Nicky Morgan is a former Education Secretary, and is MP for Loughborough
I imagine there are moments of drama and emotion in the Commons which stay with every MP and anyone watching in the gallery for ever. I can remember, with crystal clarity, the vote in 2013 about whether the UK should take part in military action in Syria following the use of chemical weapons then.
I was a whip, and was standing at the bar of the House watching one of my fellow whips read out the votes. The Government had been put on the back foot by Ed Miliband’s volte face over the use of UK force. And a number of Conservative MPs had also not supported British involvement. As the votes were read out confirming that the UK would not be taking part, some Labour MPs cheered and David Cameron stood up and acknowledged, impressively swiftly, the will of the Commons. Miliband looked stunned, and other Labour MPs looked doubtful about what they had done.
The 1925 Geneva Protocol bans the use of chemical weapons. Even amidst the brutality and inhumanity of war, there are international rules which, if breached, the rest of the world has to uphold. The Muslim community in my Loughborough constituency held a vigil for Syria last month. Those present requested Western support for the people of Syria to end the horrors of war there – and that was before this latest chemical weapon attack. I believe that if we turn our backs now then we are complicit in the committing of a war crime.
Yet I know that there are many people in my constituency and ConservativeHome readers who will be muttering that the war in Syria is not our concern, that we won’t do ourselves any favours by getting entangled in someone else’s conflict and that we have enough to focus on domestically. It’s the same argument that is used to criticise international aid spending.
This seems to have been a view that Donald Trump agreed with until Wednesday. And it is clear that many of his supporters, including Nigel Farage, cannot understand why he has changed his stance. Time will of course tell whether this is a permanent change of policy towards Syria, or whether this targeted response by the US was limited only to responding to this particular barbaric chemical weapons attack by the Syrian Government on its own people.
His response also says much about the role of the US in the world. There was a fear when he was elected that the result signalled a more insular America, which would deliberately stand back from the world. Trump has chosen to step up in one way – but Hillary Clinton made a valid point in the wake of the missile strike that the US can’t talk about protecting Syrian babies and then close the doors to them.
A comprehensive policy response to the Syria situation involves addressing the refugee crisis, facilitating a political settlement involving all the different groups and populations in Syria as well as, perhaps, further military action to get the parties to the table.
In which context, we should consider the Government and CCHQ’s our ‘Plan for Britain’, being launched here in Britain. Its Point One is that we will be “A Global Britain that is outward-looking: we will forge a new partnership with the European Union that gives us control of our borders and our laws -while also trading beyond Europe, shaping decisions across the globe and working to make the world a safer place.”
In order to shape decisions and make the world a safer place, the UK has to step up too. We have to deal with the world as it is, not as some people would like it to be. I recently returned from a trip to Greece with Tim Loughton and Theo Clarke, the director of Conservative Friends of International Development, where we were hosted by Unicef.
UK aid money provided an immediate response to the 2015 refugee crisis in countries such as Greece but, since then, we have left it to deal with the thousands of unaccompanied minors still arriving there when we could offer our expertise in areas such as fostering, social care and family matching.
However much we talk about push and pull factors, refugees are still arriving, and promises we have made under the Dubs and Dublin schemes have not been fulfilled – overshadowing much of the good work the UK is doing in camps on Syria’s borders.
It is clear from talking to the Greek authorities that they are deeply frustrated that other EU countries have not taken the refugees that they said they would. In future, the UK won’t be in the EU to put pressure on our fellow member states. In the same way, we won’t be there to put pressure on EU member states about sanctions against Russia or action against Syria. One of the undebated elements of Brexit is the very real danger that the UK ends up with significantly less influence in the world, thus finding it harder to “shape decisions” as the Plan for Britain promises.
Being global and outward-looking means stepping up when red lines have been crossed, and being prepared to back up our words with actions. So I think Trump made the right call last week. However big the bully when they cross a line, someone has to push back and stand by international law. I fully support the UK Government’s endorsement of the US action.
The 2013 vote on Syria was a fundamental error by the Commons which has haunted us, and the people of Syria, since. I voted without hesitation then to support action to push back on a breach of international law and I will do so again in 2017 if it proves necessary.