Democracy is often a messy old business, which is why politicians tend to dislike it so much…it gives too much opportunity for the “wrong” answer. Last night we had a rare glimpse of a “wrong” answer being given, when Parliament defeated the government on military action against Syria, reflecting the British public’s general attitude to intervention in Syria. As Richard North notes, MPs still in their constituencies, closer to members of the public than normal, were left in no doubt at the prevailing mood.
Much has also been made about the shadow of Iraq which hangs over the debate, and it’s worth remembering this from Robin Cook’s resignation speech in 2003 which still resonances today ten years on:
The longer that I have served in this place, the greater the respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people.
On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain.
They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect that they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US Administration with an agenda of its own.
Above all, they are uneasy at Britain going out on a limb on a military adventure without a broader international coalition and against the hostility of many of our traditional allies.
It’s clear and not for the first time that Cameron has significantly misjudged the mood. We’ve had plenty of evidence before about Cameron’s lack of judgement, yet the scale of how he has made a colossal arse of himself this time is quite something. But depressingly it’s been on a subject of utter most importance – the decision on whether to send our country to war – to involve ourselves in a civil war of mind-boggling complexity.
Many see this as a return to the parliamentary democracy that it should be – the legislature keeping the executive in check on behalf of the nation. Douglas Carswell writes in over-excited terms:
Be happy! Parliament works. The House of Commons has made it clear that it will not support UK military action in Syria. And so there will not be UK action in Syria.
For the first time in my adult life, government is being controlled by Parliament, rather than the other way round.
Of course blogs and newpapers [sic] will be full of comment and analysis about what this means for Syria, and David Cameron, and our relations with America. But let us not overlook what this says about our relationship with ourselves – and how we run Britain.
Despite Carswell’s optimistic words we should not kid ourselves. Last night was an exception to the rule; an action that firmly resided in the column marked ‘broken watches are still right twice a day’. Normal default setting of ignoring one’s constituents will certainly resume shortly.
We had some indication of that last night. The British public had made their opposition clear by a margin of over 2:1, yet Parliament defeated the motion by only 13 votes. The government was still able to secure 272 votes for the principle of military intervention – intervention which lacked proof, evidence and was based on a “probability” judgement, hardly a high enough bar to commit British troops to war. Thus while Parliament represented the people by defeating the motion, it did not do so in terms of the scale of public opposition.
Despite the gravity of the situation – a Prime Minster making a case for war – that same gravity was not always reflected in the House of Commons particularly among the leaders of both parties.
Cameron could not in his arguments give compelling reasons why Britain should intervene. Instead of comprehensive details regarding military objectives, military consequences, broader consequences in the region there was instead a statement of belief that we just ought to – topped off with a dash of “think of the children” (Though I cannot confirm whether he was referring to children in Syria or those who surrounded him on the green benches):
The video footage illustrates some of the most sickening human suffering imaginable. Expert video analysis can find no way that this wide array of footage could have been fabricated, particularly the behaviour of small children in those shocking videos.
There are pictures of bodies with symptoms consistent with that of nerve agent exposure, including muscle spasms and foaming at the nose and mouth. I believe that anyone in this Chamber who has not seen these videos should force themselves to watch them. One can never forget the sight of children’s bodies stored in ice, and young men and women gasping for air and suffering the most agonising deaths—all inflicted by weapons that have been outlawed for nearly a century.
This argument is rather offensive. Not only is it an acknowledgment of the lack of detail in the argument thus requiring the need instead to appeal to emotions, but also a less than veiled implication that those who oppose a strike on Syria are in someway not upset by the death of children in war.
And nor does Ed Miliband come out of this smelling of roses. His actions ultimately defeated the government, but he deserves no credit for doing so. Did Miliband support the war or not? Well we simply don’t know. Miliband kept moving the goalposts and playing politics, requesting as he did copious demands from Cameron with assurances of Labour’s support. These demands were met, only then for Miliband to vote against the government anyway. No doubt though he will take the credit – projecting himself as someone with principles – at the Labour party conference in the autumn.
And Nick Clegg? Well he’s Nick Clegg.
Then when the result was announced, much cheering and gloating from the Labour benches (25 seconds in) amid calls of “resign” from those same benches and anger from the Tory benches of “you’re a disgrace“. One could almost forget we were talking about this:
Thus Parliament exerting its will was more an undignified accident than a confirmation that the system works. Then as a consequence of Parliament has a say (god-forbid) we get not a few chucking their toys out of the pram.
Britain has become a nation of crisp-eating surrender monkeys. Gone is the special relationship that meant Britain and America could always count on each other to commit blood and treasure to defending the principles of liberal democracy.
Strange how despite references to democracy one clear example in action has been derided.
Dan Hodges has left the Labour party as a consquence:
for what it’s worth [my view] is it was a catastrophe for the cause of progressive interventionism
Lord Ashdown also wrote to his 8,300 followers: “We are a hugely diminished country this am. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.”
He told the BBC: “Maybe I am just an old war horse from the past but I think it has a profound implication for our country. I think it diminishes our country hugely.
Progressive interventionism? Isolationism? And there was me assuming that on hearing Cameron we were supposed to think of the [Syrian] children, but no it was really all about Britain’s position in the world. Silly me.