War has always been a topic that has caused the Labour Party problems and it seems increasingly possible that whether or not Britain should bomb Syria has the potential to create deep, and possibly irreparable, splits in the modern party. There’s a particular oddness in this situation, since Britain’s capacity to have any significant influence in Syria is almost zero. But the symbolism is crucial, I suppose. It is, however, depressing that this moral debate has become a weapon in the battles of Labour factionalism.
Over the last week I have listened to those who oppose war at any cost and I wonder if some of them are aware that people are dying in their thousands at the hands of ISIS and Assad (and, indeed, those who are opposing both of these regimes). As long as they don’t have anything darkening their conscience this group seems willing to turn a blind eye to slaughter done by others. Not so much “Stop The War” as “Stop Some Wars”. By the same token, I listen to some of those who support intervention and I hear no realistic plan to achieve meaningful change in the region – nothing that dissuades me from the belief that, for many, bombing Syria is about satisfying a desire to smash someone, anyone, in frustration at not being able to do anything useful.
I have watched the fervent clarity of people on both sides of this argument with a good degree of disbelief.
On the “anti-war” side some talk as if the only innocent people being killed are those who are under Western bombs and, as long as we don’t do anything, things will magically turn out to be fine. A recurring theme is that bombing Syria is bad because it will increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the UK – but this is a horrifyingly cowardly position: the idea that Syrians murdered by ISIS or Assad are acceptable losses as long as we are “safe” is shameful.
On the other side some seem to see war as some sort of game. I saw one Tory MP, Crispin Blunt, argue on Newsnight that the key issue was the UK’s credibility as a major power. This is so far from being the key issue that it’s bewildering that anyone can think like this. Meanwhile, all around, there are gung-ho armchair generals getting their pants wet at the prospects of expensive bombs and frontline footage.
Both sides seem divorced from reality.
If we don’t act, more Kurds and Yazidis, more of those fighting ISIS and Assad’s brutal regime, more ordinary Syrians, will die at the hands of the twin tyrants attempting to rule them. If we do act, innocent people will die under Western fire and there’s no evidence of a realistic plan to create a stable Syria that isn’t just an extension of tyrannical rule or, worse, a repeat of the disastrous post-war “settlement” of Iraq.
Innocent lives will be lost if we intervene. And innocent lives will be lost if we don’t.
Sometime next week, MPs will probably have to make a decision and I genuinely don’t envy them. There are no tidy solutions and no good answers.
The best MPs will be struggling with their consciences, trying to balance many evils to pick the least worst option. If ever there were a political decision that should be respected as a matter of conscience, it is the one regarding the decision to use military force. If ever there was an issue where party interest and the mechanics of Parliamentary whipping should have no moral sway, it is when we discuss war.
What has been so disturbing about this debate within the Labour Party is how this issue has been weaponised in a factional struggle. There have been too many insults, too much certainty and posturing, and too much political gaming both by the shadow cabinet and the leadership.
The ill-judged decision by Corbyn to try to use his activist supporters to undermine shadow cabinet collective responsibility is dangerously divisive and designed to provoke. This so-called consultation isn’t a measure of party opinion – it’s open to all, member or not, and anyone can “vote” as often as they like – so it’s nothing more than a cynical manoeuvre in an internal struggle. Corbyn is supposed to be leading a party with aspirations to run a nation, not behaving as if he was engaged in the factional struggles of a student union.
What we do in Syria is a complex moral question that should be demanding our full attention. Instead it has become a pawn in a struggle between a left-wing leader attempting to impose his moral certainty on others and those from the right itching for an mistimed fight they cannot win. The right’s attempts to use of this issue as a political “trap” have been just as cynical as Corbyn’s manoeuvres and demonstrates a lack of judgement. Turning this issue, of all issues, into an opportunity to pursue an internal feud has been pretty shameful.
Labour has already lost this debate.
We have, through our infighting, somehow ceded the moral high-ground to the Tories (who at least look as if their main concern is the national interest) and we have failed to offer any sense of leadership or guidance to the British public, preferring to talk to ourselves.
In our debate and our thinking, our fighting and our manoeuvring, we have abandoned the Syrian people.
What is the right thing to do? I don’t honestly know and I don’t imagine anyone really cares about my opinion. On balance I would probably vote against military intervention – but I’d do so reluctantly, recognising that the people of Syria, faced with the threat of ISIS and Assad deserve more than warm words and a washing of hands. There is almost certainly no negotiated settlement with ISIS and the much touted “solution” of cutting off their oil money will only lead to more suffering for those who find themselves trapped beneath the heel of their boots as the regime bleeds slowly to death. But military action without a clear strategy for victory and rebuilding is a recipe to repeat the disaster of Iraq.
It’s at moments like this that I don’t envy MPs their role. Nothing they do is likely to do good, but doing nothing will certainly do harm.