Many people were surprised when the House of Commons defeated the government’s motion seeking support for possible military action in Syria. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was certainly surprised, and considerably discomfited. To his credit, he accepted the parliamentary vote without question.
Since the vote, there have been many comments and reactions. They have included the, undoubted, blow to David Cameron’s reputation as party leader, and suggestions that the defeat showed him to be out of touch with the Conservative party of which he is leader. (The voting figures recorded 30 Conservatives voting against the motion, together with some Liberal Democrats – the junior party in the coalition government.)
It is of course true that for any political leader a defeat in parliament is a serious matter, which raises all kinds of questions. Not the least is the question whether the leader will be able to continue to lead the party.
In this particular case, the issue is a major matter of policy: should the United Kingdom support, and take part in, military intervention in Syria. There seems to be no doubt that the vote was a reflection of feelings about this policy, and not just a comment on the Prime Minister as the leader of his party.
The clear fact is that many British citizens are profoundly unhappy about the idea of such military intervention. The reasons for such unhappiness are varied. They include doubts about the ethical arguments supporting such intervention: to what extent is it right for a country to intervene militarily in the politics of another. They also include grave reservations about the effectiveness of such interventions. Would they be likely to achieve the wished for result?
It is clear that in the United Kingdom doubts about such effectiveness have been growing for many years. People have been looking back at recent interventions – notably in Iraq – and have increasingly come to the conclusion that they do not work. There is in short a growing lack of belief by members of the public that military intervention is a successful way of bringing about a solution to the problems faced by badly run countries. It does not necessarily – or even probably – achieve regime change, and it brings in its train many major consequences, including of course the deaths of many people.
The vote does not, in my view, demonstrate that the UK is becoming isolationist, though clearly in this case it has demonstrated a move away from the United States. What it does demonstrate is that many people – an increasing number – are no longer convinced that this particular aspect of foreign policy is the right one to follow. After the parliamentary vote it has become increasingly clear that many politicians, and not just those who voted against the resolution, are extremely unhappy at the direction that policy has been taking.
David Cameron’s acceptance of the defeat, very properly and honourably, suggests that he recognises what lay behind it. Yes, it was a blow to his leadership, but more importantly, it was an indication that the party leadership was not in tune with many party members – and many citizens. To put it another way, the defeat was a comment on a particular policy issue – a very important one, of course -but not necessarily a total defeat for the government’s policies as a whole.
There will obviously need to be some fundamental reappraisals of policy, and in particular of policy involving intervention in the affairs of other countries. The reappraisals will have to include consideration of what criteria are needed to make such interventions justifiable. They will also have to include consideration of how to measure the effectiveness of any such interventions; there is no point in interventions, even if justified, which do not work.
The repercussions of the parliamentary vote will certainly continue. The effect on David Cameron’s leadership, and the implications for the UK’s foreign policy (and particularly its relationship with the United States) will be discussed in great detail, long after the initial shock of the vote has passed.
In my opinion, one major element in the whole drama is the position of Parliament. Rarely does Parliament assert itself so strongly, and rarely does any government get reminded so abruptly that it is not all-powerful. From a democratic point of view it is no bad thing to find Parliament asserting itself. Of course that creates complications and embarrassments, but as a believer in democracy I think that is a reasonable price to pay.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org