I am sitting at the table in the living room, surrounded with textbooks as I type this. The television is on and switched to BBC Parliament, as it has been for the past three hours.
I am watching the debate in the House of Commons pertaining to the Government’s motion for the UK to intervene in Syria, and engage ISIS directly. I do not doubt that this is a historic night in the Commons. It is an important vote, and it is surreal to consider that tomorrow morning I could wake up to the news that the UK is at war ‘with terror’ once more in my lifetime.
I suppose we knew this was coming, even before the recent atrocities in Paris. ISIS has been gaining ground, strength in numbers and we read daily about attacks carried out by ISIS, or attacks foiled by security agencies. It was only a matter of time before countries were forced to counter-attack. Paris was simply the confirmation of what we already knew, in that ISIS is determined to wreak war and havoc in the West. The government has been contemplating British intervention in Syria for many months, but did not have the support required in Parliament. It was a fight the government was not willing to pursue, given the humiliating defeat suffered in the Commons regarding the vote to intervene against President Assad.
What a difference a few months – a few weeks – can make. The government have brought this motion to the Commons, confident of success. And to be fair, this is probably to be expected.
It has been tragedy, political expediency and political exploitation which sees us now waiting on our elected representations to cast their votes, to decide whether to conduct air strikes in Syria or not. From the Paris attacks and their aftermath, to the ongoing woes of Labour and its Pacifist leader, to the age-old quandary of diplomacy or guns, this issue is extremely complex, and heavily political.
It all commenced when David Cameron announced his intentions to combat ISIS, when last weekend Downing Street declared a vote would be called for this coming Wednesday 2nd December. The motion would highlight the government’s humanitarian and political plans, emphasise United Nations’ support. Moreover, the motion was to explicitly limit any attacks to ISIS targets and the deployment of British ground troops categorically ruled out. Cameron was delivering fiery rhetoric to emphasis the seriousness of the situation, as he ordered RAF airstrikes in order to ‘decapitate’ the leadership of ISIS in Syria. We were informed that the first missions would feature airstrikes against suspected ISIS command in Raqqa to cut off the ‘snake’s head’ of the terrorist group.
No doubt such rhetoric is personally felt, as well as politically motivated: he considers it as a ‘humiliation’ for the West that ISIS have been able to operate with impunity in Raqqa. Most notably, he must still remember the embarrassing defeat in August 2013. The government motion to take action in Syria then was defeated by 285-272. It was a narrow defeat, but a significant one. Tonight could be the opportunity for Cameron to prove that two years on, now free of a coalition government, he has been able to convince a Parliamentary majority to accept the government motion. It a gamble, perhaps the greatest thus far in Cameron’s career. Should he succeed, he will prove to be a domineering figure in Parliament, and the government will be bolstered.
Many a Conservative MP is prepared to follow their leader and Prime Minister. He also will have the support of the Northern Irish Unionists, with both the DUP and the UUP speaking in favour of the government motion this afternoon. Yet surprisingly – or, perhaps unsurprisingly – Cameron may have a sizeable contingent of Labour MPs supporting the government motion, too.
For this is also personal for Leader of the Oppositon, Jeremy Corbyn. Over the past few days, the Labour party endured vituperative splits and furious party sessions over whether to back airstrikes. The boiling point was reached after Corbyn pledged to agree an approach with his party over the weekend re a free vote, a reversal of his previous position of a fixed anti- airstrikes position. However, Corbyn then promptly announced that he would not be supporting the government’s proposal for airstrikes, and authorised his office to call upon his Momentum supporters to lobby his MPs to fall back into the (his?) party line. Cue ignited fury from a contingent of Labour MPs.
About a dozen shadow ministers, including the deputy leader, Tom Watson, were prepared to force a vote at the subsequent shadow cabinet meeting to overrule Corbyn, unless he granted a free vote on airstrikes. It was whispered that there were those prepared to resign en masse and call for Corbyn’s resignation, should he refuse to concede. By the beginning of this week however, a statement was released, stating a free vote would be granted. At the heart of the debate was the wry ironic note that Corbyn, that infamous backbench rebel, was now denying his own MPs the opportunity to rebel.
Yet civil war is brewing within Labour. This is evidenced in the distancing of Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn and Shadow Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer, amongst others, clearly showing their impatience with their leader. This was mostly likely not helped by the suggestion that Corbyn was prepared to table an amendment to the government’s motion. This would have been to the effect that the government had not argued its case. Moreover, he apparently was prepared to actually bypass the Shadow Cabinet, and get Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), now effectively controlled by his supporters, to pass a rule that Labour is an ‘anti-war party’. The effect of this would have been that any Labour MP who argued for the government motion would be de facto breaking away from the party, and thus at risk of ‘de-selection’ at grassroots level.
Political expediency comes to the fore when one realises that Cameron this Tuesday confirmed he would seek the approval of the House of Commons today, in the knowledge that Corbyn had been forced to bow to party pressure and allow for a free vote. Corbyn had lost ground and authority in the battle, whilst Cameron could call the vote, safe in the knowledge that a sizeable Labour contingent would vote in favour of the government motion.
The element of political expediency is reiterated when one considers how a recent poll suggests public support for military action has plunged from 59 percent to 48 percent since Cameron set out his case the previous week. Evidently the government are hoping to press ahead with the vote whilst Paris is still fresh in the public mind; the public are already distancing themselves from the idea of military intervention.
Early this morning I read how Cameron instructed his MPs during a meeting of the Tory 1922 committee not to vote alongside Corbyn and ‘a bunch of terrorist sympathisers’. This may have been instigated by his concern that the number of potential Labour backers was shrinking, due to increasing doubts over action and the tactics of the anti-war faction. Cameron opened himself to criticism from both sides of the Commons, evidence of the tense atmosphere and divisive nature of the vote itself. This divisive nature was further illustrated through the reporting of alleged ‘bullying’ tactics used against Labour MPs who support the government. Some were apparently left in tears after warnings received from hard-left activists. It is in this atmosphere that MPs will engage in a ten-hour long debate. It beggars belief.
How can we expect our MPs to be fully informed and engaged when they walk down the corridors tonight, confident in their decision, after ten hours of partisan bickering and months of political inertia on the issue?
How can we ever hope to fully comprehend the reasons for ISIS, why and how it was established, why and how multitudes of young people are tempted to engage in jihad and are recruited – in ten hours of debate?
Yet this is what we are expecting; we have no other choice. This is what the government is expecting, having tabled this motion so rapidly after the internal warring present in Labour reached its peak this week. We are voting whether to engage in war or not, after weeks of political exploitation, expediency and media coverage of same.
No doubt action has to be taken against ISIS. No doubt we have a duty to assist the Syrian people as their country is slowly but surely destroyed. I just find it hard to believe that a bombing campaign is the ideal solution, especially considering how the political exploitation of the Paris attacks,the desire for political point-scoring and the partisan warring of recent days is the backdrop to this important, historic vote.
After all this, I will be waking up tomorrow to the news of whether the UK will be engaging in airstrikes or not. Syrian civilians may be waking up to the noise of incoming drone strikes.
How simply surreal indeed.
Update: I stayed up to watch the remaining hours of debate and subsequent voting. Upon the announcement that that cross-party amendment to block airstrikes in Syria was defeated, I knew Cameron would have his victory this evening that he had been denied in August 2013.
Then came the results of the government motion. This passed, some 397 votes to 223. The UK will henceforth launch airstrikes in Syria, reportedly as early as tomorrow.
Cameron and the government may have won their vote tonight, but that it merely the first step in what will prove to be a long struggle. There are many challenges ahead, and the Prime Minister must now concentrate on ensuring he wins the war entire.