Yesterday was Parliament’s nadir

Anthony Painter

It was a gruesome split screen moment. Just as it became clear that Parliament had voted against giving itself the option to consider military action, a harrowing news report was aired on the BBC. Twitter was erupting with a mixture of MPs gloating at their opponents’ embarrassment, self-congratulation at a ‘great day for parliamentary democracy’, and debates about what this meant for who was up and who was down as a result of the day’s shenanigans. At the same time we were seeing the aftermath of strike on a school. Yes, a school. It was an indiscriminate attack with what appeared to be a ‘napalm-like’ substance and it was perpetrated by Bashar Al-Assad’s troops. If this was democracy at its best, I’d hate to see it at its worst.

The arguments against intervention are well made. Outcomes are uncertain, no strategy for engagement has been properly expressed within the UK or the US and France, and the legal basis for intervention is not clear without a UN Security Council Resolution. International law absolutely has been breached as was argued yesterday.  In my view, that justifies a proportionate military response. But I do understand the arguments against- recent history encourages humility.

All these arguments were heard in Parliament yesterday but that is not what explains the outcome. What really happened was a failure of political leadership across the board to work in a constructive fashion when the world from Damascus to Moscow to Washington was watching. Much has been made of the Government rebellion. It was negligible when compared to the Iraq War vote: thirty-nine rebels against one hundred and thirty-nine back in 2003. The difference was that the opposition voted against. This wasn’t a vote to engage in military action but the comparison is still instructive. The leadership of the two main parties failed to work together at a critical national and international moment. Now they will blame each other. Both bear the responsibility.

The relationship between senior players in the parties is shockingly bad. Cameron acts with haughty disdain. Labour is happy to impugn motives. The language that is strewn around is despicable. The body language is revealing – and appallingly bad. Now we’ve seen the consequences of failing to put political and personal differences to one side in pursuit of a greater good. There were easy ways to combine both the Government and opposition motions but instead they ploughed their separate furrows.

All this has enormous external consequences. Most importantly, the one unequivocal victor out of yesterday is Bashar Al-Assad. The coalition that was coming together against him has fractured. Any chance of getting agreement in the UN Security Council – vanishingly small already – have disappeared. The pressure is off China and Russia now. They will hide behind the British Parliament now. Obama will come under more intense domestic pressure. That he is a second term President may insulate him but still this makes the pathway to intervention – and taking on Assad’s cruelty – fraught. All these angles seemed to be completely missed in yesterday’s great day for democracy.

For Britain, it sets us on a pathway to irrelevance. The quiet life has its advantages but it makes you smaller, irrelevant, inconsequential. Make no mistake that we as a nation are far away from infallibility and we’ve made grievous errors. Yet, our values are good values. We are an important voice for humanitarian principles and freedom. Now we have muffled our voice. Our influence will be set on the wane.

For politics, and this is the least important consideration today, our leaders are now complete bystanders. It looks bad for Cameron this morning. That’s hardly surprising. He has continually shown himself to be a leader without strategy – as argued yesterday – and an arrogance which undermines him. What is certain, however, is that as events unfold over the next few days, this may all change quickly. Ed Miliband has a choice about seeking to hammer home narrow political advantage or laying out a realistic strategy for Labour’s approach to Syria. Leadership would constitute the latter.

The next stage is to wait for the UN weapons inspectors’ report. That will determine the pathway of this situation. Obama clearly wants to act. If he does so on the basis of a robust report then the hope has to be that Cameron and Miliband can work together to put right what was wrong yesterday and come up with a cross-party British approach to Syria. In so doing, they may rebuild both their own and Parliament’s reputation.

Whether you are for military intervention or against, yesterday was not a triumph for British democracy. It was its nadir. Against its own apparent will, Parliament managed to damage its humanitarian principles, undermine national interest, and remove some heat from a terrifying and brutal dictator. Britain was a nation that stood up to bullies. Today, it’s a nation that turns it back on children burning with chemical agent. Our leaders need to put right some of the damage they have done. Democracy was not at its finest yesterday. It was at its worst.

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