If last week’s vote in the House of Commons on the Government motion for UK intervention in Syria showed anything, it is that parliamentary democracy is alive and well and operating in the Westminster. The Prime Minister is absolutely correct in his assessment that the British public is war-weary, and that it does not want to foot the bill, or the body count, that another Middle Eastern war may bring.
When the Parliament votes against the government of the day, especially when that government commands a majority, not only does this provide an unmissable opportunity for political journalists to go into hyperdrive, it also gives provides an excellent case study into the present workings of parliamentary democracy.
Much has been made of Ed Miliband’s behaviour in the days leading up to last week’s vote, and he has been accused in some quarters of flip-flopping on the issue of offering support for the motion to join the US in a Syrian intervention – at first apparently offering his support to the Prime Minister, then cooling that support, before withdrawing it. One much-quoted Conservative source referred to Mr Miliband in the hours after the vote late in the evening of 29 August as a “copper-bottomed shit”, rather ironically mimicking the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker from the satirical series The Thick of it.
Unfortunately for Mr Miliband, the cynical observer would find it difficult to call his performance anything short of a U-turn, which seemed to be based on the initial premise that supporting action in Syria would make him look tough on chemical weapons, tough on the causes of chemical weapons…and when it became clear that the British public, and vast swathes of his own MPs, were not supportive of military intervention – he U-turned.
The assessment that the Labour Leader making political meander across the piste is a fair one, but it is also fair to note that in the end, Mr Miliband – as the leader of the Opposition – did his job. He did so in two ways, first he listened, and was responsive to, the fears and concerns of his party and the public (albeit after making the mistake of coming out too strongly in the first place in support of a government motion that had little rhyme or reason to begin with).
The Government was guilty of assuming, almost automatically as has been the way since the 1990s and the beginning of the era of humanitarian intervention Blair-style, that we would intervene side-by-side with ‘our closest ally’ as fait accompli. Haunted by the spectre of an illegal war in Iraq, Parliament was faced with it’s first exercise in displaying any fabled lessons learnt. Mr Miliband (who was not even an MP when the House of Commons voted to invade Iraq in 2003) was particularly determined in his position that MPs must wait to receive the report of the team of UN Weapons Inspectors in Syria before any decision on military intervention could reasonably be made.
It was in this last regard that Mr Miliband performed his task as Leader of the Opposition most robustly, demanding clear evidence linking the Assad regime to the chemical attacks which resulted in the tragic deaths of so many civilians in Syria. Not only that, but he also demanded a plan from the Government that went above and beyond strike now, work the rest out later. It was a demonstration that the House of Commons still holds the Government to account.
Of course, this leaves more questions than answers for the future not just of British intervention overseas but also for the timeline of action in Syria itself. For all the snide remarks that Britain isn’t a necessary ally in any intervention from US Secretary of State, John Kerry, President Obama has nevertheless scheduled a vote in Congress next week (although he has no obligation to do so), to display to the world that he has the support of US political representation behind him.
Ultimately however, the timing of the vote in Parliament last week was a key indicator that the Prime Minister believed that he had the votes to guide the motion through – that, on some fundamental level, we simply had to engage. As it turns out, he was incorrect. Ten years after the vote to enter the illegal war – times have changed, Prime Minister. Welcome to the game, Mr Miliband.