Monday, 9 September 2013

A British Question ?

It's been nearly a fortnight since the remarkable events of August 29th when the House of Commons took the almost unprecedented step of voting down a motion led by a sitting Prime Minister to go to war. The Commons voted 288 to 275 to reject a Government motion authorising military strikes against Syria if it were found that chemical weapons had been used in the attack of August 21st in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

With that vote, the British, for the first time since Vietnam, voted to absent themselves from direct support of a US military action. The blizzard of rhetoric about "the end of the Special Relationship" was matched in its mania, verbosity, illogic and stupidity by the anti-Labour spinners on who claimed that far from being a defeat for David Cameron, the vote was a defeat for Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. Given that the British public has comprehensively rejected military intervention in every poll before and since the vote, that's a hard one to argue.

David Cameron operates by trying to be on the right side of political and public opinion at all times. It's a form of populism which would have appalled the late Margaret Thatcher who would often start from an unpopular thesis but then seek to convince and persuade (though she also had the not-inconsiderable advantage of 100+ majorities in the Commons). Cameron does nothing that would antagonise the Daily Mail (though he doesn't always succeed) or The Sun on whose support he relies to carry his message to the public.

I suspect he believed that the British public would be appalled by the pictures coming out of Damascus and would support a strong military response to chemical warfare. He was wrong. The ghost of Iraq makes any kind of military intervention in the Middle East suspect and the use of "intelligence" to make the case compounded the political error. Put simply, Cameron couldn't convince the British people or even elements of his own party of the wisdom of his viewpoint.

That's not of course stopping the neo-Cons like Hague and Gove continuing to argue vehemently for intervention but while it might still happen, the British won't be directly involved and for that most people seem grateful.

As for Syria, the protestations of innocence from Bashar el-Assad are being ignored as America ramps up the rhetoric though John Kerry's shambolic near incoherence at his Press Conference in London would have convinced no one of the merit of the Administration's policy. Instead, as might have been expected, Russia is now seeking to defuse tension by urging Syria to accept international inspection and destruction of all chemical warfare stocks.

This is a positive move and to be encouraged.

In Britain, the debate has moved on to that which has bedevilled the country since 1945 - Britain's place in the world. It has been said that Britain has lost an Empire but has yet to find a role. Arguably, Britain has had no freedom of independent foreign policy since August 1914 when we could arguably have stayed out of the emerging European War but chose not to.

Since 1945, we have only once tried to carry out a policy opposed by the Americans and that was the Suez debacle. The French have been able to chart a more independent policy - staying out of the military wing of NATO for many years and intervening in their former African colonies with varying degrees of success.

One school of thought is that Britain could be a valuable part of an emerging European power - working in concert with Germany and similar countries but that runs into decades of caricature and stereotypical characterisation of Europeans. With that avenue closed, we find ourselves as a bridge between the United States and Western Europe as a pivotal member of NATO.

Yet with the Cold War part of history, the emphasis of American policy is shifting to the Pacific as China emerges as a potential economic and military rival in Asia. This leaves Europe looking like a backwater on the wrong side of the world in the forthcoming Pacific Century. Even former Commonwealth nations such as Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand see their interests in terms of the developing US-China scenario than in European terms.

For those countries which knew defeat and occupation, the post war period has in some ways been an easier experience but for Britain, victory has been a more sobering experience. Unable to live with the United States and Soviet Union, Britain has found its role more difficult to ascertain. In an austere economy with limited resources, the luxury of powerful armed forces to project British force to all parts of the world no longer exists.

It is a reality the British public and the Labour Party has come to appreciate, the interventionist Conservatives on the other hand seem wedded to a foreign and military policy and role which is no longer relevant, justifiable or affordable.

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