August 29th, 2013 will surely be seen as a landmark in British, and indeed global politics. For the first time in over two centuries, the government has lost a vote on a matter of foreign policy. A few days ago, Obama announced that he will seek Congress’ approval for military action, and French opposition figures are starting to demand President Hollande do the same. Cameron’s defeat is rightly hailed as a victory for parliamentary democracy. It may also prove the moment I finally lost faith in our political elite.
Up until this point, I have always been able to convince myself that despite the infighting, backstabbing and general nastiness that accompanies the slow climb up the greasy pole, politicians of all parties have genuinely believed that such actions were only necessary because they knew best how to help the country, that ultimately, despite ego and competition, the aim of becoming Prime Minister was to be in a position to do the right thing. And, alongside that, when matters became serious enough, they would act on their conscience, even at the expense of personal ambition. Naïve, perhaps, but not wholly unsupported by evidence. Ed Miliband has this week utterly shattered that illusion.
The problem is not simply the decision to vote against the Government’s motion, though that is questionable enough in itself. Certainly the case for intervention is problematic. For what it’s worth, I am of the opinion that the opportunity for an easy victory in Syria has long passed. Cruise missile strikes are merely a slap on the wrist, and will do little to stop the slaughter – Assad will simply kill with more conventional weaponry. If Assad prevails in the face of limited intervention, Western authority may be weakened. Toppling the regime will only lead to chaos and further bloodshed without a massive commitment of ground forces, for which the West simply lacks the stomach. The motion that was eventually voted down, however, was categorically not a vote on immediate military action, but rather on potential responses – the Government promised to return to the Commons for a second vote before any action was taken. To rule out any military response in the face of crimes against humanity is a strange decision, regardless of residual tensions over Iraq, and raises serious questions about our nation’s moral compass.
The issue is not even that Miliband supposedly reneged on an agreement with Cameron. Indecision (to put it kindly) is hardly admirable, but there is a case for suggesting that the role of a good leader is to listen to his party – faced with opposition, even the prospect of resignations, Miliband could argue he chose not to make the mistake of ignoring popular opinion.
What is sickening, however, what gives the lie to any claim of reasoned decision or principled stand by the Labour leader, is the gloating. To support isolationism, understandable; to listen to others, sensible; to crow over a victory that denies help to the victims of a horrific attack, unforgivable. It is one thing to decide that Britain should play a limited role in the world, to admit we do not have the power to help. It is quite another to then make political capital, in the most partisan way, out of the defeat of a prime minister who believes in trying to do something. Cameron may well be wrong, but it insulting to the victims of Assad’s regime to celebrate, as was the case among Miliband loyalists following Thursday’s vote. Miliband has successfully damaged Cameron’s standing both in the UK and abroad. Yet if he makes it to Downing Street, he will inherit a country vastly diminished. Labour have given the clearest indication possible that they care only for power, not government. “Copper bottomed sh*t” indeed.
Indeed that outburst from Number Ten over Ed Miliband’s alleged betrayal – expressed in the most un-parliamentary language – is far from the normal caged responses of those outwitted or outmanoeuvred in the political arena. From a government usually so cautious in its public statements, this is not only an admission of failure but a startlingly raw, emotional response. The opposition have let down the Syrian people, more concerned with ambition than morality. For all his faults and mistakes, Tony Blair had more political courage in one finger that the entire shadow cabinet today, and as Britain turns its back on the suffering of civilians, it is worth considering the former PM’s words over Iraq:
“And if this house now demands that at this moment, faced with this threat from this regime, that British troops are pulled back, that we turn away at the point of reckoning, and that is what it means – what then?
“What will Saddam feel? Strengthened beyond measure. What will the other states who tyrannise their people, the terrorists who threaten our existence, what will they take from that? That the will confronting them is decaying and feeble.
“Who will celebrate and who will weep?”
We should all be asking ourselves that question now.