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‘Photo Op’, 2010Kennard Phillips

How Tony Blair damaged a generation’s faith in politics

We need to repair the damage done by an immoral war – the scathing Chilcot Inquiry could act as a springboard for action

“I can only conclude that my son died in vain,” said Reg Keys, father of a British soldier killed in the Iraq war following the release of the Chilcot Inquiry this morning. After the measured tone of the Inquiry author’s speech just moments before, Keys’ grief underscored the emotional reality of the report’s political analysis, grief that resonates more strongly still among the loved ones of the estimated half a million Iraqis who have died since the invasion in 2003.

The Chilcot Inquiry into the war was seven years in the making, and despite fears it might whitewash the mistakes of invasion, it delivered a scathing attack on British politics. It found “no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein in March 2003” as had been claimed, that war had not been treated as a “last resort” as it should have, that intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction was known to be uncertain, and that the post-war plan for the reconstruction project was “wholly inadequate.” It has pushed Tony Blair’s note to George W. Bush from 2002 back into the spotlight: “I am with you, whatever,” it reads, a commitment to follow America into war eight months before parliament approved the invasion.

The Iraq War, and Afghanistan before it, were two of my earliest political memories. Watching military jets thunder over Baghdad was one of my first visions of Britain’s role on the global stage. For many millennials, the so-called “war on terror” became the only constant theme in our political education. We watched a flurry of bombs tear a nation apart, Western troops sexually abuse and humiliate Iraqi prisoners of war, and brown bodies litter the streets of foreign cities so often that we became desensitised to the bloodbath. Blair sallied on, dodging questions, spinning shameful errors into innocent missteps, and amassed millions as a political advisor to dictators when he left office.

We saw no reconstruction, no stability, no hope. We watched a nation, and later an entire region, burn. All the while, we lived in the knowledge that the case for war had been at best, shaky, and at worst, a willful manipulation of the facts, as the Chilcot Inquiry today confirmed. When 1.5 million people hit the streets to protest the war – the largest demonstration in living memory – and achieved nothing, our basic faith in politics and the power of protest was delivered a fatal blow. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t lose faith in the power of protest?

“We saw no reconstruction, no stability, no hope. We watched a nation, and later an entire region, burn. All the while, we lived in the knowledge that the case for war had been at best, shaky, and at worst, a willful manipulation of the facts”

That we vote in such low numbers and seem disillusioned with establishment politics should come as no surprise. That young voters are so fervently in support of Jeremy Corbyn, one of the few politicians to oppose the war, and numerous other causes from nuclear proliferation to the racial brutality of South African apartheid, hardly beggars belief either. Labour’s legacy contains a damned spot that might never come out. “Education, education, education,” was the platform on which Blair was elected. Yet for our generation, the only political education we received was a shitshow of manipulation, disregard of the democratic will, and abject destruction with an unimagined social, economic and human cost.

The war has never ended for the Iraqi people, who live with terrorist attacks, political instability and failing infrastructure every day of their lives, but its legacy lives on in British politics too. It isn’t just self-absorption, narcissism or social media that has made our generation disengage from politics: it is that we have never known a time in which politicians deserved our faith or our trust.

When a generation disengages, dark clouds gather. With a majority of young voters absent from the polling booths, it is extremists (of the Right and Left) who prosper. Our generation will soon be leading the nation, and to avert crisis, our faith in politics must be restored.

When protests happen, major news outlets must report on them and avoid the “media blackout” that many feel erases their public voice. When military decisions are on the table – as they have been in Libya and Syria in recent years – they need to be discussed following independent studies, not the summaries of spin doctors, hacks, and politicians in search of crusades. And when it comes to voting, we need to reform the electoral system so that each vote counts, and isn’t lost by the First Past The Post system currently in place. If sufficient evidence to mount a case against Blair for war crimes comes to light, that prosecution must be pursued without hesitation.

Despite the failings outlined in the Inquiry, all is not lost. Protests against the Iraq War might have failed to prevent the invasion, but continued pressure is precisely why we are seeing the Chilcot report published at all. In some cases, terrible decisions can be, and have been, reversed. Government attempts to cut disability benefits and tax credits last year saw huge outcry from the public, and legislation was blocked. Your voice still matters.

Truth is, you don’t get a choice about whether to engage in politics. You either engage in it wilfully, or you are engaged by it coercively. It’s time to break the apathy: join a political party, support grassroots organisations, attend protests, write to your MP, and get angry so that Iraq and the like can never happen again. Politicians need to listen to young voters, but they can only do so when we’re already speaking out.