Haven't we travelled down this road once before?

July 16, 2004

As Britain anticipates a possible withdrawal from Iraq, Huw Richards experiences a nagging sense of deja vu.

"British casualties in Irak have practically ceased, and a really settled and stable civil government is actually being set up. Once internecine tribal quarrels and bloodshed can be abolished, there is the prospect of a well-established civil government, conducted by the Irak people and the final retirement of the British armed forces altogether."

So wrote a Labour minister in a newspaper dated July 15. Only the spelling of "Iraq" and the attribution of bloodshed to tribalism rather than terrorism give away that it was 1924 rather than yesterday. Tony Blair's is not the first Labour government to find Iraq troublesome. The minister in question was William Leach, Under-secretary for Air in the first Labour government of all, led by Ramsay MacDonald. The paper was Labour's own Daily Herald .

The circumstances were not, of course, exactly those of today. The Americans were nowhere to be seen. This was exclusively Britain's show. Far from being a disgruntled bystander, the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations) was highly implicated, with Britain's presence in Iraq legitimised by a League mandate. Rather than overthrowing an Iraqi regime, Britain was sustaining King Faisal, its choice as monarch.

There are, though, distinct parallels. A Labour administration was determined to prove that it could be trusted in office, and to do so it was prepared to rule in a manner much closer to its predecessors than to the cherished hopes of many followers. The best remembered example is MacDonald's insistence on his ministers wearing court dress, a measure aimed at reassuring a wary King George V but one that angered many Labour supporters. There were eight hostile resolutions at the 1924 party conference, expressed through symbolic deference to aristocratic flummery.

But, as in the early 21st century, it was on Iraq that the Government acted in a way that critics felt went beyond the compromises inherent in office to outright betrayal. The Herald - jointly owned since 1922 by the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress - reserved the right to act as a candid friend of the Government rather than a slavish follower. But on most issues it was unreservedly supportive, and only mildly critical on court dress.

Only on "Irak" did it subject the Government to the ferocious invective it routinely fired at the Liberals and Conservatives.

The objection was not so much to the occupation as to the means used to underpin it - bombing recalcitrant tribes. It was less than six years since the end of the First World War, whose horrors generated revulsion felt particularly strongly on the Left. MacDonald and Leach had both been war resisters. Hamilton Fyfe, editor of the Herald , had been converted to socialism by his experiences as a war correspondent. Elsewhere, the Government, in which MacDonald was also Foreign Secretary, pursued what might have been termed an ethical foreign policy - working hard at the League of Nations for disarmament and a settlement to the dispute that had led to French troops occupying the Ruhr area of Germany in 1923.

Bombing, Leach pointed out, was an inherited policy, adopted as an alternative to using land forces against "border tribes who live by loot and fighting", leading to "loss of British lives and unsatisfactory results". Labour had examined the issue on taking office. "Could we drop the use of the air methods? Yes, but it meant a dreadful cost of British lives and the lengthening of our stay. It meant a vast increase of ground forces and of cost to the British taxpayer."

Ground fighting, he argued, would lead to greater loss of life on both sides and force was used only "for stern necessity". Royal Air Force officers were "invariably the model of chivalry, patience and goodwill... they dislike this work as much as a judge dislikes sentencing a prisoner to death".

Left unspoken were other factors. The Government had fallen out with the Navy over plans for a Singapore base and had no wish to tangle with a second service. David Edgerton points out in England and the Aeroplane that action in Middle East mandates was vital to the RAF's survival as an independent service, showing the uses of strategic air power and a "relatively cheap means of imperial control". Iraq's oil was certainly a factor, although as historian Peter Sluglett noted in 1976 "it has always been bad manners to say so".

Labour's leaders did not necessarily regard all races as equal. In early September 1924, Jimmy Thomas, the Colonial Secretary, told a meeting in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, that, in a world divided into groups, the white man was "a small minority, dominating and directing, who is - and must remain - the dominant influence".

Leach's article responded to critical resolutions from local Labour parties - the Central London Independent Labour Party had called for "immediate stoppage of these weapons of barbarism". In Parliament he had become an early example of the Labour minister cheered from the Conservative benches while under attack from his own side - in this case, Herald columnist and former editor-proprietor George Lansbury. Lansbury asked him to substantiate claims that there had been no casualties, and argued that tribal atrocities cited by Leach to justify the policy had happened hundreds of miles from where bombing had taken place.

The controversy ran through July and August. The Herald received "a flood of letters... filled with indignation, astonishment, pity, disappointment and alarm". Some defended the Government. A. G. Cartwright of West Hockley argued that ending the bombing would "certainly save the lives of a few oppressors, and also hand back the power to those who would continue bombing for a further indefinite period". They were vastly outnumbered by the critics, among whom one Ewart Lander argued: "Before Mr Leach says carry on with the bombing, he should consider the hideous results of aerial bombardment. As an ex-flying officer of the Air Force, who has seen from the ground the results of aerial bombing I do not hesitate to say that this method of warfare is damnable."

The row peaked in a Herald leader written in response to an Air Ministry circular defending the policy. Fyfe, who had earlier confessed that placed in Leach's position, "I might be behaving exactly as he behaves", launched ferociously into the Government. "What would be said if they enforced private claims by throwing explosives into neighbours' homes? How could they defend themselves against national indignation by saying that their neighbours were imperfectly civilised and that it saved trouble to throw hand grenades among them? Yet that is exactly the attitude of Lord Thomson and Mr Leach, and with them the whole of the Cabinet, in a matter not affecting themselves personally, but the whole country ... This will not do.

The Labour Movement did not make General Thomson a peer and put him into an official position in order that he might officially repudiate one of the principles upon which the Movement is founded. As for Mr Leach, his conversion to the Creed of Militarism can only be explained by Shelley's lines: 'Power, like a desolating pestilence/ Pollutes whate'er it touches'.

Is he or any of the Cabinet, going to speak at the No-More War meeting this month ? If so, what are they going to say?"

MacDonald was never criticised directly. But Air Ministers Thomson and Leach were among his few personal friends. It was not long after the Iraq controversy that MacDonald wrote to Fyfe asking why the Herald did not come out "honestly in the open as an organ hostile to the Government, or at any rate to me"?

By the autumn, the Iraq row was overtaken by events, particularly the Government's ham-fisted handling of incitement to mutiny charges against the Communist editor J. R. Campbell, leading to a lost vote of confidence in the Commons and the fall of MacDonald's minority government. Ranks closed ahead of the general election and Iraq was raised at the party conference only by that same J. R. Campbell, perhaps the last person likely to win much of a hearing for complaints of "hypocritical imperialist arguments" on the very day that the Government fell. Thomson, having returned from a visit to Iraq, told the conference that, "a great deal too much of a song has been made about it".

It is unlikely that the row made much difference at the 1924 general election, which returned Labour to the opposition benches and Leach to private life in Bradford. But it left its mark on the hyper-sensitive MacDonald, who confided to another Labour leader in early 1925: "Nothing contributed more to our defeat than the Herald and the way it handled our case" - ascribing to a paper with daily sales of less than 400,000 influence it could only dream of possessing.

The RAF was still in Iraq in 1929 when Labour returned to office and Leach to the Commons (although he was never again a minister), and would stay for many years more. Sluglett's analysis suggests the critics had a point, arguing that bombing had "developed into an instrument of repression".

Damage done may have gone beyond the deaths of a few recalcitrant tribesmen and fractious relations within the Labour movement: "The speed and simplicity of air attack was preferred to the more time-consuming and painstaking investigation of grievances and disputes. With such power at its disposal, the Iraq government was not encouraged to develop less violent methods of extending its support over the country."

Huw Richards is author of The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left .

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