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.