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UK: The Syria Hangover

by Rob Marchant – Senior Fellow

4th September 2013. Security and Defence, Issue 3, No. 3.  

Perhaps we should stake out the case for interventionism in very simple terms: an internationalist party does not stand by and permit the slaughter of children in gas attacks.

If Westminster is often a bubble, on frenzied days like last Thursday it becomes even more so. Everyone is waiting for the latest news. What can easily happen, and what seems to have, is for Parliament to forget about the world outside entirely until it is over.

As the Telegraph reports, some Labour MPs, as they left the parliamentary lobby giddy with unexpected victory, were rudely jolted back to reality by pictures of Syrian victims of incendiary bombs, as a reminder of what had just collectively been achieved by voting down intervention, without necessarily meaning to. The hangover had begun.

It is particularly easy to miss the impact of such things in the wider party, the decent people who organise raffles and knock on doors. Over the weekend, I was in touch with two centre-left colleagues (and no, neither was Dan Hodges), one of whom was seriously considering leaving a party of which he had not only been a member for a generation, but had worked for during more than a decade.

The other would have resigned, but it was Saturday and she couldn’t get through to the membership department. Another typical story from one young member leaving is blogged here.

The consequence of Thursday, it seems, is now a leakage of the very centrist common sense the party so badly needs. Perhaps there would have been even more from the left, should Miliband have opted for intervention. We will never know.

When you make a tough decision on a touchstone issue, there is always the risk that you will lose people to the left or right. That’s politics. Miliband’s apparent instinct is firstly to stake out a position more or less in the political middle of his party and tack slightly from it this way and that, to try and keep the party together. We might argue that perhaps it would be better to stand still, but ok.

But it seems that – unless something happens which truly threatens the party and its leadership, like the battle with Unite – in that last moment when he is finally forced to jump one way or the other, one cannot help but feel the instinct is always to rabbit-run to the left.

And that in itself might be understandable to many, were it not for the way that the jump was made in this case. A last-minute change of mind, after Cameron’s meek acceptance of all Labour’s conditions, led to a breakdown of trust which seems to have torpedoed the idea of intervention altogether, quite probably permanently.

We might be on one side of this debate or the other, but what we cannot pretend is that something minor has just happened. That it is an inflection point in Miliband’s leadership, and in British politics, is undeniable (it is, after all, the first time a vote has been lost on a matter of national defence in over two centuries).

What also cannot be denied is that we went from a position with all main parties professing to want to intervene under the right conditions, to a position where intervention is suddenly off the table.

In short, a bungle.

We might care less about Cameron’s bungles; it is merely important for him to stop being prime minister. We should, however, care deeply about Miliband’s, because they may well prevent the former happening.

It might seem to the casual observer that the tyranny of conventional wisdom is leading British politicians to behaviours more worthy of corporate lawyers than of humans. We are over-complicating, hiding behind process, prevaricating to ease our consciences.

So perhaps we should stake out the case for interventionism in very simple terms.

One: an internationalist party does not stand by and permit the slaughter of children in gas attacks. And, as a proud member of an internationalist party, I do not believe Syrian Muslims have any less right to the protection of those few privileged countries positioned to be able to help them than the European Christians we have more traditionally defended at many times in our history. Or European Muslims, whom we saved in Kosovo, or European Jews, to whom we solemnly promised “never again”.

To all those who felt wretched about Bosnia, about Rwanda: the current thin-end-of-the-wedge argument is merely a convenient spectre to preclude us from action against genocide, which we are, incidentally, collectively obliged by the UN to prevent.

Two: because non-intervention gives a green light to dysfunctional regimes the world over to massacre their own populations with chemical weapons with impunity. This is about future deterrence, not just current prevention.

Three: because this is not just something which threatens to make the whole region explode into a conflagration which will make Iraq look like a tea-party. Aside from the clear humanitarian need, it is blindingly obvious that Britain cannot just leave it to “diplomatic, political and other pressure”, because less scrupulous regimes – mainly Russia – are already there stirring the pot. We either stand up to those forces or we do not. Not standing up to them merely emboldens them.

This is not just a challenge by a genocidal dictator. It is also, make no mistake, a proxy challenge by a resurgent authoritarian power, led by a man for whom democracy has been but a brief tea-break in a continuing Cold War. The Russian ship currently on its way to the Mediterranean is not a joke.

Putin’s shameless denial that the attacks were carried out by the Assad regime as is principally an embarrassment for his country, but also shows his pitifully low regard for the truth.

We will be seeing more killing in the coming weeks and months. And if Obama fails to get the support of Congress to stop it, it will not be a “victory for democracy” as eager mouths rushed to describe last Thursday’s events.

It will, simply, be a win for the butcher of Damascus; a win for other would-be perpetrators of genocide. And it will be a win for Vladimir Putin, friend to dictators and anti-democrats everywhere.

Rob Marchant is contactable at:


Please cite this article as:

Marchant, R. (2013). ‘UK: The Syria Hangover’

Human Security Centre, Defence and Security, Issue 3, No. 3.

About Rob Marchant

Rob Marchant is a Senior Fellow at the HSC. He is a political commentator, management and communications consultant, Labour activist, social entrepreneur and blogger. He previously worked as a senior manager for the Labour Party through the 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns. He writes for The Centre Left and, as well as in the New Statesman,the Huffington Post and in his regular column at LabourList, publishes at LabourUncut, Left Foot Forward, Harry’s Place and Progress.