Why did Keir Starmer ignore the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War?

Keir Starmer in 1997  (Spanner Films)
Keir Starmer in 1997 (Spanner Films)

As a young lawyer, Sir Keir Starmer said the Iraq War was “in breach of international law” and marched through London with two million people in a last ditch attempt to stop it. Twenty years on from the invasion, his position is closer to “no comment”.

In an opinion article for The Guardian, published in March 2003, Starmer argued that there was no “self-defence” justification for the invasion of Iraq and that the UK government’s case for going to war was “precarious”.

On the anniversary of the start of the war this week, we asked Starmer’s team if he still agreed with what he wrote in 2003, or ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband’s view that the party was “wrong to take Britain to war”. They chose not to reply.

In the 2003 article, published under the headline “Sorry, Mr Blair, but 1441 does not authorise force”, Starmer addressed the legal debate around the coming invasion. In spring 2003 the British-American coalition, headed by President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, refused to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution authorising use of force against Iraq.

Bush and Blair feared they would lose such a vote, further undermining the case for war. Because of the lack of a UN resolution for war, there was a heated debate in Britain about the legality invading Iraq. Starmer enthusiastically waded into that debate.

Keir Starmer’s case against the legality of the Iraq War, The Guardian, March 2003 (theguardian.com)
Keir Starmer’s case against the legality of the Iraq War, The Guardian, March 2003 (theguardian.com)

Blair told the House of Commons that he would only go to war with a “proper legal basis”. He then claimed such a basis after taking legal advice from his attorney general, Lord Goldsmith. A previous UN Security Council resolution concerning weapons inspections in Iraq, Resolution 1441, was cited as a basis for invasion.

Starmer argued strongly against using Resolution 1441 as a basis for war. He described Blair’s argument as “hardly compelling” and wrote that the government was acting “coy” about the strength of its legal position.

Despite his apparent opposition to the invasion in 2003, Starmer has not marked the twentieth anniversary of the war. Why? Previous Labour leaders have been candid about the issue. In his first speech as leader in 2010, Ed Miliband said: “We were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war, and we’ve got to be explicit about that.” In 2016, following the release of the full report from Lord Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry, then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn apologised for the war on behalf of the party.

But Starmer has recently grown close to the Blair, taking advice from him on leading the Labour party and serving as prime minister. Has he kept quiet about the anniversary of the war out of deference to his new mentor?

In 2018, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour committed itself to passing a War Powers Act if elected. Such an act would compel the prime minister to seek the approval of the House of Commons before going to war.

At the time Labour said a War Powers Act would “the prime minister of Britain should accountable to Parliament, not to the whims of any other governments.” This was widely seen as a jibe at Tony Blair’s pro-American stance over Iraq.

It is not clear that Starmer will attempt to pass such an act if he becomes prime minister after the next general election.