In 2003, the United Kingdom invaded Iraq as part of the ‘coalition of the willing’ led by the United States. Their justification? Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, it was part of the axis of evil, like Al Qaeda, and its people would welcome western troops as liberators. But there were no WMDs, as the whole world knew. UN weapons inspectors had told them so. Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and far from celebrating liberation, the Iraqis started fighting both the occupying forces and each other. There are still British soldiers in Iraq 15 years later.
It’s hard to overestimate the shock and dismay that other Europeans felt when Tony Blair blithely followed George W. Bush into a war based on lies. Blair had been the icon of modern Britain. ‘Cool Britannia’ had changed the world’s view of fusty, Thatcherite England for the better. Blair’s government had admitted some of the mistakes of empire, helped to reach a historic peace deal in Northern Ireland and devolved power to Scotland and Wales.
And then it all went wrong. The government produced dodgy dossiers, the British army became an adjunct of the US military and Labour ministers were denying basic facts and prosecuting an illegal war. There was even a diplomatic spat with France when the French had the gall to question the war. Many casual observers thought the UK was going through a mid-life crisis of some kind. Desperate not to be relegated to a third rate power, the British had hitched their wagon to a warmongering US administration of questionable legitimacy. What innocent days those were.
The Iraq War damaged British credibility abroad and cost the lives of many British citizens, but it was not fundamentally dangerous to the UK itself. No Iraqi soldiers were ever going to march on Westminster. It took another 13 years to really put the country in danger.
If the invasion of Iraq was Britain’s mid-life crisis, then Brexit must be considered its slide into senility. No country in modern times has committed an act of such national self-harm. The voices condemning this as madness grow by the day. Business leaders, former prime ministers, economists, the Bank of England, multinational corporations – all have warned that the UK will be much worse off outside the EU. There was never a situation where the British would be better off economically on the outside. Brexiteer bloody-mindedness is not a substitute for the world’s largest trading bloc. The Irish border issue is not being solved and Brexiteer language on Ireland is eerily reminiscent of the jingoism of days gone by.
If the UK were a person, its friends would be very worried. Brexit is a self-inflicted wound and there is no clear reason why Britain has chosen to injure itself in this way. The UK’s stubborn refusal to listen to reason, its treatment of friends and allies as enemies, its wild imaginings and delusional nostalgia – these are the signs of an unwell mind. They call for intervention, for treatment and therapy.
But the UK is not a person. It cannot be bundled into a psychiatrist’s office to find the root of its anxiety. Its longing for an illusory, glorious past is far more dangerous than a grandfather recalling his salad days.
For many Europeans, Britain’s actions in Iraq were inexplicable. Was it misguided subservience to a greater power? Was it a wish to return to the days of imperial yore? Or was it a sign that the UK is fundamentally unwell? These questions have returned, with greater urgency. Brexit will hurt the UK much more than dodgy intelligence or battles in the desert. If your friend behaved the way the UK has over the last 2 years, you might have to reconsider your friendship. It’s hard to be Britain’s friend right now, and eventually you’ll have to ask the question: If the UK is a danger to itself, is it a danger to others?