Alex Massie: If we don’t help Syrians, who will?

Protesters from the groups Scotland 4 Syria, Together for Syria and Free Syrians Glasgow outside the Scottish Parliament. Picture: PA
Protesters from the groups Scotland 4 Syria, Together for Syria and Free Syrians Glasgow outside the Scottish Parliament. Picture: PA
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THE SNP’S reluctance to back Cameron and Obama sits oddly alongside its desire for an independent Scotland with a place on the world stage, writes Alex Massie

Amidst the horrors of the Syrian charnel house, the conflict’s lessons for Scotland may seem small beer. And yet the SNP’s attitude to the conflict tells us something both about the party’s vision for an independent Scotland and its attitude to Britain, Britishness and history.

A war-weary public has little appetite for fresh foreign policy adventures, even if they be strictly limited in range and purpose. In this respect the SNP is on the side of public opinion more surely than David Cameron. As Alex Salmond said this week: “We avoided engagement in Syria by the skin of our teeth.” Cue a great and nationwide sigh of relief.

Despite that, however, and despite the fact his party voted against the government’s non-binding motion last week, the First Minister has also said that he and his party remain open to military intervention provided that action is endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Which leaves one to wonder why his party helped scupper that action – or at least British participation in it – last week.

Perhaps, to dredge-up a phrase from the past, Western intervention in Syria would be an act of “unpardonable folly” but the desire to uphold longstanding international norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons is not ignoble. Actually doing so may be a task fraught with difficulty and cloaked in uncertainty, but the initial impulse is hardly reckless or the product of wild-eyed “warmongering”. President Obama may not have intended to draw a “red line” but draw it he did. And once drawn, the line must mean something.

None of the choices available to Obama (and other Western leaders) are appealing. But, unpalatable as they may be, those options do not disappear either. In an ideal world there might, as the SNP desires, be unanimous UN backing for action; as matters stand, fetishising the UN is an excuse for inaction. Consensus may be desirable; its absence should not be taken as evidence action is ill-advised or even, necessarily, illegal.

Like Walt Whitman, the SNP contains multitudes, and views are often contradictory. So be it. There are graver sins. Nevertheless, it seems worth noting that the party is, as a whole, inclined most often – from Kosovo to Syria via Iraq – to oppose positions or policies advocated by the US or British governments.

Scepticism is often prudence by a different name and opposition parties should hold governments to account. Nevertheless, the nationalists’ default suspicion of Washington and London sits a little uneasily alongside their desire for an independent Scotland to be part of a military alliance, Nato, dominated by Washington and lent significant support by London. Which makes it somewhat ironic that the SNP are, effectively, happy to grant the Russians (with whom we are not allied) the ability to veto actions favoured by Scotland’s allies.

Of course, even after independence, the Scottish voice would be a small one. Scotland would, the First Minister said, “work with our allies to help the victims of conflicts, contribute to conflict resolution and ensure that war criminals are brought before the international criminal court”. All noble objectives; all appropriate to a country of Scotland’s size and means.

Yet there is something else here too. There is, I think, a palpable sense in which the nationalists – like many others on the left – view Britain’s role in the world with some suspicion. It is an attitude that was neatly summarised by Judy Steel last year. Independence, Lord Steel’s wife suggested, would be good for Britain “as a whole” since it would “give it the chance to shake off [its] very grandiose and rather pompous history”. This is not an uncommon view on the independence-supporting liberal-left. But it has a fatal flaw, namely that many people – perhaps even a majority of Scots – do not think Britain’s history regrettably “grandiose” or disagreeably “pompous”. On the contrary, they tend to be quite proud of it.

That scarcely means Britain’s history is beyond reproach. Like any other great power, Britannia’s back catalogue is filled with moments of disgrace and horror. Nevertheless, there is much of which to be proud too. Nationalists are prone to scoff at Britain’s supposed fondness for clinging to the last vestiges of its imperial past. There is, some suggest, something ridiculous about this pretence Britain remains a significant power in the world. Time, instead, to appreciate our limitations, roll up the Union flag and accept Britain is no better – and often quite a bit worse – than other countries.

What, they ask, exalts us? What gives us the right to intervene overseas? Who do we think we are? What have we achieved anyway? Because Britain is broken at home it follows that it is broken, clapped-out and obsolescent abroad as well.

To which the answer is that if not us, then who? A world greatly influenced – though sadly not governed – by Western norms is preferable to a world in which that influence is greatly diminished. Imperfect and rife with blunders (Iraq!) and hypocrisy (support for distasteful regimes) as US leadership is, it remains the best hope for an ordered, peaceful, free planet. Britain, like France and other allies, plays a part in supporting that goal. Indeed, the United Nations – so beloved by the SNP – is largely an Anglo-American creation.

When Madeleine Albright described the US as the world’s “indispensable nation” she was not simply boasting; she was stating a fact. There is scarcely a major international problem or crisis whose resolution or containment does not depend to some degree on American leadership or intervention. Opting out may be an option but it comes at a price too.

Liberal democracy is not a given. Its triumph is still limited. The Western democracies are great achievements. Look at other places if you doubt this. There are only a handful of countries committed to the free society who are also capable of deploying force to protect it or advance, in however limited a fashion, its values. A Britain, jaded and cynical as it may be, that leaves that club weakens the collective.

There are many persuasive and cogent reasons not to take action in Syria and it is understandable so many people are so haunted by the ghosts of Iraq, even though the two issues are very different. Nevertheless the answer to the question “what exalts us?” lies, in part, in our past commitment – imperfect and uneven as it may have been – to those principles.

That is not something of which to be ashamed. Nor is it something to be cast aside carelessly or disdained as a vainglorious historical relic. A military intervention chiefly designed to send a message that even in the midst of a vicious civil war certain minimum standards of behaviour are still expected is, of course, an intervention fraught with difficulty. It is sensible to ask what happens next? There are good reasons to be suspicious. And yet, with some exceptions, the moral sanction on the use of chemical weapons has been a success. It is one worth trying to preserve too.

Perhaps it is all an accident of history. But with power and wealth comes responsibility. A better, nicer, world might not ever require the use of force but that is not the world we have. Why us? Because history put us here and because someone needs to do it.


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