Last night’s vote to extend RAF air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria was carried by a much more substantial margin than many people I’d seen discussing it were expecting, with a Commons majority of 174.
An expected Conservative rebellion ended up amounting to only seven MPs, whilst some 67 Labour MPs, together with six of the eight Liberal Democrats and the eleven Unionist MPs of various sorts from Northern Ireland, backed the Government.
But perhaps it ought not to have been so surprising. There’s been mounting evidence for some time of a swell in support for action against ISIS. One particularly noteworthy trend is the support for action being offered by Christian leaders.
Yesterday Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, addressed the House of Lords. He put on record his view that taking action against ISIS met the criteria to qualify as a ‘just war’, and had his support.
On the same day Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and Britain’s senior-most Catholic, issued a statement in support of the Government. “Effective action is necessary to stop the grave harm being inflicted by ISIS on civilians”, the Tablet reports him saying.
Not even Pope Francis has eschewed military language. His Holiness described the terrorist attack on Paris as “part of a Third World War”.
It is unusual for military action to command this sort of clerical support. Why should this time be different? Without presuming to second guess either Archbishop, two reasons suggest themselves.
First, there’s ISIS’ persecution of Christians. Christianity is now the most heavily persecuted faith in the world, and ISIS are amongst the worst.
Given the sheer number of Christians in the Middle East – far fewer than historically, but still far more than many suppose – it’s more surprising that solidarity from Western Church leaders hasn’t manifested in a more high profile fashion sooner.
But Christians were not explicitly being targeted in conflicts like Bosnia, Sierra Leone or Iraq.
Then there’s also the fact that we know far, far more about ISIS than ever we did about the regimes we tackled during the Blair era.
Vicious as Syria’s civil war is, it is still easier to get news out than it is to report on a tightly closed society like Baathist Iraq. Indeed, ISIS pro-actively publicise many of their atrocities, particularly the televised murders of western citizens most likely to galvanise a response in the West.
On the other hand, understanding and detestation of Saddam Hussein’s regime – which remains one of the very worst any of us seem likely to share a planet with in our lifetimes – was confined to a much smaller circle of people.
It remains to be seen how long this consensus will hold should things get more complicated and difficult, which is almost certain.
Nonetheless, it remains evident that there is a much broader groundswell of support for action against ISIS than those like Jeremy Corbyn who remain committed to opposing the deployment of British forces saw or admitted before last night’s vote.