Britain’s Brexit vote was fuelled in part by the loss of trust in politicians caused by Tony Blair’s war on Iraq, former UN ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock has suggested.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, the ex-envoy to Iraq said that the way Blair ignored mass protests and sided with the Americans helped fuel a perception among the British people that their leaders “are not listening to us”.
Greenstock said that the vote to quit the European Union in June had some of its roots in the way the former Labour Prime Minister dealt with what he saw as the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Speaking ahead of the publication of his new book, “Iraq: The Cost of War”, the veteran diplomat also said that Britain risked looking “stupid” because of its Brexit vote and warned that Japanese and American investors were considering pulling out investment from the UK.
In an epilogue to his book, Greenstock said that the effects of the “divorce” between Blair the common citizen in Britain “have been far-reaching”.
“The linkages can be traced from the protests over Iraq in 2003 to the vote in the June 2016 referendum to leave the EU: ‘The people up there in charge just do not see to be taking our views into account”.
He told HuffPost UK: “Iraq has had a real international effect on the UK. I think it is connected with Brexit.
“It was one of those things that got people in this country thinking our elite, our toffs, our leaders up there are not listening to us, are not looking after us in the way that we want.”
Greenstock, whose book was originally barred from publication in 2005 after objections from then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, said that the fundamental issue in Britain’s handling of Iraq was that Blair was subservient to ‘the projection of American power’.
“I think Blair going with the Americans on Iraq has in some ways done more damage to the UK than Wilson not going with the Americans on Vietnam,” he told HuffPost UK.
“Wilson kept the UK out of Vietnam, Blair did not keep the UK out of Iraq. Wilson didn’t suffer from staying out, we were probably treated a bit more coldly for a while by the Americans but it didn’t affect the evolution of the United Kingdom or its power or its potential.”
The former UK ambassador to the UN said that Britain could make Brexit work, because it was “very good” at bilateral diplomacy and was an open trading nation.
“But we’re gaining, unless we’re very, very good, the image of having been stupid to leave the European Union. International respect for us is likely to go down [otherwise].”
Greenstock’s assessment goes even further than Sir John Chilcot’s evidence to MPs on Wednesday, when he said that Blair’s handling of the WMD issue had caused long-term “damage” to politics more widely.
“The principle political error [in Iraq] lay in the fact that the domestic interests of the British people just did not seem to be the primary criterion,” he says in the book.
“Blair fell from grace only partly because the argument that Saddam was real and present WMD-laden danger proved to be an exaggeration. The larger Blair sin in the eyes of the British public was to move his criteria for going to war from British to American foundations”.
Greenstock told HuffPost that the key factor was the former PM’s backing for the US idea of ‘regime change’ rather than the British policy of containment of Saddam, and his failure to set a ‘bottom line’ in his relationship with President Bush.
‘“Some of us were concerned that we were being dragged into something that didn’t seem to have a clear public justification, might be on the wrong timing, that were American reasons not British reasons. That’s where we were most uneasy.
“Blair didn’t seem to set a bottom line where Bush would realise that he could no longer count on Blair coming with him. They wouldn’t have had other allies if they hadn’t had the UK as their first ally. So we had a little bit of leverage there.”
In his book he adds that Blair failed to understand the difference between British and American cultures on war.
“The pretexts for involvement rang far hollower with most Britons than with most Americans. We feel that something has failed if [our armed forces] are sent into violent action.
“The British bar is set higher. Brits are less overtly passionate about patriotism, religion, power and wealth.”
Referring to the infamous 2002 Blair memo to Bush - where he declared ‘I’ll be with you, whatever’ - Greenstock said it was not a carte blanche to the Americans, but it revealed a wider strategic shift to the US way of thinking.
“Tony would do that. ‘George my heart is with you on this’. It didn’t mean I will never place any conditions on that. He was saying ‘George I’m your friend’. So he uses the instinctive language of saying ‘I’m in the same position as you’.
“But he was in a sense telling an untruth. He’s not in the same position. He’s the British Prime Minister, not an American President manque or an American Vice-President.
“[He said] ‘I’m with you on this’. What he couldn’t say was the British people or the British Parliament and defence forces are with you on this.”
On Brexit, Greenstock, who spent his career in the Foreign Office, said that other countries were telling him of they were baffled by it because UK did so much trade with the EU.
“The Japanese cannot understand what we’ve done to ourselves. The Japanese are an island with problems with their continent, but if they’d had an arrangement with their continent they wouldn’t have snapped it in two. And they realise the value of it.
“And they invested in the UK as a launch pad for their sales into the European Union and they are thinking ‘do we have to disinvest?’ They are thinking that. And so are the Americans and so are the other big countries.”
However, he added: “We can handle things, we will come back, we will have trade arrangements, we are a trading nation and from three steps back we can advance again if we are well-led, if we create new relationships, if we negotiate well.
“We have denied ourselves a lot of leverage in doing our new trade arrangements because we are demanders everywhere. And diplomats and negotiators hate being the demanders, we’ve made things harder for ourselves but we are a nation to be reckoned with.
“I think they’ve taken us three steps back and we have got the opportunity to be great again, having exhausted ourselves getting back to square one and then moving forward. I think we’ve shot ourselves somewhere, it may only be in the toe, we’ll have to see how good it is, but we are starting further back”.
* Jeremy Greenstock’s ‘Iraq: The Cost of War’ is published by Heinemann.