The Iraq War's Real Victims? Laurie Penny and the Narcissistic Left

14 February 2013

4:18 PM

14 February 2013

4:18 PM

Don’t take my word for it. Ask the redoubtable Ms Penny herself. Contemplating the “lesson” of the anti-war protests a decade ago, she writes:

Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain into the Americans’ war in Iraq was an immediate, material calamity for millions of people in the Middle East. I’m writing here, though, about the effect of that decision on the generation in the west who were children then and are adults now. For us, the sense of betrayal was life-changing. We had thought that millions of people making their voices heard would be enough and we were wrong.

Poor lambs. Of course there were millions of people around the world – including many in Britain – who would have been disappointed if Saddam Hussein had been permitted to remain in power. Some of them might even have thought this an act of unpardonable betrayal. It is impossible, however, to think they would have whined about it in quite this ghastly fashion.

It gets worse.

What changed in 2003 was that millions of ordinary citizens around the world finally understood that the game was rigged, because only a few weeks after that march Nato went to war anyway. The people had withdrawn their consent, loudly and peacefully and in numbers too big to ignore, and they had been rebuffed with hardly a second thought. Representative democracy had failed to represent.

The pity of it all. What Ms Penny means is that an insufficient number of British parliamentarians agreed with her and her comrades. Which, eagle-eyed logicians will have already noted, is not quite the same thing as the failure of representative democracy. Sometimes folk will disagree with you.  It’s not a betrayal, it’s politics. Get over it. And yourself.


Of course, the country was divided on the wisdom of George W Bush’s mesopotamian adventure. But it is simply a lie to suggest that the British people were unanimously or even overwhelmingly opposed to the war back before it had begun. The people had not “withdrawn their consent” (that came later and, in Britain as in the United States, helped bring the troops home). The people were of two minds.

And so was parliament. Nevertheless – and for whatever reasons they preferred – a clear majority of MPs favoured military action in Iraq. That, frankly, gave the war all the legitimacy it needed (and possibly more than it required). Got a problem with that? Win an election.

Nor – and really this should not have to be pointed out – can you measure the righteousness of a cause by the number of folk it can put on the streets of London or any other city. There is no Million Man March threshold which if met requires parliament to roll over and accede to the protestors’ demands. Nor, of course, should there be.

The narcissistic left may prefer the rule of the mob but, on the whole and albeit with occasional misgivings, I’d rather entrust these matters to parliament.

But, no, the decision to invade Iraq has ruined life for an entire generation of solipsistic Britons. Or something like that. Over to you, Ms Penny:

My generation’s lack of faith in the political process has often been mistaken for apathy. It is only now, with ordinary people across the world putting their energies into movements that bypass mainstream politics, that the betrayal of Bush and Blair’s wars is beginning to be understood. We have known since we were at school that it’s not enough simply to make our voices heard. We have to make sure that we are listened to – and we’re still working out how to do that.

Heaven help us all and may the lord preserve us from these fatheads, narcissists and nincompoops.

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Show comments
  • henrymcg

    I’ve never been guilty of taking anything Penny says at all seriously. However I think we’d be wrong to ignore her on this one point. Here’s why..

    We were told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld went on TV to say “we know where they are..”. Unfortunately no one seems to know where they went, because they were never found.

    We were told that Iraq was connected to Al Qaeda, a shadowy ‘network’ (barely worthy of the term). We are still “fighting terrorism” in Afghanistan to this day. One of the problems with this war on terror is that it’s hard to know if we’ve achieved a single thing. This was doubly true in Iraq, I feel.

    We were told that we could change regimes in a country riddled with problems, and difficult to govern. How may deaths have ensued? How much violence? Are we really so sure we averted another Syria, or did we just change how the deaths happened? Bush senior knew this was problematic. It’s hard to think that his son knew any better

    This has sadly damaged my own faith in my country – which I assure you is very strong.It has done so not just for me and for many other brits, it has affected the view of the UK in the rest of the world, especially the EU. They will not forget what happened in a hurry. I think many of our problems with the EU can be traced back to this (as well as to French Anglophobia)

  • Jonathan Roberts

    I wonder whether Laurie Penny believes Parliament should have rejected the proposals to ban fox hunting – given almost half a million people marched on Parliament to oppose the ban.

    Or, in her view, should marching only change Parliament’s mind when it is for a cause she agrees with?

  • ElBeema

    Man, I enjoyed reading this. Penny’s article is a classic example of a presumed deductive logic shrouded in the rebellious romance of a ‘forgotten generation’. She tries to give her argument almost syllogistic weight – “therefore representative democracy had failed”. My only problem with this article is the claim that “rule of the mob” is something peculiar to the left. The new conservative libertarians appear to be equally guilty of this, though in other spheres of politics and policy…

  • lareineblanche

    Ugh, what a shallow, disingenuous and condescending bit of drivel.

    Yes, it is true that there is a narcissistic streak in factions of the organized left, but this is hardly exclusive to them. I agree on one point: It is true that the protesters might harbor a naive view of parliamentary democracy by believing that government representatives are bound to simply be some kind of reflection of the “popular will” – this isn’t ever what a government truly is.

    However, if the writer were honest (which, judging from the screed posted here is far from evident), he would be forced to concede that the reasons for there being a plurality of support for the Iraq war were largely due to manipulation of the facts by journalists. The extensive disinformation campaign which preceded the war, aided by individuals like Donald Rumsfeld, CIA director George Tenet and their media stenographers, has been ably documented by numerous authors, and indeed, some journalists in the US even lost their jobs in disgrace as a result of their obvious misrepresentation of the facts, transforming them basically into government propagandists rather than proponents of honest journalism.

    Any commentary on the subject which does not mention this extensive shaping of public opinion does not merit serious consideration, I’m afraid.

    -Rob Gehrke

  • John Roberts

    Well, given that Iraq was one of the most ill conceived ideas of American interventionists’ I would I would put forth my opinion that it has been an unmitigated disaster. No WMD. Hundreds of thousands of deaths. A trillion dollars or more wasted. How much better off would both countries be if the invasion of Iraq never happened? Could there be any downside of the invasion never happening?

    • Biscuit Barrel

      Plenty, if you were a Kurd or a Marsh Arab or a political dissident or even just suspected of being so in Saddam’s Iraq. But hey, they don’t matter much do they?

  • Gavin

    Brilliant article and Laurie Penny nailed again.

  • eastwest49

    Why is the writer picking on the disenchantment of Ms Penny? Is it more narcissistic to be disenchanted after having stood up against a plainly “optional” war and its attendant calamities, human and strategic, or is it more narcissistic to lazily nitpick someone else’s reflections on the matter? This is a bit of snotty backbiting by someone who probably jettisoned his critical facility at the moment when it mattered and is now content to move on (by rolling over and going back to sleep).

  • James Neumerski

    Hey Alex, by definition, “narcissism” excludes mob rule because it excludes the perspective of anyone else. Your writing sucks too.

  • mnemos

    The article was entertaining and reasonable in outlook, but I would have liked to see a bit more reference to facts. In particular, she was overwhelmed by the 3/4 of a million people at the protest – that is fine, it was a significant protest. But her young mind didn’t take into account the 60 million people who weren’t there, many of whom did not agree with her. 15 years later, she should realize that you can’t assume that everyone else agrees with you, and she apparently hasn’t learned that yet. That lack of perspective is why she doesn’t distinguish between democracy and mob rule.

  • anotherjoeblogs

    the left often suffer from extreme narcissism – while wearing their hearts on their sleeves they believe by mere thinking, change will happen. If they physically go to protests and vociferate their beliefs, they are often shocked that they didn’t get their desired change. they are the first to shout down anyone with a different opinion yet still harp on about the freedom of speech etc. thank god my brain wiring is still intact

    • LaszloZapacik

      You seem to be under the impression that freedom of speech means people aren’t allowed to ridicule ridiculous opinions. It doesn’t.

      • anotherjoeblogs

        i should have said ‘ they are the first to close down anyone with….. ‘. I implied closing down when i said ‘ shouting down ‘. yes i agree with you.

  • Dan Booth

    I think going into Iraq was a terrible mistake but I dislike the way she tries to speak for a generation of Britons when the vast majority of hers have never heard of her and didn’t taken part in the anti-war marches.

    • Reborn

      Bearing in mind her vocal characteristics, it’s surprising that the Grauniad styles her “the voice of a generation”

  • AndrewMelville

    I’m not familiar with Ms. Penny – but based on the sample of her thoughts provided above, I think I may fairly conclude that she is an eejit.

    Massie is completely correct parliamentary government. It worked just fine; if you don’t like it, don’t withdraw – that’s daft – organize and win an election.

    None of this changes the fact that the war in Iraq was daft and hurt the west’s strategic position considerably. Foul as he was, Hussein was a useful bulwark to Iran. It was the job of the Iraquis to conduct their own regime change – not ours. Ditto for: Kosovo, Libya, Eqypt, Syria, Tunesia, Mali, Somali, Iran, North Korea etc etc.

    Metternich was smarter than Woodrow Wilson!

    • Wessex Man

      You never heard of Penny Dreadful, where have you been? she’s being pushed as the new Polly Toynbee as she’s on her last legs. Ms Penny has given me an headache watching Querstion Time, the Politics Show and Newsnight among others, her voice cuts right through me, it’s so shrill.

      • AndrewMelville

        In the colonies, we’ve been spared from her. Daily doses of Piers Morgan though.

  • AY

    someone marches against war
    someone writes about the one who marches against war
    someone writes about the one who wrote about the one who marches against war
    someone comments about the one who writes about the one who wrote about the one who marches against war

    isn’t that a synonym for “this country goes down the toilet”.

    • mightymark

      Not so long as you get a grip and realise that the numbers indulging in this kind of narcissism are very small.

  • wycombewanderer

    Penny, Toynbee,Jones Miliband, Balls, have they all got history degrees?

    They should have; they’ve revised the subject enough!

  • victor67

    The fact that parliament supported Iraq says more about the vacuous bunch of career politicians who were thinking more about pleasing Tony and climbing the greasy pole than making an informed ,moral decision in the best interests of the country.
    Only a few like Robin Cook who as foreign secretary had first hand experience of the neo-con “crazies” in Washington took a stand. Thats why at their request Blair replaced him with the poodle Straw.
    The current darling of the Tory party , Gove and his Murdoch backers were wetting themselves at the thought of war. As one tipped as the next Tory leader this brings into question his foreign policy views and his willingness to sacrifice lives for ideology.

  • Westlake

    Not a big fan of Ms Penny myself but she does not in anyway claim to be THE REAL victim of the Iraq war, and the writer of this article is being simply dishonest in claiming that she does.

  • Westlake

    Not a big fan of Ms Penny myself but she does not claim to be THE REAL victim of the Iraq war and the writer of this article is an idiot for trying to claim that she does.

  • FF42

    I am not in favour of elected politicians bowing to the whims of the mob but I don’t think you should dismiss opposition to the Iraq War either. In fact there were majorities against the War prior to it starting (63% against to 23% in favour according to this poll and the circumstances that prevailed.

    Tony Blair failed to make the case for war with the public, which is damning indictment of him as a Prime Minister that was about to send soldiers into harm’s way.

    • Phil Ruse

      He quite clearly doesn’t dismiss opposition to the war.

      • FF42

        A large majority opposed is different from “the country was divided…it is simply a lie to suggest that the British people were unanimously or even overwhelmingly opposed.”

        • Fergus Pickering

          But most people were opposed even when Blair made up ever so many porkies.

  • andagain

    A lot of people marched against the ban on foxhunting, too. They had no effect at all. Why did Laurie expect her march to be any different?

    • Nolo servile capistrum

      Good point. I wish someone would put that to penny dreadful. But I suspect we’d get an Orwellian response effectively saying that some causes are more valid than others.

      • OldSlaughter

        I have done. Many times

    • Westlake

      Because she was young and idealistic that is the exact point she is making.

      • andagain

        You mean that she thinks that other people should do as she says because she is convinced of her own virtue?

    • Westlake

      Because she was young and idealistic – that is her whole point.

  • Grrr8

    The parallels between Laurie Penny’s and today’s UKIPers views on parliamentary democracy are eye-watering. Neither group has succeeded in winning any arguments in parliament. So they have proceeded to deny the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy with the claim that the ‘betrayed’ population is behind them and not those lying politicians. Bollocks, I say, bollocks all around. The whines of sore losers.

    • Spammo Twatbury

      We have no “parliamentary democracy” as long as all three parties stand for 98% of the same values and policies, and only two of them ever have a chance of forming a government because of our broken electoral system. What we have is an *illusion* of democracy, where people vote for one set of lizards to stop the other near-identical lizards getting in.

      • Grrr8

        Right, elections don’t happen every few years? People can’t start alternative parties (as have the Greens, Galloway, the parties in NI, the SNP, Plaid Cymru etc), win seats in Westminster etc? Your post confirms my point rather well! Thanks much.

        • Spammo Twatbury

          Man, this debate would work a lot better if you weren’t an idiot. Well done on completely ignoring the point about the broken electoral system which stacks the deck massively against even relatively large parties like the Lib Dems, never mind new ones.

          • Grrr8

            If you can’t make the electoral system work for you, you claim it’s broken. QED.

            • Spammo Twatbury

              It *is* broken. Almost all FPTP systems are, because they lead almost inevitably to a two-party system which chokes democracy to death as parties are pulled together magnetically in pursuit of crucial “centre” votes. But by all means stick with your glib surface view rather than actually look at the reality. I’m sure it makes you happier.

              • Grrr8

                And you stick w/ resorting to personal attacks when your argument doesn’t hold water.

    • madprof5

      Wrong and perverse – UKIP does what it does because it takes parliament as seriously as anyone. It wants to turn out the current office-holders through the ballot box. Whereas Ms P has come to the same conclusion previous generations of leftists have: they don’t have the support for the policies they favor so they feel entitled to pull the whole system down.

      • Grrr8

        So how do you explain their signature policy: a Europe referendum? No need to win any seats in parliament for that. And for the point, why aren’t any UKIP office bearers contesting by-elections?

  • Spammo Twatbury

    While it’s all well and good to have a pop at Laurie Penny’s somewhat inflated sense of importance, I can’t help feeling it’s not very helpful to mock the legitimate disengagement of people from politics that’s so dramatically characterised the last decade or so. THREE MILLION people have given up voting altogether since the Iraq invasion (though doubtless not all for that reason). That’s not healthy for any democracy.

    • ❝ näbD ❞

      493,242 people died in the UK in 2010.
      So about 4.5 million people since Saddam was deposed. Perhaps very few people actually ‘stopped voting’. But yeah – it is doubtful that 3 million people stopped voting because of Iraq.

      • Jamie Tanner

        Moronic point. You neglect to acknowledge that several million over the same time period reached voting age.

        • Hegemony OrBust

          Voter turnout as a percentage of registered voters fell from 1992 to 2001. It actually rose in 2005 and 2010. So, errr?

    • Hugh

      Where does that 3 million come from? The turnout in 2001, before the war, was 59%. The turnout after in 2005 was 61%.

    • sarah_13

      I suppose penny’s argument is that we’d all be better off with saddam left, his sadistic crime family ruling, they would have taken over Kuwait, the Kurds would have had difficulties and likely turkey would have had something to say about that and likely gone in to Iraq, meanwhile Iraq would have developed its weapons over time…. From where I’m sitting Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iirsn, Somalia, Mali etc etc are all chaotic barbaric states jeithe already of in the process of happening. What life changing moment was that? that life is tough, and a lot less tough for us in the uk than in other places, largely because better people before us did fight!

      • Fergus Pickering

        Yes we would have been better with Saddam ruling. And so would the Iraqis. I hesitate to agree with the Penny but I do about that. How many people would he have killed? How many have died since then?

        • Reborn

          I hate to agree with that appalling child on any point.
          However, Iraq would have probably been better under Saddam
          An Iraqi friend who occasionally visits the place tells me the same crooks are running the place, but with the added presence of religious
          However, the Iraq outcome is as nothing to the predictable end result of the wretched “Arab Spring”. The only hope in the whole region is if Egyptian secularists & liberal muslims (if still extant) can get together
          with the army & get rid of the islamist regime.