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29 Aug 2014

Thoughts on Syria

1
Sep
A lot of constituents have been in touch over the past few days about the vote on military action in Syria. Many raised very specific points which I will respond to in writing shortly. In the meantime, I wanted to make a few general points about the  issues most regularly raised by constituents.

Vote in Parliament

It was important for Parliament to consider whether Britain should engage in military action in Syria. It was responsible too for Labour to demand that UN inspectors be allowed to complete their work and ask for greater clarity over the Government’s legal case.  After the experiences of the Iraq conflict the bar has rightly risen for any government to publicly justify military action.

A lot of people will be surprised by the outcome of Thursday's vote. Certainly the government didn't expect it, but we all accept it. However, we should reflect on what actually happened. Over the past few days I have been approached by people in the street to say well done in opposing the invasion of Syria or that it was right that Parliament voted to wait until the UN inspectors' report. The truth is that Parliament did neither: today invasion is rightly on no-one's agenda and after this vote intervention regardless of the weapons inspectors' report now appears off the agenda.

There is some unease about the outcome off the vote and I share it. It's not what I wanted. I supported the amendment tabled by the Labour Party that explicitly didn't rule out military action if certain stringent conditions were met. That was the case made by my Party Leader, Ed Miliband. I agreed with every word of what Ed Miliband said in his speech. That's what I wanted to be passed. That's what I wanted to happen. I believe in a conditions-based approach to any military intervention in Syria. All three Party leaders in the Commons on Thursday night each made a variant of that argument. Mr Cameron made a bad argument from a reasonable case and couldn't persuade Parliament. I share the unease that we have gone from a stringent conditions-based approach to any UK military action to an unconditional policy of UK military inaction.

The unusual thing about Thursday's vote is that most MPs voted for an in principle policy of not ruling out military action in the future. The Labour policy attracted 220 votes and the Government motion won the support of 272, meaning that of the 550-odd MPs who voted 492 supported a version of conditions-based potential use of UK military force if very tight criteria had been met. Just a minority of MPs in all parties opposed any military action in all circumstances for reasons of conscience or concern. Yet that is where our country ended up. The government are right to say that Parliament has spoken and I agree. But a policy of indefinite inaction regardless of what happens in Syria or at the UN would be unwise. An attack on an ally by Assad or further chemical atrocities would give the PM a right to bring this back to Parliament. But he cannot just re-run last weeks vote and hope for a different result.

Implications for UK security policy

No to military engagement, however, does not mean we disengage with the conflict in Syria. As Ed Miliband has said we must seek to strengthen the diplomatic path towards sustainable stability. The harrowing pictures of human suffering on our television screens demand that much.

We each have a responsibility to uphold the international rule of law and the principle of protection on humanitarian grounds. This is in our national interest, since the prevention of turmoil overseas is central to the protection not just of our values but of our citizens and communities at home. Britain will never be safer if we and our allies cannot enforce international law. That is why Labour is not an isolationist party and why Britain cannot be an isolated country. Standing up for our ideals and interests is central to our role in the world and our national character and must remain so. It is not in our instincts or interests to turn away.

For some time Syria has been a state of deep concern and the UK should never stumble into a state of ambivalence about that or any other crisis. The sickening barbarism of the Assad regime cannot go unpunished. Dictators and regimes across the globe whose primary purpose is self-preservation and who act with internal and external aggression will be watching the next few days through the prism of self-interest. The international community still has to respond with a policy of condemnation and consequence.

Relations with the US

I find it unsettling that some have given the impression of being more angry at the prospect of Obama taking action than they are about Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians. This really annoys me; it's as if they believe that Obama is spoiling for a fight. President Obama is probably the least 'trigger happy' US President since President Carter. Our undisputed most significant military partnership is and will remain with the US. It will be the norm in any future UK military deployment that we will act in coalition, usually with the US and/or France through NATO. We should never lose sight of our shared interests which should lead to collaborative action against joint adversaries.

Britain should cut its defence spending

A few people emailed to say that the UK should further trim its defence budget, not because of budgetary pressures but because Britain should seek to change its purpose in the world. I respect but disagree with that view. There are many things that lead to the world respecting us, such as our universities, the NHS, many of our business innovators, our commitment to international development and much else. Our military also fits comfortably into that category. Potential foes of the future have to have a faith in the deterrent effect of UK military. Our nation has to remain committed to the utility of UK military action as a last resort. Put bluntly, despite the weariness at home about events in Iraq and Afghanistan we should retain the will to deploy and our opponents should be wary of our determination to do so.

I know that some of you have been in touch won't agree with everything I've said but a I mentioned I will get back to everyone individually in the next few days with answers to the other specific questions that you have raised.

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Comments

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It's good that you wrote what you did. Whether or not David Cameron was inept in his parliamentary  tactics, the central issue is that which you raise: the two main propositions - not in fact very different - were for the possibility of intervention, and a very large majority voted for that. It was a quirk of the Westminster debating process which gave us the result we have. Britain has to retain the means and the will to intervene - especially against a crime of the magnitude of that committed by Bashar al-Assad. Using chemical weapons puts him into an extreme category of horror: the Labour Party should not be complicit in ruling out future action. Someone - the Party leader, the Shadow Foreign Secretary or you - should give a big speech, making that clear.
Comment by John Lloyd on 02 Sep 2013
comment
71% of people oppose military intervention

The sooner you are reshuffled, the better. Labour needs to reject so-called liberal interventionism and keep out of matters where local solutions must be found. This is a very obvious example. Iraq and Afghanistan both led to disaster as a result of going in to oppose one 'side'.
Comment by Mike Homfray on 02 Sep 2013


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