Fifteen years ago my country participated in an illegal invasion which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, orphaned countless numbers of children, created millions of refugees, and wholly undermined and discredited international institutions and the global rule of law. On the basis of very many conversations with compatriots over the years, I believe that the sense of disillusionment with parliamentary democracy which it generated also contributed to the fateful decision of my fellow citizens to leave the EU.
Yet, in 2018, I see people who regard themselves as progressives denying that the war had anything other than minor consequences. Defenders of one of the war’s main architects seem keen to dismiss it as little more than a detail of history, a minor stain on Blair’s otherwise spotless record. I have even seen one person claim that those who opposed the war were delighted that it took place as it served to discredit Blair. We are regularly accused of having an unhealthy, irrational and bizarre fixation, of ignoring the Labour governments’ record on all other issues in order to pursue a personal and petty vendetta.
I’m used to British people denying their own history, playing down the horrors of the slave trade, the opium wars, the brutal repression of colonial populations and so on. Doing so is generally a preserve of the right. Over the last few years it’s been disheartening to see how ubiquitous empire, climate and even holocaust denial have become on the now less-remote fringes of British politics. It’s an ideology according to which the suffering of others is not worthy of consideration or concern. The progressive traditions in British society – both liberal and Labour – are supposed to stand for something better.
Blair’s position on Brexit is, I believe, a sensible, even laudable one. Britain has been led to the edge of a cliff and is showing every sign of hurling itself off. However, there are very solid reasons why he is not widely trusted, and thus his role in creating the circumstances that led us to Brexit cannot be ignored. They partly lie in a refusal to address our history. Farage et al dismiss the blood-soaked legacy of the British Empire, based on an ideology that says the experiences of foreigners is a minor price to have paid for far greater glories. Insisting, as I have seen many do online, that the consequences of much more recent violent adventurism by the British State in our name are of little concern and that Blair’s reputation must be evaluated independently of them, implies not only a failure to acknowledge certain inconvenient truths about how Blair is – despite his undoubted success in other areas – viewed throughout British society. It also represents a deeply obnoxious and very British refusal to face up to our historical responsibilities. It betrays a set of values which aren’t actually all that remote from those of the unapologetic neo-imperialists who have, by concocting a venomous slow-cooked stew of deep-seated xenophobia mixed with legitimate resentment, suspicion and frustration, led us to Brexit. And as for those who argue that the Iraq War was ‘a very long time ago’ and has no relevance today, one can only assume they have never lost a child nor learnt a single thing about history.