Late last night, a motion by the British government supporting military action in Syria was rejected by a margin of thirteen. The United Kingdom will not be taking part in any campaign against the Assad regime. This is the first time since 1782 that a British government has lost a vote on military action and the event will most likely go down as one of the highlights of 2013. Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been so passionate in his arguments for intervention, has been humiliated.
It could be argued that bad organisation was the cause of this Commons defeat. His strategy to get his MPs on-side was poorly orchestrated, the Tory whips did not do their job properly, some Cabinet members even neglected to cast their vote and Deputy PM Nick Clegg looked like a complete amateur as he tried to make the case for going to war. However, such a point of view overlooks one important point in this affair: that the vote, narrow though it was, is a reflection of public opinion and clearly demonstrates that democracy is alive and well in the land of Albion. In 2003, when Tony Blair relied on political machinations, skulduggery and threats to ensure a meek Parliament would follow him to a war over half the nation did not desire, many of us here believed that the will of the people no longer mattered. Ten years on, we have shown the world that a British Prime Minister is no dictator, that he must accept that important issues like the Syrian Question must be given time and be subject to the established political process, not rubber-stamped and hastened to the statute book. Cameron was gracious enough to acknowledge this, though he and his hawkish cohorts, William Hague, George Osborne, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond and Justine Greening, are fuming with impotent rage at the results.
Let it not be said that British politics is a dull affair. But where does this leave the UK at an international level? There is much talk in the media of the so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States and many speculate that it will be forever tarnished now that Britain will not be joining a US-led assault on Syria. To be honest, the term makes me cringe. The USA has numerous allies and can count the UK among them. That does not mean we must follow them on every campaign, however, for Britain is a sovereign nation. In military terms, Britain’s contribution to a strike would not tip the balance, by any stretch of the imagination. As I have already explained, our armed forces have been starved of funding – while the barbarous nation of Pakistan grows fat on billions of pounds in foreign aid annually – so I doubt that a handful of Typhoon jets will have much of an impact on Assad’s forces. The political fallout of the parliamentary vote is more significant, however. Should the UK remain on the UN Security Council? Perhaps not, but at least our rulers are now beginning to accept (or, in some cases, lament) the fact that Great Britain is no longer a world power and cannot pretend otherwise. This is not isolationism at work, but pragmatism.
We may yet be dragged into a wider conflict, for if an international force does indeed launch an attack on Syria, Iran or even Russia may wade in and all talk of who used chemical weapons will be purely academic as a regional conflict mutates into something far worse. I sincerely hope that this campaign, if it goes ahead, is a brief and successful affair. For now, however, I am content to gloat over the chastening of David Cameron, who has been so starkly reminded this week that he is a mere prime minister, not a president, and that the people of Great Britain still have a voice.