Quentin Davies is MP
for Grantham and Stamford and was Shadow Secretary of State for Defence in 2000.
If we want to be taken seriously as an alternative government we should
not do things in Opposition, or urge on the Government a line of action
which no responsible government would dream of.
Why did I refuse to vote last night with the bulk of the Conservative
Party ( I was not alone in abstaining) on our frontbench’s resolution
to hold an inquiry into our involvement in Iraq? Not because I exclude
an inquiry at some stage. Indeed I think one held after military
operations are over, and in the perspective of how they ended would be
a most useful way of learning lessons, military, political and other.
But I was quite persuaded that the right time is not now – indeed that
it would be utterly mistaken to hold such an inquiry now.
I doubt that any country in history in modern times – has ever
conducted an inquiry into a military campaign which was continuing.
William Hague cited two historical precedents in yesterday’s debate. As I pointed out, perhaps a little brutally, both of them undermined his case and strengthened mine. William is an excellent historian, but I do wish he had checked the records in these two instances before he spoke.
The first case he mentioned was Gallipoli in 1915. In fact, the Dardanelles Commission was only set up after the last British troops and sailors had left the Dardanelles. I do not believe that at the time anyone would have dreamt that it could have been otherwise.
In the other case, Norway in 1940, there was no inquiry. But there was a memorable Parliamentary debate (which had momentous consequences since it led to Chamberlain resigning and being replaced by Churchill). But even that debate only took place after our last man had been withdrawn (in this case in great difficulty from Narvik).
If you want to win a war or a military campaign you have to keep your forces’ attention focussed one hundred per cent on the tasks they have in hand. You can’t pull people out of a combat zone, let alone key people who are already more than fully stretched to have them answer questions before an inquiry. And you can’t responsibly start a whole range of controversies about how and why you came to be fighting, and whose fault it is that everything is not going as well as it might, and what the respective responsibilities are of the political leadership and of the chain of command while people are actually fighting. Furthermore, as I also said yesterday in the Commons, you certainly can’t publish a report which says anything meaningful on the Iraq operation without going into such matters as logistics, tactics, intelligence, infiltration (by us of the terrorists and by the terrorists of the Iraqi forces) and the strengths and weaknesses of our position. I doubt anyone needs to be told why you can’t publish a report going authoritatively into these matters in the middle of a campaign.
So what the Party did yesterday sadly just wasn’t a sufficiently serious response to a very serious situation.
Of course I understand the temptations of Opposition – you crave for headlines; it’s difficult to pass up the chance of creating a split in the Labour Party. But these temptations should be resisted. We should act, and be seen to be acting, calmly, reflectively and consistently, not on a PR agenda, but on a clear articulated analysis of the national interest. And if you put forward a motion or a resolution, you should be prepared to face the consequences of it being passed – indeed you should welcome them. Not the immediate PR consequences (“Hooray, we’ve defeated the Government”), but the real consequences (“We’ve done a good day’s work for the country”).
We certainly didn’t do that yesterday, and we rather let ourselves down.