The political dynamics of the Syria issue
It was fascinating to see how rapidly Ed Miliband went from hero to zero on the night of the great Syria debate in Westminster. Immediately after the vote, he was the man who had ensured that our democratic parliament had delivered a decision in line with public opinion.
Let’s be clear. This wasn’t a matter of statesmanship. No. Miliband was concerned with keeping his backbenchers on-side (and it was a pity that Cameron didn’t give more attention to the same issue). And Miliband wanted to embarrass Cameron — which he certainly succeeded in doing. So we are looking at cynical party management and party-political tactics, not statesmanship. Miliband’s position was all the less honourable since he seems to have given Downing Street the impression, until the last moment, that he would support the measure. After all, it had been hugely diluted to take account of Labour’s concerns. In a fine turn of phrase, Malcolm Rifkind accused Miliband of “being unable to take Yes for an answer”.
But how quickly the tables turned. Soon the media were awash with stories about the damage to the “Special Relationship”, and to Britain’s standing in the world. And it was all Miliband’s fault, for double dealing, and failing to act on principle. Cameron would go to the G20 event “naked into the Conference Room”, forced to talk about humanitarian efforts and diplomacy, having been neutered in military terms by the Commons vote.
Of course the angst expressed by the commentariat was grossly overplayed. Obama, as I write, appears to be facing difficulties in Congress, and a key reason for that is our Commons vote. We perhaps have more influence than we realise. If anything, we are leading world opinion. Not just Russia, but the UN, the EU and the Vatican have all come out against military action.
But I am struck by the way that our political establishment and the commentariat have lost touch with public opinion. Conservatives, and many in the Labour and Lib-Dem parties, are keen on military engagement, despite the fact that the public remains firmly against. And it is the public — the voters — who will have to pay, some few with blood, but all with treasure. And borrowed treasure at that. It is also the voters who will be invited to re-elect the politicians who have sought to undertake an unpopular military adventure.
Let’s be clear. Of course we all condemn the use of chemical weapons. We all recognise that Sadaam, and Gadaffi, and Assad are (or were) thoroughly evil men. Possibly even clinically insane. But how many of us are convinced that Iraq and Libya are better off now than they were before? How many of us believe that dropping bombs on Syria will actually make things better rather than worse? The strong probability is that if we help to remove Assad, the next Syrian régime will be extreme Islamist. Like the Taliban, it may well keep women indoors, shoot teachers and blow up schools. Is that what we’re prepared to fight for?
This is not a cowboy movie where the good guys wear white hats, and the bad guys wear black hats. It’s a contest between a dynastic tyranny and an Islamist tyranny (as it is also, to an extent, in Egypt), and I don’t believe that we should be taking sides. They’re all as bad as each other.
Cameron’s hope of bringing peace and democracy to Syria by bombing Damascus is looking increasingly forlorn. It is surely the triumph of hope over experience.
Interesting, therefore, that UKIP is the only UK party unequivocally against intervention. And the only party backing public opinion. Voters may remember that in the polls.