“Not This Time”: A Vote That Could Change A Nation:

“The British aren’t coming!”. That was the headline on the front page of the New York Daily News on Friday 30th August. The previous evening, the UK Parliament had voted by 285 – 272 against intervening in the Syrian conflict. If President Obama decided to attack the Assad regime as retribution for its alleged use of chemical weapons against the rebels in the Damascus suburb of El Ghouta, it would be without British participation.

Most of the UK media has depicted the defeat of the Coalition Government’s motion advocating the “principle” of military action against Syria as a massive humiliation for Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat Deputy, Nick Clegg – as well as unintentionally “reviving the political fortunes” of Labour leader Ed Miliband. The “Mail Online” concluded that Cameron’s authority in Parliament and on the world stage had been dealt “an unprecedented blow”. After the result was announced to “a shocked House of Commons”, several Labour MPs called on him to resign – though No 10 Downing Street made it clear later that he had no intention of doing so.

The “Mail” also pointed out that the last time the House of Commons voted against the incumbent Government “on an issue of war and peace” was on February 27th 1782, when the then Prime Minister, Lord North – who (under pressure from King George III) wanted to  suppress the American colonies’ fight for  independence – was defeated by 19 votes. The only other similar occasion in recent history (as noted by the Daily Telegraph) was during the 1956 Suez crisis when the Labour Party opposition refused to support the occupation of Port Said in Egypt by British (& French) troops.

 The Telegraph interpreted the fierce and sometimes acrimonious debate in Parliament as highlighting “ the deep mistrust of official intelligence following the Iraq war” – a theme also taken up by the Los Angeles Times, which declared that “Political and public opposition in Britain to a strike against Syria has been fuelled by bitter memories of the decision to join the US in its 2003 invasion of Iraq, based on false claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction”. The Mail agreed that “The shadow of Tony Blair loomed large over the proceedings, with speaker after speaker referring to the mistakes and misinformation of the Iraq war”. The newspaper also quoted both the view of  Lord Dannatt (former head of the British army) that “The British public didn’t like the drums of war beating so loudly” and the contrasting opinion of Lord Howard (a former Conservative Party leader) that “We are in danger of allowing the US and France to act as the conscience of the world while the UK stands on the sidelines wringing its hands.”

The extent to which the “momentous night” of 29th August might diminish the UK’s global status and undermine the “special relationship” with the USA has indeed featured prominently in the subsequent media analysis. According to “The Independent”, Cameron’s foreign policy is now “in disarray and new questions will be raised over his leadership”. In an article captioned “Perfidious Albion hands Assad a spectacular victory”, The “Times Of Israel” proclaimed that the Syrian President “must be delightedly flabbergasted at how spectacularly wary the once mighty Britain has become in utilizing force to uphold even the highest moral imperatives” and lambasted what it perceived as the “perfect storm of British ineptitude & gutlessness” which had sent “ the wrong message to the butcher of Damascus”. It also remarked that Tony Blair still doesn’t understand that “ he is so disliked and mistrusted in the UK that any cause he espouses tends to suffer, not benefit, from his support”.

Meanwhile, the former Liberal Democrat Party leader, Paddy Ashdown, told the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme that he has “never felt so depressed and ashamed of  his country”. Britain (he believes)  “is in danger of plunging towards isolationism”. The House of  Commons (he surmises) is now “led by a group of Conservative MPs who want us out of Europe and have broken our relationship with the USA”. Also that Presidents  Assad & Putin – as well as UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) leader Nigel Farage – “must all be cheering what happened in the House of Commons on the 29th August.

Two of the left-wing “Guardian’s” main columnists (Simon Jenkins  & Polly Toynbee) have taken a somewhat different position. “The idea (wrote Jenkins) that a region afflicted by decades of sectarian conflict will be driven to peace and democracy by a few Tomahawk missiles is absurd.” And who (he asked) was it that Cameron wanted to see take over? Hezbollah or a new (and probably no less brutal) Sunni supremacy? For Toynbee, “nothing may ever be quite the same again”. The 29th August vote constituted ” a long-delayed acceptance that Britain is less powerful and poorer than it was, weary of wars and no longer proud to punch above its weight”. Why (she mused) do we “continue to spend more than comparable countries on defence?” Why do we (and France) still squat in UN Security Council seats? What is the point of  the  Trident nuclear defence system, dependent entirely on the closest allegiance to America?

This latter point will resonate especially with the many people in Scotland who would like to see the Trident naval base in Faslane – just 25 miles west of the city of Glasgow – dismantled or moved down to England. A “YouGov” poll for the “Sun” newspaper published on 27th August indicated that 74% of those questioned were opposed to any British involvement in the Syrian conflict. Just 25% in the whole country – and 22% in Scotland – were in favour of missiles being fired from British ships in the Mediterranean against military sites in Syria. The House of Commons decision could even influence the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum on 18th September 3014. If the voters there feel they won’t be embroiled in further “unnecessary” foreign wars, they might decide to remain in the UK. On the other hand, they could conclude there’s little point belonging to a Union that they consider no longer exerts any meaningful influence  on international affairs.


Filed under: Politics | Posted on September 2nd, 2013 by Colin D Gordon

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