UK’s Syria vote will live for generations

Thursday night’s vote in Parliament, completely ruling out any UK involvement in military action against Syria, will have ramifications for generations. It is just unfortunate that some of the UK’s political and would-be political leaders were too incompetent to see it.

Firstly, it has hugely significant constitutional impact. The Convention is now established that the PM has to seek Parliamentary approval for military action of any significance (in other words, that the monarch’s prerogative for declaring war has passed from the Executive to Parliament). This has wide-ranging practical consequences.

Secondly, this will fundamentally alter the UK’s position in the world – probably for the better. Essentially, it means the UK’s political leaders and diplomats will have to change their negotiating technique in foreign affairs fundamentally, to be much more reflective of UK public opinion (which is generally less hawkish and more insular). As a consequence, the UK will begin to develop its own foreign policy, often markedly at odds with that of the United States (although who knows how its Congressional vote will turn out this time). I would argue, for what it is worth, that this will give the UK more influence, not less, because it will no longer be assumed, even broadly, that the UK will necessarily follow the American line.

Thirdly, it will end the nonsense about the “Special Relationship” and the UK’s world power status. The vote on Thursday didn’t diminish these, it merely confirmed they had been long diminished in the terms in which too many people thought of them. To be clear, there is a “Special Relationship” between the UK and the United States – but it is based on trade links, a linguistic bond and (as was proved dramatically within 48 hours of the vote) broadly common democratic values rather than on inept joint military interventions (UK and American joint military operations are, after all, a comparatively recent thing, post-dating even the Falklands War, which was within most people’s lifetimes); and the UK is still a significant global player – but this is based not on its relationship with the United States but on its own global/imperial history, its own permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and its own cultural reach. Sir Peter Ustinov once warned that while the Americans speak English, they are governed like the French and they eat like the Germans – the United States is a wonderful country, it is a friendly country, but it is still a foreign country, and Thursday’s vote confirmed as much.

Fourthly, and no less relevantly, it was democracy in action. In a functioning democracy, the Government should be defeated in Parliament fairly frequently, otherwise there is something wrong with the system. The UK is slowly (as in tortoise-like slowly) getting used to coalition government after three landslide Labour majorities – but it is coalition government, not landslide majorities, which will become increasingly frequent as voters desert the main parties. This will restore the primacy of Parliament as a chamber not just for voting but also for debate. Be in no doubt, this is a good thing for democracy in the UK.

For what it’s worth, one area where the vote will not have ramifications is the next election, which will probably see the Conservatives remain the largest party. The PM himself will hardly be affected. After all, it was David Cameron who said it was for Parliament to decide, and when it decided he accepted the decision.  Yes, he bungled the whole thing a bit by promising the Americans too much in advance and rushing the return of Parliament. But Labour’s motion was defeated too and, frankly, hands up who honestly thinks Ed Miliband would handle things with any less dithering and incompetence…

Of course, subsequent events have shown that Thursday’s vote saw the UK fundamentally influence the US President’s policy for the first time probably in decades. “America has no truer friend than Great Britain” may be right, but friendship has to cut both ways.

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5 thoughts on “UK’s Syria vote will live for generations

  1. madhava says:

    If free and fair elections in syria were to be held , Bassar assad would most likely win 65 percent of the popular vote . Why would the uk government want to support these fundamentalist and terrorists who are ruining the great nation being backed up by the west . Devide and conquer . Here goes again .

    • Chris Roche says:

      Mulroney says:
      re FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS. Sinn Fein won a free and fair election in the General Election of 1918, but the British government treated the Irish people’s democratically attested wish for an independent Irish parliament with contempt, and instead placated the unionists in the arse-end of the province of Ulster. The result being endless depravity of Pullie road rape exercises grotesquely masquerading as parades giving vent to cultural expression, all because Northern Ireland is an economic basket case dependent on British pocket money to keep body and soul together…and because the PULs are being swallowed up by a vibrant, well-educated nationalist majority, who regardless of whether or not they support a united Ireland at this juncture in history, would rather eat raw sewage than vote for the DUP__ or any of the mickey mouse unionist parties either. Sinn Fein may not be an irresistible national political force yet, but they are undoubtedly Cock of the North! Democratic, Free and Fair 1918 is back with a vengeance, Pullies!

      • That’s one reading of it.

        Another is that, across the existing United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, those opposed to Irish independence won comfortably.

        Even within Ireland, the electoral system skewed the outcome in terms of seats in SF’s favour. They did not, in fact, muster even a majority of the available actual vote.

        And of course, the north east of Ireland, already identifiably separate through Protestantism and industrialisation, was overwhelmingly anti.

        So, far from clear cut.

        Meanwhile, seventy years later people were overwhelmingly content with what we have now – joint nationality, UK sovereignty, compulsory power-sharing, cross-border bodies.

  2. The Listener says:

    Ian, this is one of your best, if not the best commentary! So democracy, or something like it prevails.

    There has been much mention of the shadow of Iraq, which I believe was a just, if unwise war. Where it went wrong, was the fact that the U.S.A. insisted in the destruction of the Iraqi armed forces and the Bathist Party thus leaving a political and military void. The military expediency of sending messengers to formations which awaited coalition attack inviting them to disappear meant that he Shia soldiers generally made their way home but leaving huge quantities of arms unguarded and available for anyone who cared to take them. There were insuffucient coalition soldiers around to collect them. This was due to Rumsfield’s idea that the operation should be lean. When the UK elements arrived in Basra there was no brown envelope with further instructions. The governance of Iraq immediately after cessation of hostilities was initially a shambles.

    How thick of our current politicians to think that we should endorse what appears to be an open ended military action whereby we lob a few missiles with perhaps unintended consequences. Where it is just a possibility that there might have to be some boots on the ground, perhaps Turkish or Sunni Arab, all mixed up with raving extremists within the so-called Free Syrian Army.

    In WW11, British and Free French forces attacked Syria, then held by Vichy France, and prevailed. It can be done but at what cost, and with a large force, from where you may ask?

    If our political leaders, and better so, if the Russians were on side, could have spelt out sensible proposals, with sufficient force, from a coalition of the willing, on the ground, to suppress the Assad regime, take and neutralise the chemical weapon stockpiles, and have the endurance to protect all the antagonistic elements from eachother whilst creating a new, free and democratic Syria then the grounds for a just war for the sake of humanity would possibly be politically acceptable. For those of us who live relatively comfortable lives to turn our backs on what is for many a holacaust situation, is troubling.

    • Many thanks for your kind words – and I agree entirely, the idea that we should/will have to just stand aside and watch is certainly not one worthy of celebration. I was appalled by the MPs who seemed to think it was.

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