Wimbledon, Cameron, China, Chilcot – a few thoughts for our times

Wimbledon: Andy wins in style, and for once an afternoon watching a Wimbledon final doesn’t extend into the evening. I’m remembering Federer against Nadal, was it five years ago – rain breaks and five sets…

Andy mentioned that the prime minister was in the crowd and asked almost as a throwaway – who would want the PM’s job? Should we just occasionally give politicians a break? Even the PM? He’s made a life-changing (for all of us) mistake, but he’s kept his cool, and laughed when Murray made his comment. I almost felt I could forgive him.

And tomorrow (13th July) he’s out for ever.

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Other thoughts for our time…

‘Few middle-class Chinese people say they want democracy.’ (The Economist) Three possible reasons. For one, memories of Tienamen Square: economic freedom it seems doesn’t require political freedom. For another, the Arab spring – the dangers of insurrection.

And Brexit, yes, Brexit.  ‘A sign that ordinary voters cannot be trusted to resolve complex political questions.’ Another good subject for discussion. One riposte – only ordinary people can be trusted.  And who are ordinary people these days. The proletariat is no more, and they weren’t it turned out very good at dictating. And the Economist’s big feature is on China’s new 225 million middle class. And then we have readers of the Daily Mail.

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One conclusion from the Chilcot Report: politicians should beware commitments which catch up with them later. Applies to Cameron of course. But Brexit supporters have put out all sorts of promises and expectations – with little chance of delivering on them. But you can get away with promises.

Also, beware plans based on best-case scenarios, which is what Blair and Bush worked to…They may get support in parliament (2003) – win elections – and indeed referenda (2016) – but they can come back to hurt and haunt you.

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Mendacious campaigns – which side in the referendum debate was more mendacious?Unwise forecasts (which nonetheless could be right) based on Treasury models from the Remain side, which weren’t believed. But not mendacious. Promises with almost nil substance on the other side. Given they were presented as probabilities if not truths by the Leave side – I’ve no problem with the word mendacious in their case.

If we delay invoking Article 50 – how favourably will other countries respond? We’re still – the Leave side are – in a dream world, laced with false expectations. The EU countries’ point of view? Keep Britain trading and halfway prosperous, yes. But at the same time demonstrate that you don’t get way with being a turncoat. And remember too, the cards are all in your (the EU’s) hands.

To take just one example. Paying in – we stop paying – and yet we expect the same benefits.  Absurdity. The something for nothing culture – which the Brexit side in other circumstances rail against.

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And finally – ‘groupthink’. ‘When Mr Blix’s inspectors failed to find any WMD the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) gripped by groupthink put it down to the Iraq’s talent for subterfuge’. We reinforce each others’ opinions, if one of us believes, we make it easier for the others. We’ve been gripped by groupthink these past few months. The ‘somehow it will all turn out right, because it always does’ school of thought. Nearly always. Sometimes. Or, more realistically, never….

Chilcot – hard truths and hypocrisy

There’s a strange and mysterious beauty to hindsight. It doesn’t ask questions, it reassures, it puts old thoughts out of mind and puts in new thoughts that we know we’ve thought all along. We know the mind is playing tricks, but if we don’t ask too many questions of ourselves, then who cares.

Hindsight has been at work this week in reactions to Chilcot. Last Thursday’s Times leader is a prime example. The Times supported the invasion – but no mea culpa. That’s my focus in the first part of this post.

But anger is justified. We should never have invaded back in 2003. Millions of us were strongly opposed at the time, and events bore out out arguments. And the consequences of that invasion have been terrible beyond belief.

But first, hindsight.

All those legions who supported the second Iraq war are now so sure it was wrong, and they’re happy to claim that they were misled. Had they had the evidence on WMD in front of them that Tony Blair had, they wouldn’t have reached the conclusions he did. Or would they? The evidence was widely debated and argued over at the time, as we well remember.

They also forget the context on the time, just two years after 9/11, and the uncertainties, and the fear of al-Qaida, and the scant knowledge of how it worked and how it might operate in future.

Action after the event to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan seemed to have worked so action before the event, pre-emptive action, in Iraq made good sense. Britain and the USA working together – many people were strongly in favour, and it was great to know that Bush and Blair got on, and that Blair did have influence. And if we’d held back from supporting Bush and the Americans – wouldn’t they go ahead anyway?

So I’m pretty scornful how much of the sanctimonious response we’re getting now.

That said –  I was bitterly opposed to the second Iraq War. The existence of WMD to my mind wasn’t well-established, there was still work for Hans Blix to do, we knew well that Saddam Hussein liked playing games (a strategy which ultimately proved his undoing). There was also the absurd attempt to establish links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, when Saddam’s regime had been rigidly secularist, and that was indeed the nature of the Baath socialism which he and the Assad regime in Syria espoused. Saddam’s regime was an unpalatable and unrecognised ally in keeping al Qaida at bay.

The neo-con agenda that Blair bought into had little interest in local knowledge, the provision of which had always long been a key part of the role of our diplomats and embassies around the world. The way the deep divisions between Shia and Sunni could tear the country apart came as a profound surprise to the American and British after 2003. It should not have done.

(I don’t believe by the way the Blair was a liar, in any sense. That kind of accusation that doesn’t help.)

For me, there was one further powerful factor which influenced my opposition to the war. We’d seen what happened in the Balkans. The controlling hand of Marshall Tito had been removed and Yugoslavia split into different nations, different language groups, different religions, and different histories – at a deep level, different identities. And demagogues kindled and fed the fire and we know what happened then. And many of us could see it happening again after the 2003 invasion. And, of course, it did.

Finally – there’s the argument that sometimes we simply have to act. The dangers of not acting are simply too great. The legal arguments may not be clear, and the outcome uncertain, but the imperatives behind action are too strong. Was 2003 such a time? Not to my mind. Rather the 2003 invasion belongs in the same category as the 1956 Suez crisis, precipitate rather than fully considered action. We’ve seen the same in military engagements throughout history. Rarely do they work out as you expect, and very often they work out the opposite.

And the bloodshed and violence can be extraordinary.