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Stephan Shakespeare: The public's attitude to the Iraq war is so understandable

Stephen Shakespeare is founder and Chief Innovations Officer of the YouGov polling company.

On Wednesday night we had a depressing discussion at Doughty (that is, on, live internet tv). We talked about a Communicate Research opinion poll which showed there was majority support for two propositions:

a) that we should withdraw from Iraq immediately, and
b) that this would lead to civil war.

Further, a majority said that because of Iraq, they were less likely to support military interventions in the future. This was profoundly disheartening for those of us who supported going to war in 2003 on the basis that it was morally and pragmatically right to depose Saddam, a leader who was slaughtering his own citizens, who had aggressive expansionary ambitions, and who refused to accept the rule of international law. The poll suggested a lack of integrity in the British people who had, on the eve of war, been narrowly but definitely in favour. How could people be so ready to abandon the region to murderous chaos?

But I believe in the integrity of the British people, and I think that polling often reflects that integrity, even when at first it seems illogical to politicians. Polling usually confines respondents to a small number of questions with a clearly-defined - and therefore narrow - set of options. They cannot express themselves in full. But if one considers all the polls over the last few years, a picture of public opinion emerges that seems wholly reasonable.

People originally thought that Saddam should be removed, by force if necessary, because he was a threat to his own people and to the world. But they did not want Britain and America to act on their own – they wanted the legitimacy of broad international agreement. When asked about another UN resolution, they wanted it as a condition for action. When they understood that a minority on the security council could veto the majority opinion, they were content with majority international consensus. At the time of the commons debate on going to war, they tipped in support of war even without the resolution.

Once troops were committed, the British people swung more strongly behind the effort, and when victory came swiftly, hope for a good longer-term outcome was raised. But soon things started to go horribly wrong in Iraq, in part because of an appalling lack of post-invasion strategy. And at home, the WMD controversy erupted. The BBC row and the subsequent death of Dr Kelly had a very deep effect. The electorate had not been trusted with the true justifications for the war. Having been fully exposed to all the short-sighted mean-spirited manipulation and spin from within government, the British people were disgusted. They felt lied to, and the subsequent judicial enquiry was widely considered a whitewash. One can hardly exaggerate the disgrace into which British politics had fallen. The sight of the opposition accepting the outcome of the enquiry, even though it was plainly wrong and they did not believe it, hardly helped to strengthen any lingering respect for the political system. And it all meant that there was now no chance of taking the British people along with any proposal to increase our commitment to security and democracy in Iraq.

The sequence of events appears to show that, even when a project is taken on for good moral reasons and with a true resolution of spirit – as I do not doubt Blair did - it is soon undermined from within by the ingrained bad habits of our system of government. Short-term political expediency for the shallowest of effects, under the misconception that ‘the great British public’ is stupid, always eclipses our hope of long-term benefit. Messaging, marketing and branding are the only deeply-held convictions to guide the career of the modern politician, which puts both governors and governed into the position of each other’s puppets, pulling each other’s strings. We accept it with a shrug of the shoulders because it’s better than the dictatorships we see elsewhere, and maybe this tangled compromise is all we can reasonably expect. After all, Blair will soon be gone (there'll be another one along in a minute).

So what should people think now about Iraq? A fourth question in the poll showed that people think the war was unwinnable. That, I believe, is the key. What is the position of someone who wants to be both moral and rational? All they see is a spiral of violence in Iraq which is killing their children and our soldiers. They know that more troops will not be sent to strengthen our position – that our forces are already horribly stretched - and that the politicians who are following on from Blair and Bush have less, not more commitment. Nobody proposes a solution which has any chance of success. The only argument made for staying is what sounds like a hollow exhortation to ‘finish the job’.

What then is the moral case? Where is the practical solution? Those four poll questions seem to me to sum up the British attitude quite fairly: we can’t win, there will be civil war there anyway, let’s not waste any more lives, and let’s not make the same mistake again. And this seems a completely reasonable response from an audience that has become bored with the absurdist drama on the stage. It’s not the people who lack integrity, but the politicians.


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