When the result of the division on the Government motion was announced I was stood at the back of MPs crowded at the entrance to the Commons. So I didn’t see the Labour whips move to the position where the winners of the vote get to shout out the result. The stunned silence quickly gave way to tasteless Labour cheers. Low politics had collided with complex diplomacy.
The Prime Minister and the Deputy PM had recalled Parliament to stage the first defeat of the Coalition. And I was on the losing side with them. Everyone seemed pretty stunned by the result. It may have been avoidable if Ministers had been able to invest more time in winning over sceptical colleagues, like the Obama Administration is doing with Congress. But that would have depended either on Labour shrugging off the shadow of Iraq or some Tories embracing internationalism over isolation.
So where does this leave Britain’s place in the world? In the short term, just a bit muddled. But pretty quickly we have to decide whether our future foreign policy is predicated on Britain being an outward looking international player or a shrunken hulk of isolationism. There are those on the right of the Tory party, haunted by UKIP, who want Britain to withdraw from the European Union and don’t seem to place much value on the US “special relationship” either. Bizarrely, some of the same people want to increase defence spending and renew Trident.
Labour are desperate to put the spectre of Iraq behind them. But Syria is not Iraq. Assad has weapons of mass destruction and is prepared to use them. When we voted on Thursday it was not at the last moment with hundreds of thousands of UK and US troops poised at the border, as in March 2003. There had been no “dodgy dossier” or partial advice from the Attorney General. The Coalition Government cooperated with the Opposition on the motion and promised a second vote ahead of any military strike against Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons again. Unlike 2003, the government was proposing joint action with a Democrat US President, with a Socialist French President on board too. Labour MPs might think that the defeat of the Coalition’s motion was smart domestic politics, covering up Miliband’s lacklustre summer and putting distance between them and the Blair legacy. But I think they will soon regret ignoring the case for humanitarian intervention. It’s a long way from the spirit of the socialist international brigades and Spanish civil war posters saying “if you tolerate this, then your children will be next.”
I voted with the government because I am a liberal internationalist. I want Britain to play a full role in an enlarged European Union. The EU’s newest member is Croatia. Macedonia is next in the queue. In the mid 1990s I was ashamed that the Major government did not do more to restrain Milosevic’s ethnic clensing in Bosnia. I applauded Blair for acting swiftly when people were burned out of their villages in Kosovo.
I believe it is the duty of advanced democracies to use their resources to advance and protect human rights around the world. In the main, that should be through peaceful means. Trade agreements, cultural exchanges and a generous aid programme are all part of the mix. I am proud of the fact that the Coalition government will this year hit the forty year old target of 0.7% of our national income being allocated to international aid. We will have almost doubled the budget of the International Development Department in a time of fiscal austerity elsewhere in government.
But sometimes we have to wave a big stick against regimes that are not interested in diplomacy and human rights. That’s why I voted to intervene in Libya two years ago, to avert a massacre by Gadaffi. That’s why I would still vote to support British participation in a surgical strike against Assad’s ability to mass murder Syrian civilians. It would not be about regime change or taking sides in a civil war. It would certainly not be an Iraq style invasion. But it would be about doing what we can to protect the lives of innocent people from the barbarous actions of a brutal dictator.
My conscience is clear after Thursday’s vote. But I am worried about Britain’s place in the world and whether people fearing oppression and destruction will in future look to us for hope and salvation.