributed to the intelligence. We are told that every one of the Foreign Office’s legal advisers warned that the prospective war was illegal; it would be a war of choice and a war of aggression; but at the last moment, the government’s chief legal officer had a "change of opinion" and reversed his advice, declaring it legal (with no explanation for this change of heart, offered by Chilcot).

And so on … “But”, as the former British Ambassador to Libya and to Iran, Richard Dalton, notes: “the careful language of the report does not always call a spade a spade. First, decision-making on the legal basis for invading in the absence of UN Security Council authorisation was, the Inquiry writes, “far from satisfactory”. This would be a quaint choice of words, were it not for the reasonable suspicion that it was designed to minimise the chances of any legal accountability”. Indeed: despite the occasional resort to (qualified) criticism, Chilcot carefully avoids any wording, implying guilt in the legal sense -- just as the FBI’s verbal pronouncement exonerated Hillary Clinton of legal wrong-doing, but not of ‘carelessness’ in care for her nation’s security.

The Chilcot report lies in the grand tradition of British establishment ‘Enquiries’. (‘Chilcot’ was a committee, of course, but by convention in Britain, the committee’s report, is attributed, as if it was wholly authored by its chairman.) In Chilcot, criticism and accountability are never focussed – no one is singled out, as plainly culpable - but rather the ‘failings’ are spread around so diffusely that it appears that somehow no one was really to blame. It was just an unfortunate concatenation of individuals acting from the best of motives – but somehow getting things wrong. The status quo is somehow preserved (despite the incongruities between the report’s damning litany of failings and its general conclusion) -- everyone acted in good faith, no one lied, and no one broke the law.

In fact only two individuals are revealed to have acted with integrity: the head of the Foreign Office’s legal team who resigned in protest at the Attorney General’s ‘finding’ that the war was legal, and the head of the Security Service (MI5), who told the Prime Minister that the war would make Britain less safe (from terrorism) – and not more safe.

Well, Chilcot is done, finally - (however lamely). Is the Iraq war episode just ‘water under the bridge’ now? Does it tell us anything we did not already know? Does it have any pointers for the future, perhaps?

Well in one sense, it is ‘water under the bridge’; but in another, it touches on something highly contemporary. It touches on the (global) disdain that many feel for the technocratic élites who claim that the complexities of government – of understanding geo-politics of managing the geo-financial system – are beyond the competence of the electorate. They assert that the problem is one of"too much democracy" (i.e. consulting the people), rather than sorting issues by having the right (élite) people in a room together: “Maybe you can even reverse Brexit. There are always solutions to the problems, as long you have the right people in the room", as one of the financial élite recently has suggested.

Ambassador Dalton again: “there was no imminent threat to the UK and … the evidence presented to us on the need to disarm Iraq was fixed so that it could appear to justify getting rid of the Iraqi regime. The legal case was fixed round the policy too. We became aggressors, basing ourselves on falsehoods, the government having propagandised not an enemy but our people … There was in effect a parallel government structure or cabal. It was designed to get a war policy opposed hugely in the country put in place through faits accomplis”. Dalton then provides the fundamental conclusion, namely:

“And we then over-reached ourselves massively. We were too ill-prepared and equipped, weak and poorly lead, to cope with the consequences of what we had set in motion.”

No wonder Chilcot felt obliged to protect the élite, by diffusing the blame, and implying that everyone had acted ‘rationally’ and with good intentions -- even if those intentions proved ill-founded. Perhaps that arch iconoclast of the status quo élite, Donald Trump instinctively had it right in respect to Hillary when he suggested that the American electorate would smell exceptionalism for the élite – “the system’s rigged” he tweeted after the FBI Director’s statement. Both these reports will likely fuel further disdain for the ‘system’.

There are perhaps two further strategic consequences to Chilcot. The first, stems from Richard Dalton’s conclusion that the UK overreached itself and failed badly. The UK failed precisely in those areas which, historically, were perceived to be Britain’s strengths. The British Army was humiliated in southern Iraq (with its inadequate forces split by a parallel commitment in Afghanistan). The intelligence on which the claim of weapons of mass destruction came from a handful of unreliable sources – and from intelligence fabricators. And the British leaderships’ understanding of the realities of the Middle East – as Professor George Joffe, an Iraq expert at Cambridge University, who tried to brief Blair before the invasion found - was childishly simplistic: “[I told] Blair that no individual actor was all-powerful in Iraq and that Saddam was a captive of the structure of the regime … I told him this needed to be taken into account as Iraq was an extremely complicated state and simply removing Saddam would not solve the problem”. Blair, Joffe reported, "listened carefully”, before responding that "Saddam was “an evil man” who needed to be removed".

In short, Britain’s foreign policy ‘nous’ was exaggerated; its touted intelligence capabilities proved embarrassingly hollow; and its army, perhaps competent, but ill-prepared and overextended. Some of this, paradoxically, actually may go towards explaining Brexit - and the bitter struggle within the Conservative Party for the future direction of British foreign policy.

Professor Lindley-French has suggested that “the failure in Iraq may have also marked the beginning of the end of Britain’s membership of the EU. After championing Britain’s future in the EU, and being seen as a de facto leader by many of the new Central and European members of an enlarged EU, Blair’s failure effectively ended Britain’s influence in the EU and ceded leadership to Germany. The opposition of France and Germany to the war proved to be correct, although the motivations of President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder were complex. The subsequent split between Britain on one side, and France and Germany on another, has never really healed and the slide towards Brexit, accelerated.”

Though Professor Lindley-French does not develop his point, Britain’s Iraq failure – in the widest sense of having devalued its claimed security, intelligence and military credentials – has also contributed in some measure to a reciprocal disesteem for the European Union within the Conservative Party – and the rise of the notion of the ‘anglosphere’ amongst a current within the party.

As Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce noted in The New Statesman in February 2015:

“This post-imperial tradition [of a sphere of English speaking states sharing common heritage of institutions] may have weakened during these years [of Britain’s early inclusion into the EU], but the dream of an Anglophone future for Britain refused to die. Instead, it migrated to the outskirts of conservative politics, and re-emerged as an important feature of some of the libertarian currents that began to percolate into mainstream conservatism in the mid-to-late 1970s. In these quarters, American ideas were a major influence, especially following the emergence of a powerful set of foundations, think tanks and intellectuals in the UK that propounded arguments and ideas that were associated with the fledgling “New Right”.

In this climate, as Ben Wellings and Helen Baxendale have shown, the Anglosphere came back to life as an alternative ambition, advanced by a powerful alliance of global media moguls (Conrad Black, in particular), outspoken politicians, well-known commentators and intellectual outriders, who all shared an insurgent ideological agenda and a strong sense of disgruntlement with the direction and character of mainstream conservatism.

Notions of an organised alliance of any kind remain fanciful in the extreme. Yet the underlying impatience with a European future for the UK, and a deep desire to get back to the exceptionalism that characterised Britain’s self-image in earlier times underpin the renewal of this dream. The appeal of this idea is not just a reflection of growing disillusionment with Europe. For many, the rise of China, the increasing threat of radical Islam and the uncertainties of the global economy all make the question of locating political allies and sympathetic states much more imperative for the UK. The future of the west, some argue, may be contingent upon a closer coalescence of the Anglosphere countries.

… Eurosceptics increasingly view Europe as an old, declining continent, riddled with regulation and saddled with debt. The Anglosphere sustains a restless desire to find a new, outward-facing, globally rooted destiny for the UK. And this vision is offered in stark contrast to the more insular ethos and instincts of the right-wing populism associated above all with Ukip.
While the unfeasible nature of any kind of formal alliance among these countries is clear, there is a real growth in interest on the political right in the notion of the Anglosphere as an alternative political ideal and as a source of ideas – about policy, strategy and leadership. We may not be joining an alliance with Canada or Australia any time soon but our politics may be increasingly influenced by the political values and experiences of both.

Harper is a particular source of attraction: he united a deeply divided right and proceeded to defeat his opponents, turning a precarious minority government into one with a governing majority. He is fiscally conservative, a climate sceptic and ruthless at using the office of prime minister to pursue a radical agenda without reaching into the middle ground of politics. Indeed, he has sought to weaken and then dismantle the institutions and political pillars that formed the progressive heart of the 20th-century Canadian state, bypassing public servants, marginalising parliament, challenging the courts and attacking liberal civil society organisations.” (emphasis added)

These notions are not only a growing source of tension within the British Conservative Party, but the ‘political idea’ per se, has resonance in parts of the American political spectrum (from which it originally derived) and elsewhere globally – where complaints of "too much democracy" has taken hold. On the ‘left’ of the Conservative Party, as Kenny and Pearce note, “the [Conservative] left has largely shed its Euroscepticism, but has yet to find arguments for staying in the EU that are anything other than technocratic or tactical. With a few exceptions, it is silent on how the European project can be rescued from the historical cul-de-sac of deflation, and post-democratic governance associated with Brussels and Berlin.”
What is striking about this Conservative vision, as opposed to the Left’s vision of Britain immersed in the EU, is that both are essentially ‘globalist’ in vision. It seems that the élites simply do not ‘get it’. What we are seeing is a global reaction against globalism, de-politicised technocracies and financialism. It is the recovery of sovereignty and traditional mores and culture which is being demanded. People simply ‘want their countries back’.

This is the Chilcot ‘bottom line’ (but not explicity addressed in the report): The Iraq invasion instead of transforming the region, instead unleashed destructive forces throughout the Middle East. The region is not unifying (around western values), as naively so hoped, in anticipation of the war. The region is disintegrating and destabilising. The forces of disintegration may prove too weak to prevail outright, but so too, the forces for stability may not prove strong enough to persist completely. It has ushered in an era of instability which will not readily be rolled back.

But the Iraq war, with all the UK’s inability to cope with – or understand - the consequences of what it had set in motion in the Middle East, as Dalton writes, has in its different way also set in motion destructive, anti-globalisation, anti-centralisation forces, across Europe. Brexit was but a symptom of this process.

This is not to suggest that Iraq or Brexit are somehow causally responsible for the global-wide movements of sovereignty-ism, nationalism and secessionism. These forces have more complex roots. But the Iraq War, Chilcot’s exculpatory report, and Brexit have certainly advanced the process. It may suit some in Europe to attribute wholly or in part, Europe’s financial crisis to Brexit, but the truth is the financial crisis has been ‘an accident’ waiting to happen -- and Brexit has become a convenient scapegoat. Lessons learned: not much it seems. Listen to all the NATO rhetoric and propaganda around the presumed Russian threat in Eastern Europe. And the evidence for such a threat …? Well, the Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, General Pavel Petr, has said there is no intelligence assessment suggesting any broad-scale Russian aggression. Plus ça change …
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