The Iraq War debate revisited

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Ten years have passed since the controversial decision to go to war in Iraq.

In the second of a two-part series, reporter Neil Docking speaks to Lancashire’s politicians who opposed and supported the conflict.

Tony Blair survived a major backbench revolution to send UK forces into battle against Saddam Hussein.

Amid dramatic scenes in the House of Commons, 217 MPs - including 139 Labour backbenchers, 15 Tories and all 53 Liberal Democrats - backed a rebel amendment opposing the Prime Minister’s stance, with 396 opposing the motion.

The Government’s decision was then passed by 412 votes to 149.

Hilton Dawson, then Labour MP for Lancaster and Wyre, was one of ony three MPs in Lancashire to oppose the war.

Labour’s Preston MP Mark Hendrick, Morecambe and Lunesdale MP Geraldine Smith, Chorley MP Lindsay Hoyle and West Lancashire MP Colin Pickthall all voted for the invasion, as did the Conservative’s Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans.

Ten years later, Mr Dawson labelled the decision to go to war ‘a disaster’.

He said: “I think the concerns that I and many other MPs expressed at the time have unfortunately been borne out.

“In the tide of history it’s still too early to come to a judgement. I would absolutely love to say I had been wrong if I felt I had been.

“But I think that decision was a disaster and the implications of it will roll on for the Middle East and for the world.”

He said he felt the decision ‘destroyed’ Tony Blair’s premiership.

He added: “You think of all the thousands of lives lost on all sides.

“I must say I supported Tony Blair in every other instance where he took troops into foreign situations. But I thought that this ended up being an unprincipled move.

“It went against the advice of the key people on the ground, the UN weapon inspectors, and went in the face of opposition from the UN.”

Coun Michael Lavalette, who represents Preston Town Centre, was the chairman of the city’s Stop the War Coalition campaign.

The Independent Socialist organised six coaches and a train full of activists to join the estimated 1.5 million people who protested against the invasion in London on February 15, 2003.

He said: “We’ve lost lots of young working class men, we’ve destroyed the lives of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanistanis, and Iraq is a disaster zone.

“There were never any Weapons of Mass Destruction, there was no ‘smoking gun’ - we were taken to war on a lie.

“The whole area is less stable, the Middle East region as a whole, and the world is a less safe place for what we did. The anti-war cause has been vindicated.

“It’s brought blowback attacks to America and terrorist attacks in London.

“It’s made us less safe and it was all done on a lie.”

To this day animosity remains between the councillor and Mark Hendrick over the issue.

Coun Lavalette said: “His majority in the city was 11,000, so we organised an anit-war petition and in two and half weeks got 11,000 signatures.

“We got two kids to take it to him but he refused to meet with the children. It was fairly heated at the time. He refused to heed the anti-war voice in Preston.”

However, Mr Hendrick dismissed the criticism.

He said: “I did accept the petition, but I wasn’t going to take part in any publicity stunt.

“Councillor Lavalette had the privilege of standing for election against me at the following general election, he who claimed he had as much support as my majority, but it didn’t materialise, so it was rubbish in the end.”

Mr Hendrick said he believed his decision to vote in favour of the war was justified “without a doubt”.

He said: “I voted for the war because Saddam Hussein was a threat to the stability of the region and a threat to his own people, and like Gaddafi or President Assad of Syria, I thought was threatening the West. I didn’t think we should just stand watch and let him do it.

“He murdered tens of thousands of his own people and used chemical weapons on the Kurds.

“I like many others didn’t want to see him develop more harmful weapons and because he wasn’t co-operating with the international community there was international action taken against him.

“Who knows how bad things would be, probably a lot like Syria now, if he had remained in power.”

He said the Iraqi people had been able to draw up their own constitution and build their own democracy.

He said: “The oil is flowing again and they are starting to build their own lives with their own future.

“Of course there will be some problems, but the future is in their own hands and not at the behest of a wicked and cruel dictator.”

In contrast, Mr Hoyle said he would not make the same decision again if given the chance and said he felt those who voted in favour of the war had been misled.

He said: “Firstly our thoughts go out to the people who died, innocent people in Iraq as well as our military who died.

“What we were led to believe ended up not being the case.

“I think most MPs feel if the case was put to us with the evidence we have now, we would never have gone to war.

“It was certainly the wrong decision to make. You can’t justify it but at the time we were told something different.

“I believe a lot of people who voted for the war definitely wouldn’t if it was to come again.”

Nigel Evans said it was too early to evaluate whether the Iraq War had been a success or a failure.

He said: “To be honest while I’m absolutely delighted that Saddam Hussein has been dealt with, along with his entire family and some of the most hideous people that have been removed, I do believe I need to know more as to what’s been going on in Iraq, to work out whether I believe it was the right decision.

“I think our troops did brilliantly in difficult circumstances and sadly there were many casualties during that period.

“It’s still early days of course. We’ve seen the Arab Spring really grow throughout the Middle East on the back of what happened 10 years ago.

“Maybe it’s that other countries have seen democracy and what is available from what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and decided they wouldn’t mind some of that, like in Egypt and Tunisia, where some advances have been made.

“We just hope and pray the people of Iraq are leading a better quality of life now without the despotic Saddam Hussein and his family who caused misery, mayhem and death.

“The one positive thing that everybody can see was the removal of that family as dictators. But there is still a long way to go I’m afraid.”