I suppose it was inevitable that those words would be flying every which way with the 10th anniversary of the great Iraq war debate and division of world opinion now upon us. As I long ago (October 2006) decided that I had been wrong to support the war, setting out my reasons for having come to that conclusion, I don't intend to rehearse the issue again here. My reasons were clear enough - that the human costs of the war had been too great, indeed disastrous. But these reasons did not include the thesis that there had, after all, been no moral case for the war. There was a powerful moral case for it; so much so that in October 2006 I still insisted that nothing could have got me, even had I not supported the war, to march against it. Nothing could have, because I would not lend my efforts towards helping to save the Baathist regime. I would have butted out, that's all. My view hasn't changed since. So, for all those who want the admission - wrong. Yet with the clear specification: there was a moral case for the war. Those who resolutely deny that there was are either morally obtuse or in the way of sanctimony.
However, the voices now crying out how right they've been shown to be seem anxious, and in numbers, that their rightness about the likely outcome of the prospective intervention should extend to the question of whether the war had democratic legitimacy in one of the countries about to embark on it, namely, this one - the United Kingdom. According to many, it didn't. Why it didn't is that majority opinion was against the war. We have seen this claim lately either stated or implied by Sam Parker, Owen Jones and Laurie Penny, and today it gets another outing from Andrew Murray, who writes:
British democracy took a body blow too. The shadow of the largest demonstration in British history – an estimated attendance of 2 million was supported by two independent opinion polls taken the following week – still hangs over democratic politics.
I could repeat (as in fact I do) that in a parliamentary democracy, government is neither by street demonstration nor by opinion poll. But I will add to this an observation by Tom Clark in reporting on the latest Guardian/ICM poll, which shows an 'approximately two-to-one balance of opinion against the Iraq war'... now. As Clark also notes:
The public was sceptical about the Iraq war in advance, and the marchers claimed to speak for the country, but what is often forgotten is that by the eve of hostilities, on 20 March 2003, a more belligerent mood was taking hold.
More than 20 polls were carried out between 18 March and September 2003, and every one found a plurality supporting the war.
Yes, often forgotten. And it shouldn't be. One might say, accurately, that at the time of the London demo, polls were showing a majority against the war; but after the debate in Parliament on 18 March, they no longer did. And if marches and other forms of public protest are a quite proper part of representative democracy, as they are, then so too, obviously, is parliamentary debate and decision. To freeze the state of opinion as it was in February 2003 is no better than a polemical ruse. What we know, if we're honest, is that opinion was radically divided and somewhat fluctuating; and at the time hostilities began there was not a clear majority against the war. Even if you thought the Iraq war should not have happened, therefore, it wasn't a blow against the state of democratic opinion, or democracy itself, in this country. So wrong in that respect.
You might try to present the two-to-one division against the war today as somehow relevant to its alleged democratic illegitimacy then, but that's a manifest anachronism; political decisions aren't made on the basis of how opinion will divide later on. Or you might say that our lot should have listened to your lot, whatever the division of opinion, because of what your lot got right. But that's the same deal as before. When opinions are as deeply divided as they were over Iraq, both sides think, or at least hope, they're getting things right. The putatively wrong don't know in advance that the putatively right are in fact right. If they did, there'd be no division of opinion. Democracy isn't just following you guys because you're right; it allows the articulation of opposing points of view. And the point of view that the world would be better off without Saddam is one of which nobody need be ashamed.