Syria: Britain says no

The papers are full of the humiliation of David Cameron, while Polly Toynbee waxes lyrical about Britain finally loosing its pomposity of the imperial age. Both are shoddy reading of an intractable and dangerous situation which threatens the lives of million, and when something much more serious is taking place in the British psyche than petty lefty narratives.

The British public and the British Parliament remembered how they had been lied to by its executive. Admittedly it was a Labour government and a different premier, but the legacy of the Labour years on public trust in government has been to sear deep in our consciousness how 'they' are not to be trusted, especially when it comes to being honest and war. The Labour attempts to fashion an ethical foreign policy, first under Robin Cooke but later embraced as a major tenet of government policy, was built on the belief that we had the measure of right and wrong, whereas other nations, such as Rwanda, Sierra Leon, Serbia, Bosnia etc did not. With the swagger of lefty self importance of knowing best Britain began a series of international interventions in theatres of war which had little or no relevance to us, either geographically or historically.

This willingness to dictate the way of life for others without a second thought is found across the lefty world of NGOs, whose whole existence seems at times to be rooted in that philosophy. We, the wealthy westerners, know best what is good for you. You need our cash, so we will give that to you but only on our terms. We don't trust you to do it yourself. And we will employ western people on western salaries to run the offices in your country, while employing your local people at local wages to do the work. Our terms, our conditions, do it our way or not at all. And all with an earnest belief that this is all just, ethical and just right. So, to be fair to Tony Blair, he was merely reflecting the mentality of those at the cutting edge of 'development' work, and it sounded a lot better than the mercurial self interest of aid being tied to arms sales etc. But in the end, this was about the way in which the old imperial mentality had survived among the chattering classes of the left, which might have a lot to do with the preponderance of Oxbridge and public school boys working on the circuit of international development agencies. And Tony Blair would fit completely into that, just like David Cameron does.

David Owen wrote a book on hubris, focused on Blair and Bush, and neatly traced the way in which well meaning liberals Blair and  Clinton ended up pursuing foreign policy on so called ethical grounds. Blair was a key developer of the theme and in many ways pushed Clinton into this new era of engagement. The pity was that his first operation, in Sierra Leon, was a great success with little loss of British life and with massive gains for the stability of that society. This gave a false sense of the ease at which British Prime Ministerial ethical codes could be worked out on an international stage. This set the stage for the development of a policy by which Britain and its major partner the USA could with enthusiasm and with an almost messianic sense of purpose strut the world stage deploying the brutal magnificence of its unsurpassed military might.

The depth of this messianic purpose was laid clear for all to see over the Iraq war. An unprecedented 1 million people demonstrated in London against going to war, but Blair was totally unmoved, swatting it away as a minor irritation by people who just didn't 'get it'. He pressed on regardless of his own party and even his cabinet. We remember Claire Short and her principled and lonely exit. The rest of the government machine succumbed to the will of the Leader, Parliament was whipped behind the Prime Minister's dodgy document and  war was war, without a second thought, and until today Blair almost brags about it, being a sign of real leadership, of a strong moral compass, of Britain's destiny in the modern world.

That Blair rounded so strongly to the cause against Syria perhaps was the death knell for Cameroon. Having positioned himself as heir of Blair, and resonating with the same sense of purpose in world development, and having had his own 'Sierra Leon' moment over Libya, I think Parliamentarians, even in his own government, woke up just in time. This was not about Ed Milliband being clever for once. This was about people suddenly getting the whiff of the same stench that embroiled Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan and in shock saying, not again. That there was no definitive evidence of the Syrian government's responsibility added to that lack of confidence in this being a right course of action, and despite Cameron's honesty about never being absolutely sure (in obvious contrast to Blair's insistence on weapons of mass destruction) it was all too familiar.

After years of Parliament being reduced to a stage managed chorus to the executive's prime performance British democracy woke up, at last. Maybe it won't last, I am sure the government machine will now go into vicious overdrive driven by the bashed ego of the Prime Minister and his colleagues, but that it did the right thing gives real hope that democracy British style is still alive, has a bite and maybe has a future. If so, then perhaps a more informed, and accountable executive that isn't whisked along on its own fervour and self-righteousness will be able to play a much more mature and nuanced part on the international stage,one where its own self-respect is mirrored on the regard its international partners have for it, not based on its impressive, imperial past but on the intrinsic values and institutions which once enabled it to create such an empire and which in a more egalitarian age, enable it to walk with wisdom on the contemporary world stage.


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