Parliament did not vote against military action in Syria

Ben Bradshaw

—As I write, the world appears to have stepped back from the brink over Syria. The ‘offer’ from Russia, ‘agreed’ to by Bashar al-Assad, to hand over his chemical weapons paused what had felt like an inexorable march to military action, albeit limited in scope, by the United States and allies.

This gives all of us the chance to take a deep breath, reflect on the crisis, our response and the lessons for Labour’s foreign policy.

One thing is clearer by the day: David Cameron’s decision to recall parliament on 29 August to try to bounce MPs into endorsing military action was a catastrophic misjudgement. He had not done the preparation, he had not counted the numbers, he had not made the arguments, and he failed to make the case. Whatever one’s view on Iraq, Saddam Hussein and his supposed programme of weapons of mass destruction had been a topic for years and the question of how the international community should respond to his lengthy defiance of the United Nations had dominated our political discourse for months. In contrast, Cameron was lying on a beach in Cornwall one minute and clicking his fingers expecting the Commons to vote for war the next. There was no reason for the recall. MPs were due back four days later anyway. We could have had a vote then, or, as the Americans and French have done, waited.

In that context, Ed Miliband and Labour were absolutely right to put a brake on Cameron’s rush to decision. But let us be clear what MPs actually voted for on 29 August, as there has been some rewriting of history already. Four hundred and ninety-two of the 577 MPs who bothered to turn up voted to keep the military option open. Labour’s amendment was clear and sound. It was supported by all but a handful of Labour MPs. It did not rule out supporting action but laid down five conditions: confirmation by the UN weapons inspectors that chemical weapons were used; compelling evidence that the Assad regime was responsible; a vote in the UN security council; a legal basis; time-limited action with precise, achievable objectives to deter the future use of chemical weapons. If Cameron was worried about losing his main motion he should have accepted this sensible amendment. But he was too arrogant or ill-briefed by Tory whips to do so. When the government’s own flawed motion – calling to support action, but not yet – was defeated, Miliband sought what any opposition leader would have been expected to – an assurance that Britain would not join military action without the issue being brought back for another debate and vote in the Commons first. Instead of giving that simple assurance, Cameron stood up and took the military option off the table completely. Everyone was gobsmacked. Was it petulance at his historic defeat, or fear at the size of the rebellion on his own side, or both?

What worried me and many others is that, Cameron having banked this accidental defeat, Labour then did the same. We dropped our sensible five-point plan and ruled out supporting military action whatever the circumstances. This not only prevented us from capitalising on Cameron’s defeat, it hindered us from articulating coherent answers to the obvious questions of what we would do if our conditions were met, if the United States and France went ahead anyway, or if Assad committed further war crimes. More fundamentally, we did not seem to have an answer to the question of how Britain and the world should respond to the use of chemical weapons.

Thanks to the ‘pause’ created by the Russo-Syrian ‘offer’ we have time to address these questions and recalibrate Labour policy.

First, let us not kid ourselves that this ‘offer’ would have been forthcoming without the credible threat of the use of force by the US, France, Turkey and others.

Second, we should reassert our view – shared with all civilised nations – that the use of chemical weapons is intolerable and requires a strong international response.

Third, we should keep the pressure up on Cameron to resist the isolationist tendency in his own party and work to repair the damage that his mishandling of the Syria vote and its aftermath has done to Britain’s international reputation and diplomatic clout.

Fourth, we should be firmly on the side of Democrat Barack Obama and socialist François Hollande as they seek to uphold international law on chemical weapons and ensure the Russo-Syrian offer is not simply a delaying tactic that lets Assad off the hook.

Finally, we should listen very carefully to the appeals from organisations like Save The Children, supported by many senior Labour figures, and make clear we have not abandoned support for humanitarian intervention. To turn a blind eye to war crimes is not just to learn the wrong lessons from the past, but to forget those lessons completely.


Ben Bradshaw MP is a former minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office


Photo: IHH Humanitarian Relief