Rewriting History: The House of Commons and Intervention in Syria

"I tell them that you said it, they believe that you said it. They don't really believe you said it, they know that you never said it, but it's in their interest to say that you said it" - The Thick of It

The politics of military intervention in Syria is such vintage Malcolm Tucker, you couldn’t make up. The farce of front-bench politics would be hilarious if the subject matter weren’t so serious.

Immediately after Thursday’s debate in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister explained that because no motion had been passed, it was clear that “the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see military action.”

This is the “it” in my Malcolm Tucker analogy. Cameron knew Parliament hadn’t said it, any journalist watching knew they hadn’t said it, Crispin Blunt, Ed Miliband, Diane Abbott – they all knew they hadn’t said it. It just happened that it was in everyone’s interest to say that they had said it.

Rightly or wrongly, the Commons supports military intervention in Syria. The two motions debated, both of which supported military intervention subject to certain conditions, received the support of 493 different MPs.

The two motions are remarkably similar. On the one hand, the Government motion claims a humanitarian response is required from the international community, which may require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons. It also requires a second vote in the Commons before any direct British involvement.

On the other hand, Labour’s motion supports military action only if there is a clear legal basis for military action, if it is proportionate, and if designed to deter the future use of prohibited chemical weapons in Syria. It requires a second vote in the Commons before UK participation in military action. Sound familiar?

The Opposition motion does make further demands: the UN weapons inspectors must have the opportunity to report to the Security Council and confirm that chemical weapons had been used, and there must be compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible. Further, the Security Council must consider and vote on the matter, although there is no requirement for a Council Resolution in favour of intervention.

I repeat, 493 MPs voted for one of these motions. While none of us are in a position to judge whether it was Miliband or Cameron who derailed the negotiations, there is “barely a cigarette paper” between them. A compromise could have been reached.

So why did there follow such a large-scale rewrite of ultra-recent history? It’s in their interests to say that they said it. I don’t buy the line that Cameron appeared weak, or that it was embarrassing to lose the vote. He got his moment of rhetoric and displayed his humanitarian credentials, but then didn’t have do the hard part of following through against the tide of public opinion. To supporters of intervention, he was on the right side of the debate, to opponents, he listened and took heed.

Haunted by the ghosts of Iraq, Miliband had no choice but to accept this rewrite. In the debate, he positioned himself as “even more cautious than Cameron” while not wanting to oppose humanitarian intervention outright. When Cameron flipped his position after losing the vote, Labour could hardly stick to their guns and call for intervention subject to conditions now the Government opposed it outright. Miliband would have been branded a flip-flopper and a warmongerer. So now Labour is accepting the media narrative of itself, that it opposed intervention and “won” a political victory in derailing the Government’s plans.

This political omnishambles will have far-reaching consequences across the world. In a few weeks, when the UN inspectors have reported, and the UN Security Council has voted, all of Labour’s conditions for intervention (according to their own interpretation of legality, proportionality etc), will have been met. 493 out of 650 MPs will have voted for intervention under these conditions.

The will of Parliament has been ignored. As things stand, the British aren’t coming.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Huffington Post website here.

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