Memories of Iraq: did we ever support the war?

June 03, 2015, 4:50 PM GMT+0

To many British people it now feels unimaginable that we ever supported the Iraq war – but most people did

Opposing the Iraq war has been called Charles Kennedy's finest hour, and in the end the public were on his side. For many people, Iraq is all they can remember about the Labour government of 1997-2010. It has tainted Tony Blair's legacy, and in the run up to the 2015 general election it made Labour cautious of defending its record.

Though it has been controversial for over a decade, the invasion was actually popular at the time. In 2003, YouGov conducted 21 polls from March to December asking British people whether they thought the decision by the US and the UK to go to war was right or wrong, and on average 54% said it was right.

But more than 10 years of opposition is a long time, and many people now remember things differently. Now only 37% of the public say they believed military action against Saddam Hussein was right at the time, instead of the 54% recorded at the time.

The two groups do not completely overlap – respondents younger than 30 today would have been under 18 in 2003 and so were not surveyed by YouGov at the time, and another segment of the population will have passed away since then. However, in the 2015 survey young people do not fall clearly on either side of the debate, and the age groups who were represented in 2003 now all tend to say the war was wrong.

Recent research by YouGov America reveals an even more dramatic effect in the US. 63% favoured sending ground troops into Iraq according to a February 2003 Gallup poll, however in 2015 only 38% recall supporting the military operation.

Public opinion and Iraq

During the Hutton Inquiry into the mysterious death in July 2003 of former UN weapons inspector David Kelly, British people became divided about the war. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December temporarily boosted support, but began falling again – never to recover – after the Butler Review concluded in July 2004 that the intelligence used to justify the war had been unreliable.

The Chilcot Inquiry into the invasion of Iraq still awaits publication. The report was initially delayed for three years because of a dispute over which conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush could be published. Now this has been resolved, there are further delays as those to be criticised by the report are given time to respond before it is published.

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