The Dog that Barked

Anyone with a shred of decency will find it impossible to celebrate Parliament’s vote opposing military intervention in Syria as such, because we all know the level of suffering happening there, but we’ve got no real reason to believe intervention would make things any better. To tell you the truth, I’m never sure what the best course is in situations like this. Even though the UN can sometimes seem pretty farcical, my innate need to see the rule of law respected is a factor. It’s all well and good saying that Russia, China and Iran are obstructive but why should they respect the UN if we don’t? The closest I’ve come to an answer to my questions over Syria was Hans Blix’s Opinion in the Guardian.

And yet…And yet there’s a grim sense of satisfaction that our MPs learned something from Iraq. I’ve never respected Jack Straw except in the moment he admitted the mistakes made during his tenure as Foreign Secretary. There’s also a grim sense of satisfaction for some of us in seeing David Cameron lose face in such a dramatic manner. It’s not over though. It can’t be until there’s peace in Syria. More evidence will mount. Assad will attack his people again. Diplomats will do their thing. We may still end up with military intervention. Questions are inevitably being asked now though. Should there be a vote of no confidence? What will this do to our relationship with the USA?

I’m not very keen on a vote of no confidence because I can see things getting worse. We’re all asking ourselves what the consequences of military intervention in Syria would be but many seem to have no qualms about demanding Cameron’s head. Michael Gove is tipped as a successor, the man who reportedly rounded on Tory rebels shouting at them that they’re a disgrace after the vote last night. It’s bad enough the man’s in charge of educating the country’s children. The huge question is what would Nick Clegg do? Would the Coalition just trundle along with someone at the helm who doesn’t even pretend to listen to anyone? Gove would have whipped Tory MPs more effectively last night. I have absolutely no doubt about that but it’s not a compliment.

Since the Syrian chemical attack David Cameron and William Hague had been in a bullish mood. They pushed and they prodded, declaring themselves to be the conscience of the world and forcing Obama’s hand. The USA’s staunchest ally effectively called its president out as a coward. If Obama’s administration has been paying any attention to British domestic politics in the past few years it would know that it’s really not that unusual for ministers, and particularly the prime minister, to declare a position and then be forced to back down when their policies are ill-conceived and lack support. If we’ve been able to see the way Cameron’s been pinging around like a pinball over the past week, trying to get support, the Americans have had ample opportunity to do so too. No matter what Cameron may have said to Obama, the fact that he had a battle on his hands was obvious.

Yes, there may be some politicians in the States who took British support for granted but they’ve been operating on faulty intelligence if they did. Cameron said the evidence that Assad was behind the chemical attack was out in the open for the world to see. Well, the evidence that Britain may not intervene was there too. It was there in the fact that the party with the most seats doesn’t have a majority. It was there in Cameron’s plan back in 2006 to scrap the prerogative to go to war against the will of Parliament. It was there in the British public’s exhaustion with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our suspicion ever since the revelation of the dodgy dossier. It was there in the fact that going to war remains the least popular move Tony Blair made while in office. It was there in the fact that Tory MPs were outraged by the idea of a whipped vote on Syria and also in their rebellion over equal marriage, demonstrating to a watching world that divisions do exist within parties here. It was there every time ministers have made a policy announcement only to have to u-turn since May 2010.

Whether the USA should doubt the strength of the relationship between the two countries in the long run is doubtful though. It would be right not to take things our executive says at face value but then if anyone knows what it’s like to have the rug pulled out from under him by a hostile parliament, it’s Obama. Who in Britain who pays attention to such things hasn’t been horrified by the lame duck presidency? Unable to deliver time and again in a political climate where consensus is a dirty word and the legislature has grown so still it’s grown a film of pond scum. Cameron surely wouldn’t dare to say it but people standing on a fiscal cliff shouldn’t throw stones. They might turn out to be the only stones stopping a full scale landslide. If you look at the past couple of weeks in isolation, and doubtless many pundits in the USA will, Cameron looks weak and unreliable but I believe that assessment would be wrong. He’s achieved an extraordinary amount in office, in circumstances where where the odds really should’ve been stacked against him. I loathe just about everything the Conservative party stands for but Cameron has achieved something Obama hasn’t. He’s taken a weak election outcome and worked it to a quite remarkable degree. He got a Coalition partner willing to go along with just about anything and an Opposition which remains inclined to steer itself towards the Tories, rather than away from them.

Of course, there are serious differences in how our two political systems operate. We have more shades of grey in the UK. Our parties aren’t so far apart or so stubbornly entrenched. That works in Cameron’s favour. It gives him more opportunities to win, enables him to pick up votes from other parties as he did with equal marriage. Looking at how often and why he succeeds and fails, rather than whether I support his policies, there’s a pattern with Cameron. His greatest weakness as a leader is probably his tendency to leap in without enough thought or time to consult, without being certainhe has support. I tend to think this is the public schoolboy arrogance at play. His instinct is to assume he’ll get support because he’s so sure he’s right but he doesn’t have the flaw of expecting obedience above all (unlike, I would suggest, Michael Gove). When I mock Tory u-turns, I do it because the original proposal was ludicrous and insufficiently thought through and because I’m petty enough to enjoy seeing Cameron having to climb down but I’d rather have a PM pragmatic enough to concede sometimes than one who ploughs on regardless. There’s more to the man than sheer arrogance. Cameron’s eventual willingness to assess the situation and bend if necessary may be his greatest strength from my perspective of opposing him most of the time, even if self interest is the reason for that willingness. It’s the byplay between his flaw and his strength that puts him in awkward situations like the present one though. Obama would have every right to be angry that our politicians’ rhetoric forced him to move in a direction he seemed reluctant to move in. It happened, in short, because Cameron is the man he is but is it enough to do long term damage to relations between the USA and the UK? I doubt it.

Note 3/9/13
Although I’ve given David Cameron a shred of credit here for knowing when to admit defeat I ought to add that I think that much of what he and his cabinet colleagues have said since the vote (to the extent I’ve seen it since Friday which isn’t that much) has been ungracious at best and absurd at worst, which isn’t altogether surprising. I should also acknowledge that whatever reluctance Obama may initially have had about Syria seems to have been swept aside, if the language coming from him and his administration is anything to go by. They are having a go at Britain but I stand by my view that they’ve got a real cheek to criticise anyone for a failure to win a vote in the legislature.

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