So which was it? There are two standpoints from which to view the events in the Commons on Thursday evening.
Either: Last night’s vote in the House of Commons has done more for the reputation of British politicians than any event within living memory. A sovereign legislature, after a lengthy and detailed debate, voted against authorizing the executive to get involved in another war. Parliament did the job it was created for; backbenchers upheld their role as representatives of their constituents and not merely lobby fodder for party whips. Just as important was the fact that the executive accepted that decision and said ‘The people have spoken’.
Or: The leaders of both main parties have proved themselves unworthy of the positions they hold. David Cameron has again shown himself not only out of touch with the country but more seriously for him out of touch with his own party. He was also unable to plan ahead for the duplicity of Ed Milliband who asked for a series of concessions, was given them all, and in the end still voted against the government for party reasons when he realized he couldn’t march all his troops through the lobby. Amongst the minor parties Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems was, well he was just Nick Clegg.
There is, however, another factor to be considered. There are no ‘good guys’ in Syrian, only rival factions of bloody-handed power hungry thugs who are willing to use any means available in their lust to rule the ruins. It is in the face of the complexity of this situation that politicians in the West have failed. As we have seen in the UK, and are seeing now in the USA and France, politicians imagine that clambering on to the high moral ground so as to gain a vantage point in order to launch missiles which will kill civilians is a highly ethical position to take.
The Obama regime will probably launch an ineffective cruise missile attack on Syria in the next few days. In the unmatchable phrase of an unnamed official speaking to the Los Angeles Times, the White House is carefully calibrating a military action ‘just muscular enough not to get mocked.’
Reality has a habit of intruding upon the spin doctor’s fantasy. Sir Basil Liddell Hart, one of the world’s greatest military thinkers said ‘The profoundest truth of war is that the issue of battle is usually decided in the minds of the opposing commanders, not in the bodies of their men’. Bashar al-Assad, having faced an unrelenting terrorist onslaught against his state for the last two years is unlikely to mend his ways because of a few cruise missiles launched at pre-notified sites already ordered cleared of vital equipment and personnel.
It is noteworthy that the debate concerning bombing Syria has so far largely neglected any considerations of the geopolitical impact. What will be the consequences in the Middle East or in international relations? The talk instead is about being seen to make a moral gesture against wrongdoing.
British advocates of bombing bemoan the fact that our standing in the world has supposedly sunk as a result of Thursday’s vote. George Osborne has said the vote meant there needed to be ‘national soul-searching’ over Britain’s role in the world and added that the public needed to question ‘whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system’. Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, said he felt ‘ashamed’ and ‘depressed’ about the failure of politicians to support action. ‘Call me an old warhorse if you wish but I think our country is greatly diminished this morning.’
On the other side of the Atlantic we have the same narcissism. One Democratic member of the US Foreign Affairs Committee has said there might be ‘very complex issues’ in Syria, but ‘we, as Americans, have a moral obligation to step in without delay’. John Kerry says failure to act will call into question the West’s ‘own moral compass’.
In the midst of their narcissism they seem to have forgotten that it’s not all about us, our image, or whether or not our leaders can assume the mantle of morally serious people making difficult life and death decisions.
In one of the most appalling statements concerning the UK’s possible reaction to the situation in Syria Phillip Collins, a former Blair speechwriter, has written that ‘intervention… will mean chaos’. ‘But there is chaos already’ and at least the chaos we might cause will be giving voice to our ‘revulsion’ at Assad’s crimes, a ‘revulsion too profound to be written off as adolescent or unrealistic’. ‘It is important to add weight to our moral impulse’.
From the viewpoint of the pro-bombing faction, now being echoed in the USA, it doesn’t matter what the consequences of bombing will be as long as the West can demonstrate it’s ‘moral impulse’ by a display of military might.
Clemenceau said La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier a des militaries. ’War! It as thing too important to entrust to soldiers’. To quote the inimitable Sir Humphrey Appleby: ‘It’s interesting that nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues, and bishops want to talk politics.’ Perhaps morality is a thing too important to trust to politicians.