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…