Syria, Parliament and the local MPs who want it all ways

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Where do local MPs stand on the issue of intervention in Syria after Thursday night’s votes in the House of Commons? In some cases, it is hard to say, writes ANDREW PELLING, especially for the MP who voted both “Yes” and “No”

Much of the national newspaper analysis of Thursday night’s parliamentary votes on whether Britain should intervene in Syria over the use of chemical weapons was about who is “up” and who is “down” and who is going to lose their job for missing the votes or for not organising the Tory party whips’ office.

Bit of a problem: Parliament's votes on Thursday in London created a bit of a problem for US President Barack Obama

Bit of a problem: the UK parliament’s votes on Thursday over Syria caused a headache for US President Barack Obama

Such banality forgets that this debate was not about who was “discussing Rwanda” at the time of the division bell, or what the opinion polls say about Cameron or Miliband’s leadership of their respective parties this weekend, but that it was all about what the American President Barack Obama tonight called “an assault on human dignity”, the appalling suffering of innocents, many of them children, who have been bombed, burned or choked to death from an assault with banned chemical weapons in an increasingly brutal civil war.

The humiliation of David Cameron on Thursday – remember, the Prime Minister had actually recalled parliament from its summer recess only to be defeated by the votes of his own party’s MPs – and his perhaps unnecessary capitulation by saying that there will be no British military action, is far less important than the growing realisation that the western powers’ foreign policies and military positions in the Islamic world are in crisis because of the carnage that is the legacy of western intervention in places from Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya.

There are on-going bloody conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani Waziristan, Syria and Libya, Egypt, the Gaza strip, the Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and even sometimes in Tunisia. Most, if not all, of these civil wars and conflicts are some reflection of the failure of western interventionist neo-conservative politics. They should all give an urgent impulse to find a new way of bringing peace by working with all the interested players, including the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey and the United States, with their various inputs into their different warring clients.

The_Sun_newspaperThere has been a lot of distracting “soul-searching” about Britain’s diminished role internationally, prompted by the rather petulant response to the votes by George Osborne.

The Sun’s obituary today for the “special relationship” is certainly misguided; historically, the relationship with the United States has been fraught, rather than special. I recall a Pentagon official telling me on a visit across the Potomac that Britain’s role in the unequal relationship is that of “the water-carrier”.

Thursday’s parliamentary vote does reflect fatigue across the country to the numerous failed international interventions over the past quarter century. The failure of both motions in the House should be the spur to winding down overt, covert or drone-based war policies and seeking instead imperfect resolution of conflicts through talking with the patrons of the warring parties.

Intervention against Bashar al-Assad‘s regime in Syria would leave the west with some very peculiar bed-fellows in the conflict, as George Galloway highlighted in his speech in the Commons. “The reason for the unease is that people can see the character of the Syrian opposition,” the Respect MP said. “They have seen the horrific videos that we have heard about. Take a look at the video of one of the commanders of the Syrian revolution cutting open the chest of a human being and eating his heart and liver. He videotaped himself doing it and put it up on YouTube because he thought that it might be considered attractive.

“Take a look at the videos of Christian priests having their heads sawn off… not chopped off; sawn off, with bread knives. Even a bishop in the Christian church was murdered by these people. Every religious minority in Syria — there are 23 of them — is petrified at the thought of a victory for the Syrian rebels.”

Parliament has been before here before, when atrocities have prompted imperial (or imperialist) intervention, or has been used by politicians to play party politics. One such  was the “Bulgarian Horrors” massacre in 1876 which William Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal opposition, tried to use, unsuccessfully, to push the Prime Minister of the day, Benjamin Disraeli, to act against the Ottoman Empire, which was then Britain’s ally and a bulwark against Russia.

Since then, there may have been something of a change in the relationship between the powerful sovereign in parliament and a pusillanimous Commons in the way that Cameron’s government walked naively into a debate on military action and found itself without the necessary votes.

BBC Parliament’s Mark D’Arcy exclaimed on Twitter: “Wow! Parliament has taken war powers. No PM can now launch military action without MPs consent. V big constitutional moment.”

It seems unlikely that things have progressed that far. After all, the debate had only morphed into a motion about whether to have another debate on military action. Ed Miliband still had to ask whether the Prime Minister would exercise the Royal Prerogative to wage war after both motions had fallen. So in Miliband’s mind, the option of war without parliamentary consent was still a possibility. It was the shock Cameron concession that seemed to pass such war powers to parliament.

David Cameron: caught out by the way his Tory backbenchers voted

David Cameron: caught out by the way his Tory backbenchers voted

For Cameron, action by the British military was no longer in prospect. “I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons,” the Prime Minister said.

“It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”

The competing roles of the executive – the Prime Minister, his cabinet and government – and the legislature – parliament as a whole – in declaring war and setting the foreign affairs agenda are a matter of great sensitivity in the United Kingdom, and in the United States, where they have the benefit of a written, rather than an evolving, constitution.

The war powers provision taken by Congress in 1973 was a reaction against so-called non-war “police action” in Vietnam ordered by the US President. Congress has consistently ignored its ability to exercise such powers, including over drone strikes.It is not insignificant, therefore, that tonight, President Obama declared that he would take his proposal for military intervention in Syria to Congress for approval (probably on September 9).

In Britain, debates about military action in the Falklands and Iraq were held when the momentum towards war was already well underway. Perhaps Cameron felt that the rhythm of the war drums would also help him across the line on this occasion?

Sutton MP Paul Burstow: So tell us, Paul, exactly what do you stand for?

Sutton MP Paul Burstow: So tell us, Paul, exactly what do you stand for?

The last Labour government was not at all keen on conceding its war powers to parliament. Clare Short moved a Private Members’ Bill seeking to move powers to parliament to wage war, but the bill was talked out by the then Leader of the House, Geoff Hoon.

Short’s bill would have empowered parliament to hear and approve the legal case for war or, if necessary, after speedy action by the Prime Minister in an emergency, it would give parliament the power to recall troops. Conservative party whips also discouraged their back benchers from supporting such parliamentary war powers.

For Hoon, the power to wage war was a role for the executive. “We’re talking about a key power possessed by the executive as a matter of pragmatic necessity if it is to be properly effective,” he said.

The Labour government was also dismissive of a House of Lords select committee on the constitution which concluded that, “the exercise of the Royal Prerogative by the government to deploy armed force overseas is outdated and should not be allowed to continue as the basis for legitimate war-making in our 21st century democracy.”

The government took some time to give any response, and then gave the committee very short shrift indeed: “The government is not presently persuaded of the case for… establishing a new convention determining the role of parliament in the deployment of the armed forces…

“It must be the government which takes the decision” because “that is one of the key responsibilities for which it has been elected.”

So when Cameron said on Thursday night that he “gets that”, and so threw in the towel as a result of parliament’s vote, it represented a significant concession to the role of parliament. But that does not mean that the executive, with its constant abuse of saying that it rules in the name of the sovereign, will not try to roll back that concession on another occasion of real, or supposed, national emergency.

Croydon North’s MP, Steve Reed, in his post-vote analysis, accused the Prime Minister of “arrogance” as the reason for the loss of the government motion. Certainly, the haughty way that Cameron has dealt with them has added to the number of his own backbenchers willing to take revenge on the PM. “He had it coming,” was the comment heard from at least one backbencher in the Commons bars after the vote.

There are still those who resent the way Cameron saved friends but not others during the expenses scandal. In many ways, though, those Tories who voted against their own government this week were all the usual suspects, who are either troublemakers or just not one of Dave’s friends. In this respect, the atmosphere is a bit like that of the 1992-1997 Major government – there is an unfortunate atmosphere of ill-will on the back benches. A UKIP-dominated European election on May 22 next year is not going to help sentiment either.

What seemed to catch out the government is that they did not realise until too late that the vote would be close and so logistically could not get people back to vote from the recess. To lose by 13 votes when large numbers of Labour MPs were absent is astounding.

Rwandan discussions: Justine Greening said she was so deep in conversation, she never heard the division bell to vote

Rwandan discussions: Justine Greening said she was so deep in conversation, she never heard the division bell to vote

Justine Greening and Mark Simmonds, Tory ministers who are both reasonable sorts, getting mocked for being so distracted talking about Rwandan relations – with all its Private Eye connotations – was a sign of the farcical mismanagement of the debate on such an important subject.

Richard Ottaway was the only one of our local MPs to speak in the chamber.

As Inside Croydon predicted, Ottaway was keen for the intelligence to be tested in front of the secret parliamentary intelligence committee. Ottaway recognised that the Iraq experience meant that the intelligence committee should be used.

“On the intelligence, those of us who were here in 2003, at the time of the Iraq war, felt they had their fingers burnt,” the MP for Croydon South said. “The case for war was made and parliament was briefed on the intelligence, but we were given only part of the story and, in some cases, an inaccurate story. A summary of the intelligence has been published, but it is the bare bones, and I urge the government in the following days to consider how more intelligence can be provided.

“The picture is clear, as far as it goes, but it has no depth. I warmed to the suggestion from my hon. friend the Member for New Forest East that the Intelligence and Security Committee could look at the JIC analysis, report to the House on the veracity of the intelligence and confirm that it agrees with the opinion in the JIC intelligence letter before us.”

As Inside Croydon also predicted, Ottaway backed the government and was clear in his view that a military strike should take place. Ottaway, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, struggled though when challenged by Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary, to define what our war aims would be.

At least, though, Ottaway was trying to be straightforward in expressing his views.

This contrasts with Sutton and Cheam’s LibDem MP (and former junior minister in this government) Paul Burstow, who voted both for and against the motion in the eight minutes allowed to enter both the Aye and the No lobbies.

A case of Liberal Democrat fence sitting at its best, combined with typical Liberal Democrat duplicity, with a blog from Burstow entitled “Why I could not support military intervention in Syria”, when in fact he manage to vote for both sides of the argument.

Another move up the greasy pole? Just don't ask Gavin Barwell for any answers on Syria

Another move up the greasy pole? Just don’t ask Gavin Barwell for any answers on Syria

The government’s whips, the managers of parliamentary business, were not the only ones to misjudge the vote so badly, as was shown by Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell, who wrote on his blog, “It turns out that tonight’s vote isn’t going to be the decisive one.”

Both Barwell, as a parliamentary private secretary to Michael Gove, and Tom Brake, Carshalton and Wallington’s MP and Deputy Leader of the House, would have had to have resigned from the government if they had intended to vote against the motion. Barwell’s approach was to blog about what the questions were for the debate, but he did not provide any answers.

Barwell said that he was confused. “Like most of the constituents who have contacted me, I don’t want to see the UK involved in another war in the Middle East.

“On the other hand, if the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on its own citizens and it is allowed to get away with that, it sends a terrible message both to that regime and to other authoritarian regimes around the world. History teaches us the danger of democracies not taking a stand against aggression and clear breaches of international law.”

With a government reshuffle now likely, it is just as well that Barwell followed not his conscience but instead opted for the easiest route up the greasy pole by supporting the government.

  • Andrew Pelling was MP for Croydon Central 2005 to 2010
  • Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon.
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