It was a rare, refreshing and really quite astonishing sight to see the Labour Party finally resist the militarist temptation that has proven so disastrously appealing during the Blair years, and reject the government’s motion on Syria. Given that some of the same people who had once voted for the Iraq War now voted against the government, it was a bit like watching an alcoholic walk into a bar and turn down a drink.
In doing so, Lord Snooty has suffered a massive blow to his political authority and reputation that may prove impossible to recover from – a blow compounded by the fact that so many of his own party members voted against him. Ed Miliband’s non-participation has also left the Obama administration looking more isolated than the US has done in years, as it prepares to take some kind of military action anyway, with France possibly riding shotgun instead of the Brits.
Cameron’s defeat was partly due to his own mistakes, and his poor performance in the parliamentary debate. The PM is no less hollow and vainglorious than Blair, but he lacks Blair’s messianic self-belief and his snake oil ability to convince an audience and present even the crudest and most ill-informed assumptions as deep insights and wisdom.
Blair’s case for military action in Iraq was just as weak as Cameron’s arguments for military intervention in Syria. The intelligence information he used to justify it was equally vague, misleading and unconvincing.
But Blair was addressing a largely uncritical and credulous audience of Labour loyalists and careerists, backed up Tory warmongers who saw Blair as one of their own when it came to foreign policy. In those days, parliament was still so mesmerised by the post-9/11 terrorwars, and so frightened of backing out of the ‘special relationship’ that that it swallowed Blair’s deceits and avoided asking the hard questions about the consequences of invading Iraq with UN sanction – or ignored those who did ask them.
This time it was different. Lord Snooty was unable to convince parliament that he knew what was going to happen in Syria, or explain why it was necessary to bypass the UN Security Council when the weapons inspectors in Syria have not even finished their investigation.
The government’s ineptitude was summed up by Philip Hammond confusing Bashar al-Assad with Saddam Hussein on Newsnight – a confusion that might better be described as a Freudian slip.
The vote was also a reflection of public opinion, since polls consistently show that the British public is overwhelmingly opposed to military intervention in Syria, and neither the Tories nor Labour are in a position to ignore public opinion right now. Cameron clearly had an exaggerated belief in his persuasive powers, or believed that he could do what he wanted regardless, even if he now says that he ‘gets it’ that the British are not in favour of intervention.
Had Labour supported Cameron, it might well have produced a flurry of high-profile resignations and exacerbated the divisions within the party. To his credit, Miliband asked sensible questions and voted against the government because he did not get sensible answers.
Predictably this decision has been condemned on moral grounds by the Tories and the Lib Dems, and the Scoop Jacksonites who just want to bomb, and keep on bombing, and who interpret any opposition to bombing as ‘isolationism’ or collusion with dictators. Yesterday, I heard Shirley Williams on Radio 4’s Any Questions making the ridiculous argument that the government didn’t intend to ‘bomb’ Syria, it only wanted to carry out a ‘discreet’ strike, such as a ‘government building.’
Sure Shirley. Maybe they should have got the Royal Mail to wrap up a missile and leave it outside Assad’s house, overnight so they wouldn’t wake him. Other commentators, such as Polly Toynbee, have hailed Thursday’s vote as a ‘poodle that roared’ moment, in which Britain’s ‘illusions of empire are finally laid to rest.’
This would be a good thing, if it were true, since these ‘illusions’ have too long provided a justification for militarist adventures that done more harm than good, and we shouldn’t be too worried by the threatening warnings from some American commentators that Britain’s status as a ‘global big hitter’ is now threatened because we will not be joining in the bombing.
Contrary to what some may think, military power is not the only sign of greatness, status or influence. Nor have those who argue that not bombing Syria will encourage the regime to use chemical weapons proven that bombing would have stopped it from doing so. In fact they haven’t even proven that Assad’s forces used them at all, and seem curiously unconcerned by the fact that neither the US nor Cameron wanted to wait for the UN inspectors’ report.
All that is to be expected, and it’s good that this time MPs weren’t fooled, and Miliband didn’t sucumb to such pressures. Nevertheless, ‘end of empire’ pronouncements are likely to be premature, and Labour’s opposition to intervention is more of a tactical decision than a commitment to anti-militarism as a principle. Don’t forget Libya.
Miliband’s ‘hard-headed multilateralism’ does not preclude military action outside the UN, and he has declared explicitly that
The UN security council is the forum in which Britain should seek to make its case to the world, test that case, and where effective alliances should be built. This does not rule out acting without the authorisation of the security council but in accordance with international law, as was the case with Kosovo.
So the Empire ain’t quite dead, and Miliband and Cameron could yet join forces in the future and ride shotgun with the US once again. Nevertheless, the fact that he didn’t do it this time is to be celebrated, and if Miliband really wants the UN to show leadership over Syria, he ought to be encouraged to go further, and call on the British government to use its influence to stop ALL external interference in the Syrian tragedy, and promote a ceasefire that will open the way for a political resolution of the conflict.
Because despite all the horrors we have seen, this, rather than bombing, remains the only hope of preventing them from become even worse.