Friday, August 30, 2013

The morning after the vote of the night before

"I believe in respecting the House of Commons....I get that"

By any standard, the defeat of the Government's motion in favour of military action was a surprise.  I do not believe that the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition saw this coming, especially as the vote was whipped.  

For those of you unfamiliar with the British system, when a vote is 'whipped' it means that individual MPs' are expected to follow the party line and support their leaders.  It is rare to lose a whipped vote.

So why did the Government lose its motion in the House of Commons?

An excellent question, which unfortunately has more than one answer, and is surprisingly complex.  The simple reason is that the individual MPs' recognise that following the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public appetite within the UK for military action overseas is limited.  The reasons for this could be as follows:
  • Legality. The UK public is not as unsophisticated as our leaders and the media think.  The public are well aware that recent military action involving UK forces could be perceived as being illegal.
  • Emotional exhaustion.  There is a clear sense that the number of deaths suffered by British (and other) servicemen and women have shocked the nation, and put bluntly there is a feeling that there have been enough British deaths in wars that we technically should not be involved in.
  • Arrogance.  The Prime Minister, David Cameron undoubtedly tried to lead from the front, and until Wednesday evening the general perception was that the UK and US military forces should be ready to intervene BEFORE the report by the UN weapons inspectors and in advance of any formal sanction for intervention from the United Nations.  Unfortunately, he failed to take into account the fact that his own party would not follow his leadership.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan.  The UK public have had their confidence in the political leadership heavily damaged by the debacle over weapons of mass destruction, and many simply do not believe that we should ever have been involved in Afghanistan, a country where the British have not enjoyed any real military or political success over the last century or two.
  • Lack of clear objectives.  As I argued in my previous post, the objectives of intervention are staggeringly unclear, and the long term consequences of action without that clarity would potentially be very grave.
All of the above reasons are valid; taken inividually maybe each one is not sufficient, however overall the MPs' in the House of Commons are very well aware that military intervention was going to be unpopular.

There are however further reasons for the defeat, which I believe have little to do with the above, and are far more complex.

The Chancellor says something I agree with!

 This morning, the Chancellor, George Osborne said in an interview:

"I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that"

Here, he has actually said something which I think cuts to the heart of the matter.  There has been a quiet debate that has been going on for some time now about the role that the UK plays in the international system.  Traditionally, the UK has been willing to intervene overseas for a number of valid reasons:
  1. Hangover from empire.  The historical facts are that the British Empire disappeared not because the british wanted to give up on its territories, but because the evonomic cost of two world wars meant that they lacked the ability to keep its territories.  On the whole, the transition was smooth, but Britain needed to intevene on occasion.
  2. Great Britain has a permanent seat on the UN.  With that comes some tacit and implicit responsibilities.  Put simply, Britain intervenes because it is expected to do so in line with its political, military and economic status.
  3. Because they can. Very simply, Britain intervened because it had the means to do so; the political, economic and military capability to support a robust foreign policy
However, the world has changed.  Great Britain... well it is not as great as it used to be econeomically or militarily. A lack of economic capability has led to a steady reduction in our military capability.  The shift in economic power away from the west towards the Middle East (based on oil) and the Far East (cheap labour). has seen british economic strength eroded. Withe the erosion of its economic strength, its political strength is alo eroded. Put bluntltly, the UK lacks the ability to pay to support  robust foreign policy, and other countries are better able to exercise political influence than the UK.

The Great British Public, as I have stated before are not stupid.  We are well aware of the precarious economic conditions that prevail, and they are also aware that whilst the US profited economically from interventions in Iraq through its control of the oil resources, the UK has not.  The 'special relationship' does not extend to share the economic spoils of war I'm afraid! The general public are well aware that in reality, further military intervention would not be a wise investment.  The US government are very careful to maintain economic hegemony in the Middle East, and it is fair to say that from an economic perspective we have nothing to gain and plenty to lose from military intervention.

There will be a debate because many UK citizens want to see a change in the role it plays in the world.  The majority of people I would argue believe that we do punch above our weight politically and militarily, however we simply are not equipped to play the part of the world policeman and enforcer alongside the USA.  Speaking to friends and colleagues there is the perception that the UK needs to step back from some of its global activities, and there is the desire that actually it is time for other countries to play their part.  Syria, for example, is a member of the Arab League, and there is now the growing expectation that the Arab nations need to spend less money on fast cars and european football clubs and more on ensuring the stability of the region.  Put bluntly, there is a perception that it is time that the Middle Eastern countries grew up and take responsibility rather than expect Britain to and other countries to clear up the mess in their own back yards.

Is that all?

No.  There is one last factor to look at, and that is the Conservative Party.  The real surprise here is that it was not the Opposition which defeated the Government, it was the rebellion by 30 Conservative MPs' that led to the defeat in the House of Commons.

So why did the Conservative MPs' rebel?

A very good question.  Put simply, the Prime Minister is not popular within his own party, and some of the rebels would have voted not out of conscience, or representation of the views of the public, but because they wanted to give David Cameron a bloody nose and undermine his authority both at home and abroad.

So not for any other noble reason, just political in-fighting?

Sadly yes. No doubt they will claim otherwise, but frankly, nobody in their right mind should ever trust a Tory MP.  Feel free to disagree, but the self interest of the average tory MP is really quite frightening.


What I have tried to show is that the factors influencing last nights' vote are complex.  There are no simple answers as to why the motion to intervene militairily in the Middle East was defeated.  What is clear, and which surprisingly the Chancellor has clearly and correctly identified is that there now will be a debate of sorts into the role the UK should play in the global political system.  I wish I could trust our elected representatives to lead a rational debate on this, but, just like the debate on Europe, electoral reform, the ongoing banking crisis, education etc. this is precisely what we are not going to get. After all, why let the facts get in the way of ideological posturing and sound bite politics?

As always, feel free to disagree with me....