Alf Young: Impact of decision over Syria

David Cameron. Picture: Neil Hanna
David Cameron. Picture: Neil Hanna
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David Cameron’s defeat in the Commons on Syria may yet prove to be an unlikely boost for the unionists, writes Alf Young

Something remarkable happened in the Commons on Thursday evening. When George Galloway praised the “erudition” of former Tory leadership aspirant, David Davis, and both found themselves in the same triumphant lobby, the tectonic plates of tribal party politics were clearly on the move.

In his 2006 collection, District and Circle, Seamus Heaney, who died yesterday, included a fine poem called Anything Can Happen. In part, it reads:

Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,

Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune

Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,

Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight

Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.

Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.

Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

David Cameron was more than daunted by his 13-vote defeat over intervention in Syria. The parliamentary air certainly gasped as he was humbled, humiliated even, with the help of 30 of his own backbenchers and nine Liberal Democrats who voted against him. Another cohort of 45 coalition MPs didn’t vote, whether by absence or intent isn’t clear. They included some ministers. In this omnishambles, two were there but didn’t hear the division bell.

Those overlooked regarded? The UK parliament, scarred by the memory of Iraq and over-cooked intelligence, did not take the executive at its word this time, even after that word had been watered down and a further vote promised before a single missile was dispatched. Speaker after speaker, across the political spectrum, called up the overwhelming weight of British public opinion to buttress their doubts. This was arguably a rare triumph for the power of free-flowing parliamentary debate.

In the end Cameron said he got it. There will be no British involvement in whatever shot President Obama decides to fire across Bashar al-Assad’s bows. But what does this vote say about the plight of another overlooked group – the mounting toll of victims of chemicals weapons and firestorms visited on the innocent, young and old, in the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere in Syria?

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown says he is “depressed and ashamed” of his country. Thursday night’s vote, he argues, sends a signal to Assad that whatever the travails of his benighted country, Britain thinks “it’s none of our business”.

The Syrian president can do as he will. But how would the ash and fire spores of Cruise missile strikes on strategic targets, and the collateral deaths of more innocents that would inevitably bring, stop him? That question has never been convincingly answered by the advocates of action now.

That thoughtful Scot, Pat McFadden, who sits as a Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East, called the prospect of Britain never again being able to use legitimate force to achieve a greater good in the world a “dismal conclusion”. But we can only make a ruinous civil war in the Middle East, where our record is already so tarnished by the Iraq invasion, our business if we pour our own energies into making the structures of global governance much more effective than they currently are.

There are those, Lord Ashdown among them, who see in the Tory prong of this backbench rebellion the work of isolationist little Englanders. The same people who want us out of Europe and out from under the coat-tails of Washington. There’s no doubt that, with the lid now off the Commons kettle, huge imponderables remain.

The capstones that have shifted in the past 36 hours have left the UK coalition’s foreign policy in tatters and our much-vaunted special relationship with America under fresh scrutiny and potential strain. The British aren’t coming, read one US tabloid headline. It takes a very long time for the folk memory of ancient foreign imbroglios to be forgotten.

As we have discovered ten years on from the Iraq invasion, and as Heaney reminds us, nothing resettles right. In the thick of it, before a vote had been taken, Downing Street accused Labour leader Ed Miliband of “giving succour” to the Assad regime. That allegation was repeated by defence secretary Phillip Hammond on live television. Happily, after the vote changed everything, even Hammond sounded embarrassed to have said such a thing.

It would be foolish indeed to draw any firm conclusions from the wreckage of Thursday’s motion. The prospect is that America and France will still strike out against Assad for using nerve gas on his people. It may be that Britain, thanks to David Cameron’s surprise Commons defeat, is taking its first faltering steps towards re-evaluating what its proper place is in the world of the early 21st-century.

When, in Healey’s jumbled resettling, much of the right-wing press and many right-of-centre commentators are just as hostile to Britain taking part in a military strike against Syria as more predictable anti-war opinion, when Galloway and Davis can march through the same rebellious lobby, is a different post-imperialist Britain slowly emerging?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that whatever it is, it has significant implications for this member of the United Kingdom as we approach the final year of our constitutional debate.

One of the constant refrains from those who embrace the cause of Scottish independence is that the British state is increasingly moribund, grotesquely unequal, still living on its past imperial pretensions, too ready to go to war at the behest of others. If Scotland had been independent, it would never have got embroiled in an illegal war like Iraq, sits high up the yes camp’s case for constitutional change.

But what if Thursday’s vote is one tentative sign that, as these hoary old stereotypes of Britain continue to be peddled up here, opinion across the rest of these islands is changing faster than we think? What if a more culturally diverse electorate down there is no longer willing to give their political leaders an outright parliamentary majority, let alone a mandate for another risk-loaded military intervention?

What if, as Seamus Heaney would have it, the ground is giving across the rest of Britain and anything could happen? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But in the wake of that momentous Westminster vote and the death of a great Irish poet, who hailed from the same corner of Lough Neagh my own mother grew up in, they are questions worth pondering.