The Parliamentary debate on Syria has been an unedifying spectacle of incompetence and the scramble to secure the support of public opinion. Nowhere amongst the leaders of any of the main parties has there been a whiff of integrity. The prime minister has spectacularly misjudged his own party but has also failed to provide a compelling vision. A vision of how a limited strike against Assad, for acts of state sponsored terrorism against his own citizens, will improve matters for ordinary Syrians.
Mr Milliband has dithered to a position, which in the short term seems to be benefiting him. Starting from surprisingly strong support for the Government to a second position of significant caveats through to whipping his party to vote against an intervention. At best you can say he has read the mood of his backbenchers and tacked accordingly.
Considering the gravity of the issue neither the PM nor the leader of the opposition have adopted a position of principle and stuck with it. In 1960 Hugh Gaitskell lost a vote at the Labour Party conference on unilateral nuclear disarmament. He Did not say that he now “got it”. He did not extol the virtues of debate and the benefits of Party Conference democracy. His response was that he would “fight,fight and fight again…”
At the time it was an incredibly divisive debate and did have implications for Britains defence posture. However it was not about immediately committing the UK to military action in a foreign theatre. If the PM comes to the view that that there is sufficient reason to contemplate this then he should not accept a defeat in the Commons as the end of the story. He should fight to reverse the decision or resign. Acts of war, which this would be are probably the most significant single decisions a prime minister makes. When they come to that decision, putting British lives in harms way, they need to be certain that what they are proposing is critical to British interests.
Britain is a Parliamentary democracy, not a democracy run by parliament. Parliament is a safety valve, a way of voting down a government which is doing something they deem unacceptable. When voting down a government MP’s minds are focused by the reality of a consequent election. It is said the House was stunned when the vote was announced. Clearly the result was not expected or wanted by David Cameron. We will never know but one suspects it was neither expected nor probably wanted by Ed Milliband.
I do not know whether we should have engaged in the current action to deter Assad in the use of chemical weapons against his own people. However, it is probably only a matter of time before we (the West) has to intervene in the Middle East. Syria is not an isolated problem, it is part of a region which is being torn apart by the religious schism between Shia and Sunni Muslim believers. Behind them are global powers with their own agendas and interests. There are a wide range of economic and security interests the UK has in the region which means almost inevitably we will have to engage.
The poor judgement of a Prime Minister casts a long shadow. The Iraq war was an unmitigated disaster albeit its citizens were subject to the same oppression by an odious tyrant, one who incidentally used nerve gas against his citizens in the Al-Anfal campaign in the 1980’s with impunity. Accepting Mr Blair acted in good faith then he is guilty of making one of the worst judgement calls in British Foreign policy, one which has reverberated through the current debates and one which may have fatally undermined Britain’s ability to develop an effective foreign policy for years to come. Mr Cameron’s judgement call was almost as bad and has compounded the problem. Many would argue that his handling of domestic policy is not right but it is at least arguable. His handling of foreign policy and defence is a disaster.