1 Sep 2013

How democracy stopped the UK entering the Syria conflict

So now even Obama is to consult the American people through their elected representatives.

This has been an extraordinary time to have been looking in on the Syrian debacle, and particularly Britain’s vote, from abroad. David Cameron should take comfort from the fact that he is widely admired for actually having asked the “people’s representatives”, whether the people – their constituents – actually support military action against Syria.

Britain has been continuously at war now for longer than any period in the last 100 years.


All these wars have boasted some “democratic” undertow in the reasoning for our engagement. In Afghanistan we have endured 12 long years of combat, in part to “bring democracy” to this “failed state”.

So feeble were the grounds for taking UK forces to war in Iraq, that “intelligence” had to be “invented” in order for British MPs (many of whose constituents were already on the streets in active opposition) to vote in favour of war.

In Libya no one asked, because beyond a few special forces on the ground, our war would only involve bombing key installations to smithereens from the safety of the sea or the air.

The enduring shambles in Libya was reported in the FT to be costing the country losses of $100m a day. The Libyan government is losing the war with the militias, and oil production has fallen 75 per cent since we bombed Gaddafi out of his loathsome palaces.

And so we are where we are. And cometh the many times postponed hour on Syria, Mr Cameron holds true and consults MPs.

The starting cannon for a vote for war is fired by none other than former prime minister Tony Blair, four square in favour of an attack on Assad’s assets.

Video map – Inside Syria: Channel 4 News reports from a bloody civil war

Mr Blair was of course loudly supported by his former political cheerleader Mr Alastair Campbell.

The great democratic ethic that the UK has for so long advocated for others is tested, and a majority of the people’s representatives say “no”. Almost immediately the vote becomes described not as a remarkable, historic vote against another “war of choice”, but as a “shambles”.

Any of us who have reported democratic processes across the western world know how easy it is for us to reduce their core intricacy to a degree of chaos. That is the true beauty of the beast. Ministers didn’t hear division bells, MPs were in the lavatory, and people didn’t “turn up”. No.

There was a huge vote… more than 500 of our “representatives” DID vote, and by a margin of 13, voted “no”. That IS democracy. That IS the philosophical touchstone to which all our lives in Britain are hitched. It spoke.

Yet, suddenly the issue is not the sumptuous reality that until today, almost alone amongst western democracies, the political will of the people was tested; the issue is somehow that the people’s representatives have dramatically damaged the vast strategic interests of this country’s capacity to join upon every ill-conceived military adventure hatched in Washington DC.

Viewed from abroad, this is a proud moment. Conceivably, as the late lamented Seamus Heaney wrote, “a history changing moment”. In the abroad, it has not gone unnoticed that the British poodle has let slip its star-spangled collar.

The people themselves – through their representatives, have made a decision about the “national interest”.

Syria is a devastating tragic mess. A mess in which some of our own people, young British jihadis, are already at war, armed and fuelled by countries like Saudi and Qatar, with whom the British enjoy vast defence contracts. The British people were asked in the light of the ghastly evidence of gas attacks, whether we should add more to the carnage.

On Saturday, the FT’s respected Middle East writer David Gardiner put it this way: “..even when force is used for ostensibly moral reasons, there is something basically immoral when its geo-strategic purpose looks like the equivalent of a drive-by shooting, a sort of drop-in cruise missile strike”.

Britain is now in a position to deploy humanitarian, political, United Nations muscle, without the compromise of military engagement. This is a far from immoral place to be. The British government has a new chance to use the strength this position gives them to useful and positive effect. There are enough people in Syria killing people; British MPs, informed by their constituents, have determined that our forces should not join them. That’s democracy!

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