Daniel Hamilton was the Conservative candidate for Stockport at the 2015 general election. He writes in a personal capacity.
Late on Wednesday, the Commons voted in favour of military action in Syria. In doing so, MPs drew a line under one of the most humiliating spectacles in post-war British political history and ought, for good, to have laid the ghost of the Iraq war to rest.
The margin was clear and concise – 397 votes to 223 – with near-unanimous support from the Conservative Party and from a quarter of the parliamentary Labour Party. For Jeremy Corbyn, who spoke spiritedly against action, the result represents a personal humiliation that may well mark the beginning of the end of his improbable term as Labour leader.
The decision – however welcome and however necessary – came too slowly. The spectacle of France, without British support, conducting bombing raids against ISIS in recent weeks represented a painful abrogation of country’s responsibility to stand with our strategic partners and NATO allies in their time of need. For this, the blame must lie with Tony Blair and the last Labour government.
Even those such as myself who supported the Iraq war’s objective of removing Saddam Hussein’s regime from power, must now concede that the credibility of the entire political class was badly damaged by the way in which the case for war was made. Rather than pursue a line of argument that focused on human rights abuses, Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossier” and repeated claims about weapons of mass destruction instead succeeded in turning a previously globally-engaged nation into sceptics of all forms of military engagement – even when it is unambiguously in our national interest. The development of such a feeling runs entirely contrary to an established culture of liberal interventionism in the UK that saw our country tackle fascism, end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and bring an end to civil war in Sierra Leone.
During recent weeks, a number of prominent Conservative MPs have called on the Prime Minister to forge ahead with action in Syria without first seeking parliamentary approval – something he is not constitutionally obliged to do. While many will be sympathetic to their calls, the fact remains that the last Labour government’s foreign policy legacy undermined support for ministers and even the intelligence services to such a point that any intervention lacking a meaningful debate and vote on the floor of the Commons would be widely seen as lacking in legitimacy.
As such, the Prime Minister was entirely right to approach the vote on military action in a cautious manner; taking the time to build support for bombing raids on ISIS in Syria both inside and outside of Parliament. Unlike the case of the proposed 2013 intervention, which polls indicated the public opposed by a margin of two to one, the present engagement has the support of roughly three-fifths of the public – largely on the basis the action is seen as important from a national security perspective. Similarly, dialogue between ministers and backbenchers – many of whom opposed the 2013 resolution – appears to have been strengthened.
Encouragingly, Commons support for extending the airstrikes already underway against ISIS in Iraq to Syria has been achieved without the repeated fetishisation of the need to secure United Nations (UN) “approval” that many in the Labour Party appear to see as a pre-requisite to any form of foreign policy interventionism. While the support of the UN is always preferable in respect of any military engagement, its structures lack the nimbleness required to allow human rights-based democracies such as the UK to take steps to protect both their national security and that of states such as Iraq whose territory is under siege from ISIS operatives. The “legitimacy” of the United Kingdom’s foreign and military policy decisions need not be drawn from an international body but rather from appropriate debate and scrutiny in Parliament. Wednesday night’s vote proved that.
There is, however, a crucial role that international bodies such as the UN must now play in Syria: planning for a country that is free of both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Blair’s lack of a clear strategy to stabilise post- Ba’athist Iraq only served to prolonged the presence of troops on the ground – driving up casualty rates and infuriating public opinion. The UK, U.S and France must now work with the UN and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to fashion a clear plan for the future functioning of the Syrian state, including the federalisation of government structures and protections for minorities.
When considering the issue of military action in Syria, another key consideration must be that of discharging our obligation to support allies like France – both in formal bodies such as NATO or the unshakable cultural norms of pluralism and human rights – in their hour of need.
Had the Commons rejected action against Syria yesterday evening, the consequences would have been unimaginable. ISIS, which began as a small, insurgent movement has now developed into a well-funded and in places, territorially secure, global actor in its own right. One need not resort to hyperbole to conclude that its ongoing expansion across the Middle East and North Africa, and growing cells in Indonesia, pose a real risk to global security.
Bombs alone will not solve this crisis but, as a letter from Mohamed Alhakin, Iraq’s representative to the UN, said last September: “ISIL has established a safe haven outside of [the country’s] borders that is a direct threat to the security of our people and territory… exposing citizens to the threat of attacks launched from a terrorist safe haven”. Alhakin’s warning is no more pertinent when it comes to security of the streets of London, Istanbul or, as we learned to great human cost, Paris. This is an issue of both moral relevance and hard-headed national interest. When it comes to global engagement and taking the fight to our enemies, Britain must never again stand on the side-lines.