Commons Syria vote: a significant moment, but what next?

By Simon Barrow
August 30, 2013

Having followed some six hours of the House of Commons debate on Syria yesterday (29 August), while channeling news, commentary and media requests for Ekklesia, it was evident to me that concern, questioning and scepticism were the dominant feelings being expressed.

Yes, there were tub-thumping speeches for military intervention by the likes of Sir Malcolm Rifkind and some of the less thoughtful back benchers on the government side. There were some strong declarations in the opposite direction from the left. But by far the most powerful interventions were by people like James Arbuthnot and Julian Lewis, Conservatives who could hardly be accused of being anti-war liberals, raising a host of questions about the propriety, legality, regional consequences and strategic sense of directly attacking the Assad regime.

David Cameron gave a confident performance, but it was style over substance: his case for moving down the military street - one that had been proceeding at breakneck speed only a few days ago - proved weak, uncertain and contradictory. He appealed to humanitarian motives (without explaining how Tomahawk cruise missiles are going to stop the cycle of atrocities), he talked about limited objectives (without spelling out what they might be), he invoked deterrence (it sounded more like wishful thinking), he spoke of "degrading chemical weapons capability" (without mentioning that a frontal attack on such facilities is out of the question) ... and he endlessly reiterated how the sceptics were making "valid points", how there were "no guarantees" about outcomes, and how "we cannot be 100 per cent certain" about who commissioned what happened around Damascus last week.

Opposition leader Ed Milliband's message was for a pause, for proof and for perspective. But his speech was lacklustre, and his amendment offered no real alternative (unlike the rejected one by articulate Green MP Caroline Lucas). The Liberal Democrats vacillated to- and fro-, as usual. The SNP, Plaid and – tellingly – the Democratic Unionists made strong calls for restraint.

Mr Lewis set the bar necessarily high. First, was Assad responsible for the recent chemical attack "beyond reasonable doubt"? (It is hardly appropriate to go to war because it is "highly likely" that someone has done something), and he required that a military response should be based on specifiable, limited and realisable positive outcomes (the glaring hole in the government's case).

The BBC also had a lacklustre day. It passed over some of the most telling interventions in its coverage, with political correspondent Nick Robinson falling in with the mistaken consensus that, despite moans, the government would narrowly win. The BBC website at first headlined Mr Cameron's speech, 'UK makes the case for Syria action'. This was entirely wrong. Polls that very morning had shown that the country was not just divided but mostly opposed, and the Prime Minister is not, in fact, the UK.

Meanwhile, Allegra Stratton, political editor of BBC Two's Newsnight programme, seemed to think that the most powerful speeches had been pro- ones on the Tory side. One wondered which debate she had watched. A heart-rending account of a (non-chemical) attack on a Syrian school was shown immediately after reporting of the Commons debate, with Jeremy Paxman asking whether the House vote might have gone differently if MPs had seen it. In saying this, he and the Corporation's frontline functionaries completely missed the central point: thoughtful parliamentarians were not unpersuaded of the brutality of the Assad regime. They were unpersuaded that military escalation would stop these appalling atrocities (or those of the jihadist wing of the armed opposition, for that matter), and they were concerned that missile strikes might actually make things worse for ordinary people in Syria and in the MENA region. That is why they voted as they did.

This was not an endorsement of Labour's feeble amendment. That was lost too. The egg on Mr Miliband's face is only less noticeable because there is so much more on Mr Cameron's (and Mr Clegg's, after a weak showing on Radio 4 Today in the morning, and an unpersuasive summing up). No, this vote was a severe question mark against the received tendency for Britain to act in the slipstream of the US (Mr Kerry's response has made it clear, as had State Department spokeswomen Marie Harf (, that there is little concern for "other countries' foreign policy"), and against the presumption that 'action' and 'military action' are necessarily synonymous.

That last point is vital. Almost all of those backing military intervention in Syria on the government benches, or among Lib Dem acolytes, addressed their remarks as if the only choice was and is between bombing, or else sitting around idly twiddling our thumbs. Labour MP Chris Bryant called the falsity of that one, but it was thereafter repeated again and again, indicating that the pro-military action camp was not listening and not learning. They were stuck in a mindset overshadowed by guns and bombs.

Mr Cameron knows that it is best not to kick yourself when you are down, and and he also knows how to play a populist card. He quickly responded to the unexpected turn of events with the "Parliament and the people have spoken" line -- leaving Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, appallingly, to demean those who had voted against bombing as giving "succour" to the Syrian dictatorship, while Michael Gove stormed around like a spoilt child, calling Tories who had voted the "wrong way" a "disgrace, disgrace, disgrace."

Mr Hammond also suggested that disillusion over the misrepresentations behind Mr Blair's Iraq war (rightly termed a political failure, not just an intelligence one, by one Conservative MP) had "poisoned the well" of public opinion. Equating a desire not to go to war recklessly with "poison" is a potent illustration of just how far removed from humane reality some of the advocates of military strikes are in this matter, and why their arguments were robustly scrutinised and ultimately rejected last night.

But does this vote presage a larger change in UK or western policy? It is significant, certainly. But in the immediate aftermath of unexpected political events, exaggerations about change can take hold too rapidly. Over the next few days, the status quo ante will do its best to reassert itself in the shape of more political manoeuvring by the pro-intervention camp. Every development in Syria will be accompanied by an "I told you so" (presupposing that a missile attack would put it all right). If the US goes ahead with an armed response despite the UK vote and lack of endorsement from the UN Security Council, which is probable but not certain, we will be told that the Commons vote "made no difference". The line will be pursued that "this was really a vote against the Iraq war, not a Syrian one". And so on.

Despite such smokescreens, there should be no doubting the importance of this Commons vote, however. It shows that it is possible for a parliament to resist the drums of war (for the first time in living memory). It exposes, one way or another, the archaism of the 'Royal prerogative'. And most important of all, it opens up the opportunity for a different course and a different policy to be developed.

That is the real challenge. Voting against a bad option is one thing. Constructing a better way forward is quite another, and it requires a continuing shift in temperament, perspective and political aptitude to achieve. A 'steep learning curve', in the current jargon. For the gaping void between inaction and military adventurism needs urgently to be filled. We now require moves towards, and backing for, a regional conference (more likely a series of them) in search of political and diplomatic solutions - ones coming from the Middle East itself, not ones imposed from outside. Russia and Iran need to be engaged seriously, despite the difficulties and compromises that involves. The International Criminal Court must be activated more fully in relation to war crimes and atrocities committed by the government and by asymetric armed opposition groups. Further action is needed on the MENA refugee crisis, and on supporting Syrian refugees in Britain ( Demilitarisation and negotiation, rather than sabre-rattling and arms sales, has to be taken seriously as the real realpolitik. The idea that those with the biggest arsenals (or vetos) should automatically be the world's moral arbiters has to be ditched, in favour of radical reform within our international institutions and processes.

Meanwhile, civic organisations, faith groups and NGOs need to go on pressing the case for nonviolent methods of conflict transformation and intervention, no matter how far removed they may seem from current perceptions of what reality is. There are alternatives. A huge amount of work has gone into them over the past 25 years. But these different ways of responding require a renewed political imagination, a wider civil influence, a different calculation of the odds, and a much larger, more adaptable skill-set to bring to them to fruition. Getting a parliament to vote against militarism as the "in principle" answer to calumny and tragedy is one thing. Stopping that deadly ghost from re-entering the building by introducing new thinking and action into the equation is a much bigger task.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter @simonbarrow

* 'Drama as UK government loses vote on Syria':

* 'Syria: what lies behind the clamour for military strikes?', by Simon Barrow:

* More on Syria from Ekklesia:

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