On August 29, 2013, Prime Minister Cameron’s coalition government was defeated in the House of Commons on a carefully worded motion, in support of an airstrike on Syria in retaliation for the Assad regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons, ending in what US Secretary of State John Kerry called a “brutal and flagrant” chemical weapons attack, killing upwards of 1,400 people in Ghouta the previous week. No British prime minister had been so defeated on a foreign policy motion for centuries.
The days previous to the Commons debate bore witness to a drum beat of support for action in the media. Foreign Secretary William Hague told the press that diplomacy had not worked, and that the US, France and the UK were clear that they could not stand by and allow chemical weapons to be used “with impunity”.(http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23840065).
Tony Blair, in The Times, called for action to replace hand-wringing. “If we do not intervene”, the UK’s former Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, to support freedom and democracy in Egypt and Syria, the Middle East faces catastrophe.” We cannot remain neutral in the whole region where there is “a life-and-death struggle going on about the future of Islam and the attempt by extreme ideologues to create a political Islam at odds both with the open-minded tradition of Islam and the modern world.”
But the vote went against the government motion by 285-272, ruling out the UK’s participation in US-led strikes. The next day, The Times titled its lead article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, and argued that the result of the vote was a “disaster for the Prime Minister who misjudged his party. It was a disaster for the country, which turned its back on its tradition of standing up to tyranny. It was a disaster for the western alliance, split apart by British failure to stand with its allies. And most important of all, it was a disaster for the people of Syria, who know that they have fewer friends in their hour of need. The worst scenario would be for America also to remain inactive, and thereby “send the clear message that its warnings ,means nothing”.
Richard Haass, President of the New York Council on Foreign Relations, wrote the same day in the FT that “the British Parliament’s rejection of a motion endorsing UK participation in expected military action against Syria is nothing less than stunning. There was an element, he wrote, of anti-Americanism in the vote, laced by the experience of the Iraq war where claims about Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction turned out not to be true. But the main consequences would be a loss of UK influence in Washington and confirmation that Europerans were becoming more parochial and less useful allies for the US.( http://blogs.ft.com/the-a-list/2013/08/30/britain-drifts-towards-isolation/#axzz2deNLHbbo)
Phil Stephens, the FT in-house foreign policy pundit wrote in broad agreement. The Syria vote, he wrote, brings to an end decades of illusion that the UK could still posture as a great power by riding on the US coattails. In the light of dodgy intelligence dossiers, the British army’s hasty retreat from Basra in Iraq, the heavy casualties in Afghanistan, and the deep cuts in the UK defence budget, “the Brits(an IRA invented term) have decided to count the cost of their pretensions.” The vote, Stephens considered, would strengthen the US perception that the UK is an ally pulling back from the world. Having argued over the years for such a posture, Stephens then ends on a plea that Britain should n’t go too far: “ Britain still has a sizeable military, a first-rate diplomatic service and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. To leave behind the delusions that were the legacy of empire should not be to pull up the drawbridge against a dangerous world.” (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2af6babe-117e-11e3-a14c-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=uk#axzz2ddqjl8N6)
Jeremy Shapiro, from the Brookings Institute and a former State Department officer, weighed in with a statement that the vote spelt the end of the “special relationship”. The relationship, wrote Shapiro, was dying in any case. As UK capabilities have been whittled away, the US has turned to other allies for support. In this case, Obama will move ahead as planned, pulling together what diplomatic support he can from France and elsewhere. “For the UK, Shapiro ends, this dust-up should expose the lie that it has a strategic future outside of its co-operation with its EU partners” “In the end, US-UK differences over Syria … may signal to the world that it was already dead.”
In a leader on September 1, the Sunday Times ran a similar article to the effect that Cameron has been right on Syria, but had blundered as a politician. Britain’s standing in the world would suffer for years to come. Cameron failed to explain his changing ideas to his backbenchers, and was too careless to manage the parliamentary process well. Meanwhile, the task of our allies is to go ahead without the UK, while the task of the Prime Minister is “restoring the country to the right path, of returning Britain to an interventionist tradition it should not have abandoned.” In particular, the Prime Minister had to take on the challenge of the Tory party’s Euroscepticism. “…Mr Cameron needs to persuade his own party that to be simultaneously Eurosceptic and unwilling to act together with America is to risk irrelevance. And he needs to do this relentlessly, not just turn to his party when he suddenly needs it.
Cameron came under attack for his failure to win the motion from Fraser Nelson, editor of the conservative weekly, The Spectator. Parliament, Nelson wrote, rejected the Prime Minister’s vision of this country’s place in the world. The evidence on which the motion to act was based was a government dossier, claiming that there had been a “pattern” of behavior by the Assad regime. The government expressed no interest in the expected report of the UN inspectors about the incident. What happened in Ghouta, the Prime Minister told the House, “is a matter of judgement”. As Nelson pointed out, that was not enough to convince the House. The Prime Minister lost because of the weakness of the case, and because of the many pointed questions he could not answer. He lost above all because he could not win the trust of the House: “ Mr Cameron failed that test last night, and it will affect every decision he makes in military matters from now on.”
Jack Straw, the former Labour Foreign Secretary, made a similar case in the left leaning Guardian. Taking his cue from the statement of former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown’s that “In 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed. Britain’s answer to the Syrian horrors? None of our business!” There was nothing to be ashamed about in the vote, wrote Straw, “nor nor should it lead either to any seismic shift in our relationship with the United States, our closest ally, or our active role in world affairs.” On the six occasions since Straw entered the Commons in 1979, when it was asked to endorse UK involvement in military action, there was an overwhelming bipartisan majority. What was different in the vote “was not that MPs had suddenly decided pacifism was the answer, that we should retreat from a dangerous world; nor even that the consequences of Iraq had paralysed the capacity of parliamentarians to make decisions”. The Prime Minister lost because of the weakness of his case. “Britain will remain, Straw ended, one of the closest and most reliable allies of the US, a cornerstone of the western alliance, and even now with among the most effective and active armed forces. Two years ago this same House of Commons approved our action in Libya, which the prime minister had commendably led. It will do so again – when the case is strong, and the strategy is clear.”
An even more triumphant note was sounded by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Daily Telegraph. “What a momentous day for British democracy.” “Britain’s living constitution has been refashioned in front of our eyes”. “The era of presidential rule is over. Parliament has reclaimed the powers chipped away by successive prime ministers, culminating with Tony Blair and the hegemony of spin.” The Prime Minister handled the crisis badly, and failed to wait on adequate evidence. What Washington and London should have done was to build a moral and strategic case methodically, brick by brick. “They should have exhausted the UN channels before uttering a single word about missiles, pushing first for a vote that placed Russia’s Vladimir Putin on the record as the defender of chemical weapons atrocities. America should have used its diplomatic power to put China on the spot, forced to choose whether it wished to be in the same camp as the Pariah Putin, or one step safely removed.” Cameron may well come out of this episode less damaged than assumed: “His behaviour has been civilized, altruistic to a fault. He bent over backwards to secure consent. He gave Parliament the last say. There is no shame in honourable defeat, for an honourable cause.” By contrast, the suspicion is that Ed Miliband played party politics over great power politics and in the face of atrocities. “For Parliament, Ambrose Pritchard-Evans ended, “”it has been a week of triumph. The House of Commons has prevented an historic blunder. It is asserting almost Cromwellian ascendancy, and will not give up this power lightly to Europe’s encroachments.”
Matthew Parris, in The Times, wrote along similar lines that Cameron had struck a blow for democracy”. “Syria could have been another Iraq. Thanks to the just instincts of this Prime Minister, such a mess has been averted. We’re off the hook. When the dust has settled, polls will show that what yesterday’s papers headlined as a big blow to David Cameron has appeared to most of Britain as welcome second thoughts by a prime minister willing to respond to Parliament’s view. Thursday’s debate on Syrian intervention was a fine night for the House of Commons, a useful reality check on the humanitarian impulses of a good-hearted Prime Minister, and a deeply sane occasion. Britain has led. It will later become clear that the Americans, too, have their doubts about attack.”Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, Parris writes, are the architects of David Cameron’s Commons defeat. It was the way they secured the authority to take Britain into Iraq, and the still- reverberating consequences of that decision, that sowed the seeds of this week’s shock assertion by MPs of their own authority.” By contrast, “our Prime Minister has been good enough to ask us if we want to attack Syria. We’ve replied that we don’t, and he’s accepted that.Good for him, and good for the House of Commons. As another Prime Minister (Thatcher) once said: “Rejoice, rejoice!”
What to make of these disparate views? They may be categorized along four lines: the case was inadequately made; the vote was a disaster for the country; what has to be done; and the assertion of parliamentary authority.
The case: William Hague’s main argument for action was that diplomacy had failed, and that chemical weapons could not be allowed to be used with impunity. To which Blair added the point that since 2001, Islam has been wracked by a war in which it was not possible to remain neutral. Fraser Nelson summarized the main point that the government’s case was not strong enough: repeated interventions in the House asked pointed questions about what precisely was the objective of military action; what were the criteria for choosing sides in the Syrian civil war, and in the wider region; repeated references were made to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons was not conclusive. Overall, as Jack Straw pointed out, the House would go to war again, when and if the Prime Minister has a strong case, and makes it in convincing fashion. The vote was no sign at all of UK going isolationist.
A Disaster: The vote was a disaster for the country which had turned its back on a proud tradition of “standing up to tyranny”. This inevitably would lead to a loss of UK influence in Washington, which Phil Stephens first welcomed as a wake-up call for the UK to end its posturings as a great power, only for Stephens to add that he hoped this would not go too far-in other words, that the UK would remain wedded to liberal interventionism in the global arena. Shapiro from the Brookings said in any case the special relationship was dead. Jack Straw robustly rejected the “disaster” argument, made the point that the case for war had not been well made in London or in Washington, and rightly stated that the UK was one of America’s most loyal allies. As for Schapiro’s argument that sentiment does not carry weight, he might ask himself what language he speaks.
Remedial action: The Times suggestion is that the Prime Minister should restore the UK as a liberal interventionist in the global arena. In other words, to the status quo before the Commons vote. Such a proposal clearly illustrates how deeply the liberal interventionist hypothesis has won support in Whitehall, across the political parties and in the media. The assumption in its crudest form was on show in Nick Clegg’s wrapping up speech in the House, where the Lib Dem leader regularly referred to something called international law as existing over the heads of sovereign states. In the view of this writer, such a view is a dangerous fiction: what is not a fiction is the sovereignty of states, and the states’ determination to protect their sovereignty, as the prime defence against eimperialism. Liberal interventionism, if overdone, becomes an imperial doctrine. The House made that clear.
Constitutional: The main result of the Commons vote is the clear and unambiguous assertion of parliament’s traditional powers. That is what created all the fuss. How dare parliament challenge the executive? western policy? a certain interpretation of international law? how dare it question the solidity of President Obama’s case to take action over Syria? But that is what parliament did. And the fall out from that assertion of authority is bound to be played out on the European stage. The only Europe with which the UK can be comfortable is a Europe of the states, co-operating where necessary together, and in which national parliaments are the source of legitimacy. Not only did the House vote prevent an historic blunder. It is also true that Cameron in bowing graciously in defeat has struck a great blow for the UK Constitution, and for democracy. That is the main result of the vote not to go to war over Syria (pending a better case).