Ten years ago the House of Commons voted in favour of invading Iraq. Through this monumental act, politicians are said to have robbed a generation of their faith in representative democracy. The two most prominent young voices of the British left have written similar articles recently about their experience of those tumultuous times. Laurie Penny and Owen Jones both attribute their generation’s disillusionment with politics to the fact that we went to war despite widespread protest. “Representative democracy failed to represent,” says Penny. “It was Iraq that exploded what trust millions had in our political establishment,” says Jones.
There are, of course, good reasons to dispute their assumption that a march, however many millions strong, should be enough to alter a government’s foreign policy, especially when that policy went to a vote in the Commons. These reasons need no rehearsing—others have done it well enough. But there is a further assumption at work, and one which should be challenged: that those who were young in 2003 were united in their pacifism, conviction and subsequent disillusionment. For some of us, Iraq was not the moment we lost faith in politics. It was the moment we understood what politics is for.
I was 20 then, politically aware but not particularly active. My abiding emotion was not anger or righteousness but confusion. The awesome complexity of the issue left me dumbstruck. I failed to take a coherent stance for or against the invasion of Iraq, opting instead for the classic fudge: yes to war, no to the manner in which war was being prosecuted. I recognised this was unsatisfactory, but thought it the best I could do given the available facts and my recognition of sharply differentiated yet equally coherent points of view. History has (at least partially) vindicated those unequivocally against the war, and I envy their conviction. But the only real winner in this story is the political system itself.
On 18th March 2003, as the great debate played out in the House of Commons—Cook’s extraordinary resignation, Conservative equivocation, the moral purity of serial Labour rebels—the system seemed to be representing not only my own confusion, but the country’s. Blair said it himself that day, in his grammatically broken but emotionally on-point style: “People who agree on everything else, disagree on this and likewise, those who never agree on anything, finding common cause. The country and parliament reflect each other, a debate that, as time has gone on has become less bitter but not less grave.”
Less bitter? For Penny and Jones, the failure of parliament to reflect the wishes of the anti-war protest was a failure of democracy. The manner in which dissent was ignored appears to them as a bitter betrayal. But for me, the debate—not just in parliament but also in the press, and in homes, shops and pubs – made things better. As we talked and talked about it—and remember that Iraq divided publics and parliaments all over the world—it became clear that there were no easy answers. Both available courses of action were fraught with danger and unintended consequences. It seemed that parliament was struggling to deal with this, just as I was. Blair again: “This House wanted this decision. Well it has it. Those are the choices. And in this dilemma, no choice is perfect, no cause ideal.”
It’s true that political disengagement is a serious problem, that parties are leaking members and that people’s trust in politicians is evaporating at an alarming rate. But it’s not true that the decision to invade Iraq was the cause, nor that this was a particular consequence for those who were young in 2003. The data tell a different story: in 2011, 41 per cent of 18-24 years felt that their participation could influence political outcomes—2 per cent more than in 2003, before the invasion.
Political disengagement is a long-term problem with long-term causes. If anything, the introduction of extremely divisive issues into the parliamentary process acts as a buffer against this trend. When I walked past parliament on the day of the equal marriage vote last month, people from both sides of the argument were demonstrating. I saw two groups converge on each other, and bent my ear to catch what I expected to be streams of invective from both sides. Instead, what I heard was reasonable debate: conviction, mixed with deliberation. The debate in the Commons that day was similarly measured. Of course, bitterness remains for those on the losing side of that vote, just as Penny, Jones and millions of others remain bitter about the decision to invade Iraq. But bitterness is a small price to pay for living in a society able to take big decisions while remaining free to argue about them.