Ten years after millions protested against the Iraq war, author Ian McEwan tells Channel 4 News the marchers were vindicated and beating al-Qaeda is no longer the “struggle of our time”.
The prize-winning author, who set his 2005 novel Saturday on the day of the first protests, explained how the decision to go to war, despite protests that saw around two million people take to the streets on 15 February 2003, was still influencing foreign policy decisions a decade on, writes Kunal Dutta.
The ghosts of Iraq, he says, are evident in the British response to uprisings in Syria and the bloodbath in Mali. “The legacy of Iraq is that sometimes there are things we could do which we no longer can.”
Describing the anti-Iraq march as a “celebration of English eccentricity”, he recalls how his own stance on military intervention shifted as he grew suspicious of US intentions.
In the far-reaching interview, Mr McEwan recounted a night in the run-up to the Iraq invasion that he spent “tossing and turning”, finalising a “peace plan” that he wanted to present to the then prime minister, Tony Blair.
“My idea was that [Blair] should move all his troops out of Kuwait and move them all to Afghanistan before the Taliban resurge there.
“I thought ‘I know the solution’. I can get half an hour with Tony Blair and put to him my peace plan.”
This could, indeed, have come to pass. Mr Blair is a known fan of McEwan’s, and even once admitted to having pictures of the author at his former Downing Street home.
Yet he thought better of it the next morning. “In the cold light of day I thought ‘how on earth did I think I was going to get half an hour with Tony Blair?’ What kind of pomposity was that?
“What were the chances of him even beginning to listen? Plus the army would hate him forever if he had pulled back. No-one ever pulls back an army.”
Today the ghosts of Iraq still influence policy. Mr McEwan feels “disappointed” that the Syria uprising did not elicit a greater “humanitarian effort” but believes that the legacy of Iraq made any sort of intervention impossible.
“The legacy of Iraq is that sometimes there are things we could do which we no longer can.”
Nowhere was this more evident, he argues, than Britain assistance France in Mali. “I think it would be political suicide for Cameron to send in ground troops. Britain has seen so many coffins come back from war and there’s such scepticism. I think when the French pull out, that will be our cue to do so.”
A decade on, al-Qaeda, he says, has been consigned to “pinpricks of nastiness” but is no longer “the struggle of our time”.
“I remember getting a lot of stick five or six years ago saying something disobliging about jihadists. There were voices, particularly on the left, that thought anyone who criticised Islamism was really criticising Islam and therefore racist.
“Well, those voices have gone quiet because the local atrocities committed by Islamists whether in Pakistan or Mali is so self-evidently vile.”
Mr McEwan was one the few voices that originally supported military intervention in Iraq. Much of that, he said, stemmed back to the Salman Rushdie affair, during which time he met many Iranian and Iraqi exiles living under Saddam Hussein.
He was profoundly moved by The Republic of Fear, written by Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, and when the case for war was first presented in late 2002, McEwan says he was “tempted to that camp” by the views of close friends Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen.
But it was the aftermath of the invasion and the chaos of “American self-interest” that forced him to reconsider.
“I can remember seeing an American soldier climbing on top of Saddam’s statue to plant an American flag and I can remember thinking that symbolically was the unravelling of everything.”
Mr McEwan, who voted for the Liberal Democrats in the last election, said Labour leader Ed Miliband was growing “into the job” and that he had his “fingers crossed” for him. Depicting a country of “great inequity” in which elite businesses were profiteering, he has called for the end of coalition politics.
“Let’s either have a Tory government or let Ed Miliband try something different,” he says.
While he condemns the tax arrangements of big businesses such as Starbucks, he argues other global firms like Google and Amazon had become a necessity of modern life and changed the world for the better.
Independent bookshops may be feeling the effect of the digital revolution, but he did not see an end to paper matter. “There’s something about the mass presence of books, the way one is drawn to them; the story they tell – it’s impossible to replace.
“Rather than bookshelves, you could just have one ipad or a Kindle in a house but it would tell you nothing.”
A self-confessed e-reader, he says that the digital word is a natural evolution. “I don’t think [the form] matters. What really matters is still the sentences, the structures of the book, the information it contains or the pleasures it can afford you.”
“I don’t mind that half my books were in digital form. What matters is what someone sitting down with a book of mine might get from it. What they pay for it isn’t so important. If they got it for nothing and loved it then that would be fine by me.”