Last night’s parliamentary result is an absolute disgrace. The motion the government put forward had been discussed with the Opposition, had taken into account their concerns and those of other parliamentarians, and was very narrowly focused on the recent chemical attacks by the regime in Damascus rather than anything wider.
The argument that was made about the 21 August attack was very precise. Somehow since last night, the question of previous suspected attacks has been firmed up into ‘definite’ ones, but until mid-afternoon yesterday, the government’s comment was very specific: the 21 August attack could be attributed, but they did not have the evidence for the preceding ones.
The wider issue of a regime that kills its own people by ‘traditional’ rather than chemical means was not part of the equation. It should be. What is happening in Syria is just appalling, and I hope and expect David Cameron, William Hague and Alistair Burt will continue to argue at the UN, the EU and other international fora for greater pressure and concerted action – because inaction is clearly making things worse. The vote last night was only preparatory, it would (sadly) not have committed anyone to anything. The political process that resulted in a recall of parliament for a meaningless vote will need to be examined; I find it extraordinary that they don’t appear to have done their parliamentary arithmetic first.
One of the major reasons that this vote failed was not anything David Cameron said. It was not the fact that he understands Britain’s duty to support the enforcing of international law. Nor was it that backbenchers don’t like or trust him, or that the opposition made the wrong decision. That reason is Iraq. And not because MPs don’t trust intelligence or legal advice, nor because chemical weapons may not exist. Nor because Russia and China will veto at the UN. The Iraq connection is that Tony Blair stood at the despatch box, explained what he was doing, and asked parliament to vote – and it all went horribly wrong. So any subsequent Prime Minister has to do more.
Engaging Britain’s armed forces (even if ‘only’ from afar) is the biggest responsibility a Prime Minister has, and we should take it seriously too. In this era of mistrust and mixed messages, I think that when prime ministers wish to deploy our forces, they should go on TV and talk direct to us. That is still no guarantee, of course, that the intelligence will always be correct and that the right judgements are made, and that a few missiles will do the job with no harm done other than to what we’re aiming for. But the speech that David Cameron made yesterday was absolutely striking in his openness about the uncertainties, the explanations for why he believed this action was justified, legal and humane, and the difficulties of leadership. I don’t expect making a speech on TV will necessarily change that much (and it should not really be about changing opinion but about information) but I think it would be an honest and direct way to explain the issues rather than by backdoor briefings and parliamentary machinations.
I have long thought that we should be more proactive in Syria. I do not agree that we should only intervene militarily, nor that we should only intervene when – for example – chemical weapons are used rather than guns, shells and knives; it is disgusting that over 100,000 people have died and nearly 2 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries while the ‘good’ international community wrings its hands, and the ‘bad’ international community funnels money, arms and support to a regime that is massacring its own people (whether for their own interests or because it suits them for the rest of the world to look incapable). I have a deep concern that moderate opinion in the region is being pushed ever further away from the rest of the world by the way we seem unable to support their aspirations and their actions in any meaningful way.
Military intervention is hugely difficult. There is no guarantee of success. There is no guarantee that events will turn out the way you expect. Sometimes even winning the war isn’t enough; you need to win the peace as well. But that we as a nation have said we’re not going to bother supporting international laws and norms is a disgrace.