Ten years after Iraq, IAN SMART asks if an independent Scotland would have joined the ‘Coalition of the Willing’


Yesterday, at the instigation of the SNP, the Scottish Parliament held a debate on the Iraq War.

I understand the attraction of this as a purely political gesture as it exposes a continuing disagreement in the ranks of my own Party about that enterprise, although the contrast between the Nationalist gesture politics of today and their unwillingness to use the actual powers of the Scottish Parliament to tackle the bedroom tax last week was telling.

Still, gestures are not unimportant, I suppose. The year I went to University, my Comrades still enthused about how they had, the previous year, ceremonially voted to surrender the John McIntyre Building to the Viet Cong.

To the best of my knowledge, the heirs of Ho Chi Minh have never appeared to claim their prize and some sort of long negative prescription probably now applies.

Anyway, in the best traditions of student radicalism, at the end of the debate,  they (the Scottish Parliament, not the Glasgow University Students Representative Council) passed a motion as follows:

That the Parliament acknowledges the civilian, military and economic cost of the Iraq war and its aftermath; pays tribute to the armed forces and remembers the almost 5,000 allied servicemen and women and estimated 120,000 Iraqi civilians who lost their lives; notes that, 10 years on from the invasion, questions remain unanswered about the UK Government’s decision to invade without a UN resolution, and believes that one of the key lessons of the Iraq war is the need for all nations, large and small, to conduct international affairs as cooperatively as possible according to international law and the authority of the United Nations and to act as good global citizens rather than engaging in reckless, illegal military conflicts with incalculable human and material costs.

Now, I was against the second Iraq War. I thought at the time, and I still do, that it was misconceived in its target and even then confused as to its objectives. I considered, correctly, that it would undermine the general world sympathy towards the west in the aftermath of 9/11 and would simply end up with one terrible set of affairs in Iraq being replaced with one different but no better. And, Kurdistan aside, at least for the moment,   I defy anybody to argue with that not having been the outcome.

So I agree with the motion that the war was reckless and, for what its worth, since International Law is a pretty worthless commodity, I also believe it was illegal in international if not domestic law. Not however as clearly illegal in international law as was the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot, although I suspect nobody is calling for any prosecutions over that.

The point however is the extent that the debate was conducted from the principle that the war was the creature of the British Government and that a hypothetical Scottish Government would have had nothing to do with it.

The first thing to recognise is that the war was the creature of the (then) government of the United States. Nobody has ever suggested that, had the Americans not been interested, even setting aside military practicalities, Britain would still have attacked Iraq with whoever else would go along. Blair and some others might genuinely have thought Bush was actually right but the decisive bloc inside the Party was of those who thought the war was a mistake but, given the Americans would proceed nonetheless, that it was better to stand with them than to stand aside.

I wasn’t with that bloc. I’m of an age who can remember, just, Wilson refusing to support a much more sympathetic President than Bush over Vietnam. I don’t however doubt the integrity of those who, over Iraq, took an opposing view.

The thing that annoys me is the suggestion that it would all have had been different if Scotland had been independent. British refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq wouldn’t have stopped it, that was the argument of its reluctant supporters, but British refusal to co-operate would still have been important, that was the argument of us on the other side.

But where did the wee countries stand?

Well, among the “Coalition of the Willing” were: Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal; Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and numerous others. Did they all independently conclude that the war was a good idea or did they rather conclude that it was not something over which it was worth falling out with the Americans? I know my answer to that question.

So, it’s easy to declare, ten years on, that the war was reckless (and) illegal. But does anybody think the friends of Murdoch and Trump would have said as much at the time had they actually been a position where their stance was remotely important?

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.

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13 thoughts on “Scotland and Iraq

  1. Just think. If Scotland hadn’t signed the Act of Union the UK would have not existed and would not have been involved in the Iraq war, or anything else for that matter.

    1. Scotland didnt sign the act of union Scottish members of its Parliament did without the sovereign consent of the people.

      1. The English people did not give their consent to the union in any way that we would understand in modern terms, either. It was culmination of deal which started at Restoration (of Scottish dynasty) and continued in “Glorious Revolution.” This was sweetheart deal whereby the old aristocratic rich and the new merchant rich said ‘let’s not have another Civil War, but instead unite against roundhead radicals, Levellers and the like.’ So they did, and anglo-saxon capitlaism was born.

        The Scottish aristos and merchants were dead keen to join them in this enterprise of robbing the people (a move which was accelerated by gambling on Darien and losing.) Since then the radical cause (or the left) has shared a common enemy north and south of the border. Which is why nationalism is a defeatist distraction.

  2. Yeah, I think we would’ve stayed out of Iraq if we had been independent and under an SNP government, regardless of what other small countries chose to do. Finland stayed out, Sweden, Malta. Iceland supplied two soldiers – the very definition of token involvement.

    I don’t really think the SNP were playing gesture politics here – they were genuinely against the war before it started, and during it, and would still like to see justice done in regard to those who brought it about – hence Salmond and others attempting to impeach Tony Blair, and even trying, alas unsucessfully, to bring him to trial in a Scottish court (could’ve been a job there for you!).

    They have never been averse to taking unpopular stances on military matters, like Salmond’s position on intervention in the Balkans. There’s no way that was going to win him any votes but he did it anyway.

    Iraq was awful, terrible, and still is. Glad to hear you were against it Ian, I wish there had been many more like you.

  3. My views on Iraq war are to be found at (possibly tedious) length on Planet Pedro. But…

    1. Yes it was opportunist and deeply cynical for FM and SNP government to hold debate when it did. Just think: a day or two before the announcement of the Referendum date – a remarkable coincidence, or just “a good day to exhume bad news.”

    2. The parliamentary time would have been much better and appropriately spent debating the effects of financial crises on small countries with economies unbalanced by over-reliance on specific sectors. Cyprus might have been a good example.

  4. Might just as well have been spent talking about large countries with economies unbalanced by over reliance on specific sectors like financial services.

  5. Its not gesture politics – Its politics. Its not the war per se but the disregard for the democratic process in the decision making arena that led to war. I don’t mind if this sorry episode is revisited and represented if it stops or puts a check on future illegal acts of conflict which may achieve geopolitical outcomes but at far too high a price in terms of life after Iraq. Millions marched in the UK and Scotland against the war, many thousands of Iraqi civilians died and are still dying in the bloody aftermath of regime change and significant numbers of UK parliamentarians either voted for war under duress or sat on their hands. In the rush to war you could just as easily argue that the SNP could have made more political capital and gained more political leverage if they had been less principled and demurred from an outright rejection of the war. Sometimes, as a political party, if you are principled on a particular issue you do end up on the right side of history but often you have no way of knowing that at the time. We’ve all learned lessons from the Iraq war and it’s hard to learn from opponents but sometimes hard lessons are the most valuable.

  6. Or they could’ve debated countries who are “over-reliant” on specific sectors but still don’t have unbalanced economies, like Norway. (40% of GDP from oil)

    Or large countries that are every bit as “over-reliant” on natural resources as an independent Scotland would be (circa 20% of GDP from minerals) but are doing just fine, like Australia.

  7. The war was illegal because it did not have the mandate of the UN. The Blair Government cooking up a decision by the UK’s own justice system that the war was legal was akin to a burglar deciding that to burgle your house was legal because he said so himself.
    We (US/UK) connived to put Saddam Hussein in power because of Iraq oil then he stopped doing what he was told and we had to get rid of him.
    We are back in control of Iraq’s oil. That’s all.

    1. I think that remark shows a lack of knowledge of international law. A war is not illegal simply because it lacks the mandate of the UN, nor is one legal because it does.

      Its legality rests on the interpretation of international law, a lot of which predates the formation of the UN.

      The legality or otherwise of the Iraq War is a grey area (as most things involving the legal profession are). Proponents would argue that Iraq had given certain undertakings (with regard to weapons inspections etc) that it then reneged on. It would be a reasonable expectation that such failure would be met with force.

      Opponents would argue that while the threat of force had been implicit in security council resolutions, it was not actually explicit, and in any case the force used needed to be proportionate (which the invasion might not have been, given the lack of WMD).

      I always find it amusing when people talk about the legality of the Iraq war and how Tony Blair is a war criminal, yet are the first to shout about miscarriages of justice and the integrity of the justice system. Firstly, everyone – even Tony Blair – is innocent until proven guilty. As he hasnt been proven guilty, he is not a war criminal. And the legality or otherwise can only really be debated in a court of law, and as there are strong arguments on both sides, it could easily be found to be legal. Its not an open and shut case.

  8. Mr Hill says: “The war was illegal because it did not have the mandate of the UN.” This is the kind of simplistic and inaccurate claptrap peddled by many of our MSPs during the Iraq debate.

    That the debate was a waste of time and money is undeniable; that it showed up the remarkable lack of talent on the SNP backbenches unsurprising and that the Labour, Tory and Libdems turned up at all disappointing…

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