Please note: This site covers the period that I was a Member of Parliament from May 2010 to June 2017.
The House of Commons debate on Syria and the use of chemical weapons should have been about healing some of the damage done to the level of trust on these issues between our people and our government by the Iraq War. Indeed, I believe that was the part of the intent behind the Prime Minister’s decision to recall Parliament.
In the end, rather than rebuilding trust, the result has been to question that trust further and to create an unsustainable basis for future decision making on military action by the United Kingdom. More pressingly, the next time that Mr Assad decides to use chemical weapons on women and children, the United Kingdom will, effectively, sit on our hands and do nothing.
Is that really the outcome we wanted? How did we end up in this situation?
Many people in Bedford and Kempston, like many other people across the United Kingdom are weary of British military involvement in foreign conflicts. They see the expense – in terms of lives lost and money spent and, though never doubting the bravery of our armed services, they doubt the wisdom of our involvement. Even more seriously, a sense of deceit over the justification for the Iraq War has left people deeply sceptical of much of the substance of any decision about military engagement: the quality and veracity of intelligence; the intentions of our allies; and the assessment of our top military commanders about the consequences of any “initial” action.
Such scepticism, in the circumstances of recent history, is understandable and even laudable to an extent. However, it does not provide a secure basis, or a better alternative, for decision making on issues of conflict than properly managed executive leadership. Why?
The most obvious reason is that Members of Parliament, though more responsive to public opinion, do not, and should not, receive the same level of information and intelligence as the Prime Minister. MPs, like me, make our decisions based on inferior knowledge and with less time for consideration and reflection. We rely on the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary to have done that additional work, and without trust in their judgement, our decision making will be poorer. In my view, we should certainly question assertively, but usurp authority only in exception.
A second reason is that to participate as an effective member of an international alliance, the Prime Minister has to be seen as a decision maker, not as a delegate with limited authority that might be countermanded. Mr Cameron was quite right, and he showed great character, when he announced his acceptance of the will of the House of Commons. However, I am sure he was aware of the consequences for how a British Prime Minister will be able to conduct international diplomacy with our allies in future. Though lauded by some as a victory for the legislature, in truth most democracies recognise the importance of executive discretion on actions by their military. Yesterday, the House of Commons eviscerated that for the United Kingdom.
It is also worth commenting on the actions of Mr Miliband, for I believe he will soon see the foolhardiness of his decision to divide, rather than unite, the House of Commons. If there had been substantive, irreconcilable differences, then he would have had justification for his actions. In fact, the amendment Mr Miliband proposed, and the statements he made in his speech, demonstrated vanishingly small difference from the position of the Prime Minister.
So, having been briefed by the Prime Minister and our military leaders, why was it not possible for Mr Miliband to discuss and resolve these differences privately, rather than publicly? Having created his own personal “roadmap”, without reference to, or support from, our own military and diplomatic experts, how did Mr Miliband believe he could have progressed this further?
Mr Miliband could have made a powerful contribution to the restoration of trust between the British people and their government. He could have spoken with knowledge and authority about the similarities and differences between the issue today and those at the time of Iraq. He could have expressed his differences with the Prime Minister and created his own political position on this issue, without creating division. Mr Miliband could have helped the healing. A mature consideration of his actions will leave little doubt that there were better options available to him and that his chosen course has made things worse not better.
The United Kingdom has a permanent seat on the Security Council, and we were instrumental in framing of the constitution of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We led the world in setting international agreements on emerging technologies such as chemical and nuclear weapons. We helped remove barriers to international trade and created momentum on global development goals that have freed hundreds of millions of people from subsistence living and poverty.
We achieved these things because we were in a position to do so, and because we understood the responsibilities that attended to that position. Yesterday, we took a step back from those responsibilities. The world will be poorer as a result.