December 6, 2013
Iraq and Syria: a tale of two Britains
Report from UK for the Herald
An extraordinary week revealed much and apparently brought the curtain down on an age-old relationship long in decline. To many commentators in the British media, the vote on August 29, which saw the House of Commons reject Prime Minister David Cameron’s initial statement on the UK’s approach to war in Syria, spells the end of the “special relationship” between the US and the UK and possibly the end of Cameron.
Not since 1782 has a Prime Minister lost a vote after a “war and peace” speech, as these are known; back then, Lord North resigned following the vote that lost Britain “the colonies.”
The end may not be in sight for Cameron, however, although his hand has been considerably weakened by the vote. It was an extraordinary week, and a remarkable series of events.
Based on images that are alleged to depict a chemical weapons attack by a dictator on his people, Cameron had cut short the summer recess to bring back the House of Commons to debate the issue.
Ordinarily, this would suggest that the Prime Minister was in a strong position and confident of victory in the vote. The loss by 285-272 on Thursday night showed that he had misread the signs, and was being punished.
Part of the government’s failure was due to strong politicking by opposition leader David Miliband, who successfully outmanoeuvred Cameron several times over the days leading up to the vote.
However, the blame lies just as squarely with Cameron’s own mismanagement of his own party, which has been often commented on in the past, with an apparent disconnect between the “progressive” front bench and the unruly backbenchers. The prime minister’s inability to keep his party in line is surely something he has to quickly resolve if he wishes to spare himself future embarrassment.
The vote also reflects a growing sentiment that is increasingly represented in the national media: what is the purpose of military action in Syria? The national rejection to further escapades in the Middle East is that of a war-weary population that does not see any benefits in active participation in regime change. What a difference a decade makes. In fact, in terms of Cameron’s weaknesses, Miliband’s manoeuvring and the general opposition to war, the situation could not be more different than that of 2003.
“The outcome of this issue will determine the way Britain and the world confront the central security threat of the 21st century; the development of the UN; the relationship between Europe and the US; the relations within the EU and the way the US engages with the rest of the world. It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation.”
The above statement is certainly applicable to the present situation, but this wasn’t Cameron. This is a quote from Tony Blair in 2003, and taken from the speech in which he convinced the House of Commons to support him in the invasion of Iraq. The former leader could not have been more prescient. That war certainly did affect all of the areas that he mentioned, although probably not as he expected or hoped.
There are differences between the situation in 2003 and the present, including the format of the information on which the case for war was based (who could forget the “dodgy dossier”). However, the argument as it was presented to the British public was startlingly similar: a dictator has the capacity to commit human rights abuses against his own people, and must be stopped. On one level, it is an appeal to decency and humanity that should not be ignored.
Seen from one perspective, Cameron’s problem is that he isn’t Blair. In the years since his arrival on the scene as a contender for the Tory leadership in 2005, Cameron has worked hard to emulate Tony Blair, both in terms of approach to government and to his party. Nonetheless, there is no comparison. Financial recession and a country long sceptical of the Conservative Party have done Cameron no favours, but he has also failed to control his Cabinet and has made blunders in terms of personal communication.
Try as he might, Cameron has failed to escape the idea that he is an Old Etonian surrounded by a clique of like-minded individuals who struggle to take on advice from outside their narrow-walled group. The problem was evident when the Tories were forced to form a partnership with the Liberal Democrats to take office in 2010, and it has not improved since.
This attribute, this incapacity to take an overarching perspective, whether through inability or arrogance, led Cameron to last week’s defeat. Reports of mismanaged Tories and open rows between leadership and rank-and-file have been much in evidence over the last few days, with Education Secretary Michael Gove’s outburst at backbenchers, describing them as “a disgrace,” indicative of the relationship.
It takes a certain organizational inefficiency for a leader to underwhelm and discourage their own supporters in the House, but Cameron has another problem that Blair did not face. In the Labour opposition, Cameron faces an Ed Miliband who has spent a considerable amount of time and effort reinventing himself as a leader, with limited levels of success.
Nonetheless, whereas the Conservative leader in 2003, Ian Duncan-Smith, was one of the first politicians to call for intervention in Iraq, Miliband has been vocal in his criticism of intervention in Syria, insisting before the vote that there must be a “compelling case” in order for Labour to support it.
However, Miliband’s role in the last week has not escaped blame. It is thought that the Labour leadership led the government to believe that they would support a watered-down version of the original motion. The government obliged, tabling a motion that Labour eventually criticized as “opaque” and which the party voted against.
The Conservatives have since slammed Miliband, with Tory aides (and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond) claiming the Labour leader was “giving succour” to Assad. Speaking on September 2, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg accused Miliband of “partisanship” at a time of humanitarian crisis. It would appear that the Labour leader has indeed scored some points with his misleading of the government over Labour voting intentions (a Tory aide was quoted as stating “they double-crossed us twice!”), but doing so may yet cost him.
The third element that Cameron so patently lacks, however, is the support of the country. It is understandable that the prime minister has blamed Blair and almost a decade of war in Iraq on this, stating,“the well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned” by the conflict.
However, just as it seems improbable to the public now that the UK went to war on the flimsiest of evidence in 2003, it is unlikely for the country to believe evidence presented in 2013 unless it is unequivocal. The UK has suffered a war that has made it unpopular in the Middle East and cost lives and countless millions.
A country in recession has to be genuinely convinced by the case for war; the events depicted by the videos, which are undoubtedly harrowing, have yet to be supported by clear evidence that the Syrian government was definitely behind the attacks. And if Syria was, what would the British government and its weakened military actually be seeking to achieve through intervention? The case, such has been made, is weak and ill-considered. Both its hurried gestation and opaqueness have yet to convince.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, President Obama has set himself a target of ten days (from August 31) in which to convince the politicians on his home turf. Reports thus far suggest that this may not be as easy as previously thought.
In terms of the “special relationship” between the US and the UK and the weakening of the UK’s position in diplomacy and influence, it is arguable (and it has been argued by commentators) that the fact that Obama has paused before acting was caused by the House of Commons vote on August 29. This shows that the UK may still have influence, even if it is indirect.
Besides, it is well known that Obama does not consider Cameron or the British government with the same warmth and partnership that Blair enjoyed with George W. Bush. The irony is that when Blair sought to strengthen the alliance between the two countries by accompanying the Republican president in intervention, he in fact sowed the seeds for the slow decline of US-UK relations.
In the words of Blair in 2003, describing the case for intervention in Iraq, “we have been victims of our own desire to placate the implacable, to persuade toward reason the utterly unreasonable, to hope that there was some genuine intent to do good in a regime whose mind is in fact evil.”
The tragedy is that it is due to the former prime minister’s actions that the current British government is incapable of acting when it sees an opportunity to prevent suffering. Cameron and Britain must now strive to alleviate Syrian suffering and provide real support, but the bombs (and troops) are going to stay at home.