Syria: the hangover

by Rob Marchant

If Westminster is often a bubble, on frenzied days like last Thursday it becomes even more so. Everyone is waiting for the latest news. What can easily happen, and what seems to have, is for Parliament to forget about the world outside entirely until it is over.

As the Telegraph reports, some Labour MPs, as they left the parliamentary lobby giddy with unexpected victory, were rudely jolted back to reality by pictures of Syrian victims of incendiary bombs, as a reminder of what had just collectively been achieved by voting down intervention, without necessarily meaning to. The hangover had begun.

It is particularly easy to miss the impact of such things in the wider party, the decent people who organise raffles and knock on doors. Over the weekend, I was in touch with two centre-left colleagues (and no, neither was Dan Hodges), one of whom was seriously considering leaving a party of which he had not only been a member for a generation, but had worked for during more than a decade.

The other would have resigned, but it was Saturday and she couldn’t get through to the membership department. Another typical story from one young member leaving is blogged here.

The consequence of Thursday, it seems, is now a leakage of the very centrist common sense the party so badly needs. Perhaps there would have been even more from the left, should Miliband have opted for intervention. We will never know.

When you make a tough decision on a touchstone issue, there is always the risk that you will lose people to the left or right. That’s politics. Miliband’s apparent instinct is firstly to stake out a position more or less in the political middle of his party and tack slightly from it this way and that, to try and keep the party together. We might argue that perhaps it would be better to stand still, but ok.

But it seems that – unless something happens which truly threatens the party and its leadership, like the battle with Unite – in that last moment when he is finally forced to jump one way or the other, one cannot help but feel the instinct is always to rabbit-run to the left.

And that in itself might be understandable to many, were it not for the way that the jump was made in this case. A last-minute change of mind, after Cameron’s meek acceptance of all Labour’s conditions, led to a breakdown of trust which seems to have torpedoed the idea of intervention altogether, quite probably permanently.

We might be on one side of this debate or the other, but what we cannot pretend is that something minor has just happened. That it is an inflection point in Miliband’s leadership, and in British politics, is undeniable (it is, after all, the first time a vote has been lost on a matter of national defence in over two centuries).

What also cannot be denied is that we went from a position with all main parties professing to want to intervene under the right conditions, to a position where intervention is suddenly off the table.

In short, a bungle.

We might care less about Cameron’s bungles; it is merely important for him to stop being prime minister. We should, however, care deeply about Miliband’s, because they may well prevent the former happening.

It might seem to the casual observer that the tyranny of conventional wisdom is leading British politicians to behaviours more worthy of corporate lawyers than of humans. We are over-complicating, hiding behind process, prevaricating to ease our consciences.

So perhaps we should stake out the case for interventionism in very simple terms.

One: an internationalist party does not stand by and permit the slaughter of children in gas attacks. And, as a proud member of an internationalist party, I do not believe Syrian Muslims have any less right to the protection of those few privileged countries positioned to be able to help them than the European Christians we have more traditionally defended at many times in our history. Or European Muslims, whom we saved in Kosovo, or European Jews, to whom we solemnly promised “never again”.

To all those who felt wretched about Bosnia, about Rwanda: the current thin-end-of-the-wedge argument is merely a convenient spectre to preclude us from action against genocide, which we are, incidentally, collectively obliged by the UN to prevent.

Two: because non-intervention gives a green light to dysfunctional regimes the world over to massacre their own populations with chemical weapons with impunity. This is about future deterrence, not just current prevention.

Three: because this is not just something which threatens to make the whole region explode into a conflagration which will make Iraq look like a tea-party. Aside from the clear humanitarian need, it is blindingly obvious that Britain cannot just leave it to “diplomatic, political and other pressure”, because less scrupulous regimes – mainly Russia – are already there stirring the pot. We either stand up to those forces or we do not. Not standing up to them merely emboldens them.

This is not just a challenge by a genocidal dictator. It is also, make no mistake, a proxy challenge by a resurgent authoritarian power, led by a man for whom democracy has been but a brief tea-break in a continuing Cold War. The Russian ship currently on its way to the Mediterranean is not a joke.

Putin’s shameless denial that the attacks were carried out by the Assad regime as is principally an embarrassment for his country, but also shows his pitifully low regard for the truth.

We will be seeing more killing in the coming weeks and months. And if Obama fails to get the support of Congress to stop it, it will not be a “victory for democracy” as eager mouths rushed to describe last Thursday’s events.

It will, simply, be a win for the butcher of Damascus; a win for other would-be perpetrators of genocide. And it will be a win for Vladimir Putin, friend to dictators and anti-democrats everywhere.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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30 Responses to “Syria: the hangover”

  1. David says:

    Its all become a bit of a dog’s breakfast and now both parties are playing politics to stay on the right side of public opinion and international credibility. And trust has been diminished between the parties. And it is from this mess that we have to hope that some agreements can be arrived at and that the right decisions on what to do can somehow be made.

    The reality is that the vote was on an agreement to seek confirmation from various sources about what really happened in Syria and who was responsible, obtain some international agreements and then take a further vote in parliament on whether or not Britain should participate in some form of limited military action (that did not involve “boots on the ground”)

    The success of the No vote is being portrayed as Labour stopping a warmongering coalition from rushing into an unwanted war and opinion polls are telling us that the public believe this and Ed and Labour are being seen as the voice of reason and are benefiting.

    Consequently the coalition are on the back foot and, mindful of public opinion, are insisting that they “get it” and will not be coming back to parliament to ask the same question again, saying that parliament has spoken decisively and Britain will not be involved in any action and will leave it to others in the international community.

    A number of voices in the Labour front bench are coming out and saying that if there is further evidence of atrocities, with evidence, there should be another vote in parliament. Despite the fact that the original vote in parliament was all about waiting for further evidence and international opinion and then taking another vote to determine whether Britain should get involved.

    Now, with the knowledge of where public opinion sits, can anyone see the coalition bringing another vote to parliament, knowing that they can’t trust Labour to support it?? If Ed organises it so that he, and the majority of Labour MPs, vote against and the Coalition win just enough votes to win the vote for Britain’s involvement, then the coalition take all the hit from public opinion.

    Now things like this should be above party politics and short term public support. But can you really see the Coalition allowing Labour to win the battle for public opinion? With the election so close and margins so tight.

    If there is to be a second vote then I think that Labour are going to have to lead and push hard publicly for it to happen and to somehow guarantee that they are going to vote with the coalition. I can’t see that happening. So I can’t see how parliament is even going to consider it again.

  2. Henrik says:

    This is all very interesting, Rob and I do feel your pain. Labour has in the past been a selectively internationalist party and has backed a number of relatively altruistic interventions in foreign parts for idealistic reasons and fair play to the Party for that.

    Those days are over, it appears and seizing short-term political advantage in some sort of pisspot Westminster game is now more important than principle. Fine, at least we, the great British public, at least have one fixed point of reference by which to judge the Milliband Years – he will always put party advantage over idealism.

    Personally, I thought he behaved disgracefully and dishonourably. If he was always going to pull the rug out from under a potential intervention, he should have made this clear, rather than pretending to negotiate with a Prime Minister who was trying to make an argument on moral grounds.

    In case anyone thinks I’m some sort of Tory warmonger, I was a professional soldier for many years, am not convinced by talk of missile strikes or, God forbid, air strikes against a sophisticated, modern air defence environment, but am as confused as everyone else as to what sort of substantive action we in the West *could* take to dissuade Assad and his regime from using this vile technology again; I do think it deeply unfortunate that Labour’s petty party political games have comprehensively limited the British national options in this case – and telegraphed a not very helpful message to our friends as well as that regime.

  3. Ex-labour says:

    Thank goodness someone has recognised the implications of what Miliband did and has said it out loud. He has shown himself to be insular, insipid and untrustworthy. He pushed parliamentary protocol and tradition aside in the quest to look like a leader. But the outcome is that he looks even less like a leader, if that is possible.

    The party under his direction (I won’t use the word leadership) is being forced down the path of oblivion. He opposes every government policy but offers nothing of his own. He is out of touch with the public on every issue including welfare and immigration and now we hear the GMB is pulling the financial plug and we wait to see what Red Len will do in the face of union reform.

    At some point the party members may wake up from their slumbers and do something about it before its too late……but I’m not holding my breath.

  4. e says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    Well clearly you like to lead from behind the more upfront Neo-con neo-liberals, six days after the “touchstone issue” and the worst you can do is support the narrative that Miliband is to blame for the dead – nauseating and utterly devoid of engagement with the 70% of voters against intervention.

  5. Compost says:

    Part of the Syria vote, among other things, that there was too much party-politics involved instead of politicians taking an objective look. Not knowing the full facts (we still don’t) is one thing, but if/when the full facts come out and the UK isn’t there as a force for good, then I think I will feel a little ashamed.

    I never want to see another UK troop set foot on foreign soil in anger, but this vote is breathtaking as it’s a war-crime and not a civil-war issue, and our stance see the UK isolated, when, let’s be honest, the world is of the consensus that Assad has gassed his own people.

    I think Ed attempted to act the statesman and it has backfired. That’s party politics, when whether we intervene in the gassing of children really shouldn’t be a party-political decision. That’s where Ed has got it wrong.

    Oh, and the GMB union just downgraded its relationship with us. Ed had a good week a few weeks back, and now he’s disappeared again. Would I trust him to be PM? I’m not sure I trust him to be leader of the Labour Party!

  6. Henrik says:

    @e:

    Can we please remove our Party blinkers for a moment and consider the objective reality, which I am assured is what Marx would have had us do?

    The Syrian government has perpetrated a particularly disgusting war crime, even by its own very low standards. It is expedient that some sort of action be taken to discourage it – and similar regimes – from doing more of this.

    The action to be taken is to be determined, but may involve some sort of use of force. Personally, I see little point in that, but my judgement is professional; absent a massed and concerted attack on the Syrian state with all that implies in terms of blood and treasure, I see scant utility in a token missile strike; be that as it may, force is an option specifically under consideration.

    Parliament debated the issue and potential responses. There is some Party political back-and-forthing which could be done on whether or not the Prime Minister was galloping ahead of his party and the national mood, but the fact is that the leader of HM Opposition appears, to be generous, to have conducted detailed negotiations with the Prime Minister, giving him the impression that, once all the conditions he imposed were met, he would vote with the government in a vote *not* to exclude force as an option.

    In the event, the Leader of the Opposition clearly made a calculation – a wrong one, to my mind – that he would secure short-term political advantage by reneging on an agreement he had made. This was both dishonest and dishonourable and, it would appear, has signally failed to gain him the advantage he craved.

    So where does this leave Labour?

    Morally busted.

    Where does this leave the Leader of the Opposition?

    Ditto.

    I’m glad there are people in the party who feel this was some sort of a triumph, I applaud their devotion and loyalty while venturing to question both their moral compass and their judgement.

  7. Leslie48 says:

    Thanks Bob for putting the case for those in the party- deeply wounded by last week’s inaction. Nothing else needs to be said – I am personally teetering on leaving the party but my upbringing, my education and my sense of justice about what the UK is now like under the Tories is stopping me at the moment . What hurts most is not just what Labour MP’s did last Thursday – its the consequent gloating by some that somehow in the face of this horrific war crime using gas on citizens we see Labour bloggers seeing it as something victorious; far from it this was one of the most serious political errors this party has committed for many years. These bloggers know nothing about gas, war crimes, the UN conventions and the international community.

  8. @David: agree with yr conclusions.

    @Henrik: no don’t think you’re a “Tory warmonger”. It’s actually quite nice to have comments from someone with a clue about geopolitics and military ops. I am not sure you are right that Miliband was deliberately calculating, but he really should have seen the importance of cooperating with Cameron and allowing trust to develop on a matter of vital national interest. It was a fumble, just as “essay crisis” Cameron fumbled the parliamentary arithmetic. I just care more about a Miliband fumble.

    @e: we do not, last time I looked, make public policy on the basis of opinion polls, I’m afraid.

    @Ex-Labour: I wouldn’t go quite that far, but he certainly didn’t engender trust when it was vitally important.

  9. paul barker says:

    The moral bankruptcy of the modern Labour Party can be traced back to the election of Blair as leader. Its ironic that he did so much to bankrupt you financially as well.
    The crisis in The “Labour Movement” that will deepen over the next year will expose not just your shaky finances but just how little there is holding you together.

  10. steve says:

    So concerned for the welfare of civilians that Al Qaeda affiliates become the preferred ‘boots on the ground’ option?

    My goodness – it’s a funny old world, eh Rob?

  11. e says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    Your assertion that Labour doesn’t make public policy on the basis of public opinion is good to hear, albeit a wonder. Take a look back at Labour Uncut blogs, on for example the subject of social security, and chew over how dependent argument for chosen policy direction is dependent on the weight of uninformed public opinion.

  12. Mike Homfray says:

    Ma

  13. swatantra says:

    For the first time EdM actually speaks for all Britain, except for the minority of war mongers. Maybe he adopted that stance on noninterference because of Party divisions, but the fact is it is the right stance to take.
    It is frankly ridiculous for the USA or France or Russia to trake a holier than though attitude on this issue. If concerted action is to be taken then it should be taken by the UN, and not unilaterally.Dave thought he could grandstand on this issue by recalling Parliament but its his actions that have back fired. EdM did the right thing and speaks for Britain.

  14. Henrik says:

    @swatantra: the UN has no role to play because it’s utterly stymied. Two of the permanent SC members will veto any resolution for action. The UN doesn’t have the greatest record for resolving international disputes, in any case.

    As noted above, the vote was not a binary attack/don’t attack – it was a vote clearing the way for consideration of the use of military force as one of a range of potential responses to the disgusting atrocity in Damascus.

    …and, yeah, I know there are plenty of “what about’s” you can play into the argument, but the fact is that, thanks to the media, Syria is the current ball in play.

  15. @swatantra

    Two points:

    1. To quote from Anthony Wells: “By 48% to 31% people would support the USA being allowed to use British bases in Cyprus, 70% think we should share intelligence about Syria with the US, 64% that we should support any attack diplomatically at the UN. It looks as though it is British involvement people oppose, not an attack per se.” What Ed Miliband accidentally gave support to was not “war” (though I should like to know how it is “warmongering” to try and bring one to an end) but British isolationism, as your repeated invocation “speaking for Britain” sort of shows.

    2. Should it not be the role of a party leader to persuade people of his views, rather than simply presume that they are right? EM did not even attempt it.

    3. All of those “holier than thou” nations are on the UNSC. Say no more.

  16. (Three points, not two!)

  17. @Compost: quite.

    @Leslie48: very sad to hear. Don’t leave, we need people like you.

    @e: so we agree. Odd how you don’t see that as inconsistent with your first comment, though.

    @swatantra: think we usually agree on a lot, but this time I fervently disagree with you, I’m afraid.

    @MikeHomfray: I’m not your mum.

    @MarkCrawford: your point 2 was ably made by David Aaronovitch this morning.

  18. Tafia says:

    Well there is further evidence tonight by golly!

    The Daily Mail runs with pictures of the rebels executing prisoners of war and organ eating yet again, while Sky News shows footage of rebel fighters executing all truck drivers on the Turkish border who aren’t sunni muslims.

    I look forward to Cameron demanding the rebels are bombed.

  19. steve says:

    Tafia: “I look forward to Cameron demanding the rebels are bombed.”

    There is an alternative to the bombing the rebels, even if they are Rob’s new best friends and that is Western boots on ground.

    There won’t be much opposition to Western boots on the ground if it looks like the rebels are about to win possession of some/all of Assad’s chemical arsenal.

    In for a penny, in for a pound.

  20. Les Abbey says:

    So just out of interest why didn’t Cameron accept the Labour amendment? Of course we can guess that he saw it as removing flexibility from his decision making ability. Then again the amendment seemed to lack tightness in imposing a UN restriction on action. At least Cameron could have got his second vote in this way.

    The attacks on Ed Miliband by Progress and the Blairites seems to be rather unfair when the obvious miscalculation was by Cameron himself who should have realized he wasn’t going to get the votes he needed. For Miliband to insist on restricting Cameron’s options to start bombing Syria is just a lesson learned from recent history over Blair’s dishonesty regarding the Iraq invasion.

  21. swatantra says:

    Its an Act of War for a State to attack another sovereign State. As far as I know the Syrians haven’t attacked Britain or harmed British Citizens unlawfully, or our Embassies abroad, or our interests. So where is the justification? In international Law its up to the UN to deal with this matter. An Obama attack on Syria will simply compound the problem.

  22. e says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    Yeah we agree Miliband had the right and duty to act on the fact that Cameron was relying on convention past its usefulness in a world post the Iraqi war and loss of balance in world powers to carry on business as usual; and that he succeeded in calling the Government to account, as is his job.

    Government lost, Parliament won.

    And we can agree neo-cons and neo-liberals like to “keep it real”. But no new arguments had been marshalled in anticipation of the loss in parliament, so mudding the waters with calls for Miliband’s head was the ‘chosen’ way to go – preferable to facing up to “a moment”: a clear view of the ugly reality decades of blindly following the doctrine of others has created.

    Seems to me our parliamentary system has allowed possibility to prosper (just a little). Good, because yesterday’s way (your’s and Cameron’s) is evidently not cutting it.

  23. Ex-labour says:

    @e

    The problem with your point is that Milibean never intended to take intervention off the table, now he has backed himself, Labour and the country into a corner and based on his protestations he now claims that was not his intention as he desperately scrambles to change his position.

    He was of course playing politics and he screwed up. I think it’s called being hoisted by your own petard I.e. injured by the device that you intended to use to injure others.

    Epic fail.

  24. Henrik says:

    @steve:

    “There is an alternative to the bombing the rebels… and that is Western boots on ground.

    There won’t be much opposition to Western boots on the ground if it looks like the rebels are about to win possession of some/all of Assad’s chemical arsenal.”

    I’m sorry if what I’m about to type offends, which it might – it’s not intended to, but for sheer wrong-headedness and ignorance, that comment is hard to beat.

    Leaving aside the logistic challenge of actually putting Western boots on the ground in sufficient force to defeat both the Syrian Army and the inevitable local muj, to say nothing of the international jihadis who would flock to the region in order to defend yet another Muslim nation being invaded by the West, perhaps you could explain why you think it’s a good idea for our troops, French troops, American troops – every one of whom is someone’s son – to throw themselves into an unwinnable conflict against a capable, motivated and well-equipped enemy for no conceivable reason, with no prospect of winning and every prospect of humiliating defeat?

    If – and it’s a big if – the determination was made that Syria needed to be assaulted, defeated and occupied a la Iraq 2003, do you have any idea at all of the scale, cost and risk involved? Please believe me when I tell you that we’re talking Gulf War One – plus; that’s hundreds of thousands of troops with all their equipment, massive amounts of airpower – and no clear way of entering, unless through a contended landing on the Mediterranean coast. I can’t imagine the Turks, Jordanians, Israelis or Iraqis allowing transit of invading troops through their territory, can you? Bear in mind all this would be without the Sacred UN Mandate which is so close to so many peoples’ hearts.

    As to Assad’s chemical arsenal, well, he does have one, it’s significant and it’s designed to be delivered by artillery or aerial bombardment, that’s how you do chemical warfare. It’s a mass weapon, best deployed for strategic effect through military systems. The rebels might gain possession of some warheads, might gain possession of some ground-based delivery systems, they might have the skills and knowledge to use them and, well, so what? They might be able to secure some tactical success in individual instances, but strategically, this stuff isn’t a war-winner.

    The rebels are pretty well-equipped, although it’s clear they’re losing. The FSA is irrelevant and has been largely disarmed by the Islamist types (hence why they’re pretty well-equipped). My guess is that Assad will remain in power and, actually, in realistic terms, that’s probably the least worst outcome to all this, given that Syria was never going to become a liberal, pluralistic social democracy.

  25. e says:

    @ Ex-labour says

    Miliban hasn’t taken anything off the table. The only thing he categorically apposed was Cameron’s/the plans rushed timescale. The rest was Parliament’s doing. And what you see as Labour and the country backed into a corner, I experience as embarrassment. I’m embarrassed to witness the farcical state of uk/US foreign policy, on shown as it is, in all its ugly nonsensical glory.

    What a shower of a government we have……

  26. steve says:

    @ Henrik

    “explain why you think it’s a good idea for our troops, French troops, American troops – every one of whom is someone’s son – to throw themselves into an unwinnable conflict ”

    No mate, I did not say I think it is “a good idea”.

    A good idea would be a ceasefire.

  27. Tafia says:

    @Henrik – “My guess is that Assad will remain in power and, actually, in realistic terms, that’s probably the least worst outcome to all this”

    Is the correct answer. And that is geo politics. You never get the outcome you want and only fools try. You have to be pragmatic and choose the least worst option and in the case of Syria that is Assad.

  28. Ex-labour says:

    @e

    You either have not been paying attention or understood the chronology of events. According to politico’s in the know, Milibean agreed to support the government during a meeting with the PM. Then he changed his mind and demanded concessions in return for support of himself and Labour, which the government gave during the parliamentary debate. Despite this Milibean ordered Labour to vote against the government amendment, which was almost identical to the Labour amendment anyway !! This effectively stopped any prospect of intervention.

    So when you say “parliament” it was actually the duplicity of Milibean. Realising he screwed the government and himself and his party he rapidly tried to “clarify ” his position saying he did not mean to have intervention taken off the table.

  29. e says:

    @ Ex-labour says

    My attention and understanding allows me to escape the notion that “politicos in the know” are reliable sources from which to derive an unquestioning opinion.

  30. Ex-labour says:

    @e

    The information has come from MPs and party aides of all political colours along with respected journalists. Are you so arrogant as to believe you know more than they do.

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