Last Thursday, the House of Commons defeated the government motion to use force '"if necessary" by 285 votes to 272 in light of the government's belief that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. From across the political spectrum, yesterday was heralded as a wonderful day for parliament.
After the scant respect showed by the Blair government for Parliament over Iraq ten years ago, last week's government defeat, the first time since 1782 that a UK Government has lost a vote about military action, indicated that foreign policy was being wrestled back from the executive to the legislature. Not only this, but wasn't the spectacle of MPs engaged in such passionate and considered debate a glorious sight to behold? It was also a powerful statement of the 'special relationship' with the USA. No longer will Britain be the poodle taking orders from The White House.
This self-congratulatory, politicised and crass narrative is cynical and vacuous. Thursday constituted a colossal tragedy: a tragedy for the practice of politics, a tragedy for Britain's role in the world and a tragedy for the people of Syria.
It's worth bearing in mind that this vote was on the principle of taking military action and not committing Britain to it. The government, accepting Labour's demand, promised that a second vote would take place regarding the question of more concrete action. This wasn't a vote on committing British forces abroad, but symbolic, a statement on where Britain is as nation, and what our values are.
That parliament debated this matter with passion and consideration is not a cause for celebration, rather it is reassuring that the representatives of the people are able to carry out their function. And let's not equate the fact they had a debate of note with quality of debate. The experience of Iraq loomed too much, banal platitudes being spurted out of 'learning the lessons of Iraq', as if history is an unequivocal guidebook. Not only is this perspective intellectually ridiculous, but if you mention Iraq, why not mention Libya, in which limited intervention helped topple a dictator? The parallels between Syria and Libya are far clearer. Other analogies can be mentioned too: post 1991 limited attacks on Iraq helped stunt the development of chemical weapons and compelled the government into talks. We can't continue to have this chronically short term historical outlook where the previous major event dictates what's done in the next event: where negligence in Rwanda encourages intervention in Kosovo, where failures in Iraq means nothing is done with Syria.
Rather than showing the success of parliament, last week exposed a systematic flaw. For certain David Cameron and his team mismanaged the whole affair, and if they'd been more competent perhaps the motion would have passed. Sceptics made the point-rightly-that it would be rash to rush into any action until we have more information. But what is as rash is now shackling Britain, committing the nation to non-intervention irrespective of new circumstances. Before the vote all three parties supported the principle of intervention subject to various conditions. Yet now we have this farcical situation of committed non-commitment.
What does this vote say about Britain's standing in the world? Nick Robinson, the BBC's Political Editor, says that David Cameron, and by extension Britain, will cut a diminished figure on the international stage. George Osborne on Radio 4 the following day spoke of the "national soul-searching" that would now be required and former leader of the Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown tweeted "In 50 years of trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed. Britain's answer to the Syrian horrors? None of our business!" Britain's standing in the world has been diminished by it's own parliament. This isn't a bold statement within the 'special relationship.' Cameron has been encouraging Obama for months that a stronger stance is needed on Syria. Instead we look weak, subverting our standing on the international stage. And it increasingly appears France and the USA will carry out action without Britain by its side.
The desire to wield influence internationally isn't the expression of collective national ego. Rather, it is a belief that Britain should continue, as it has in the past, to advocate its core principles of justice, freedom, tolerance and the value of human life. Though it has too often failed to do this, Britain can still be proud of the instances where we have stood up for what we believe is right when most others aren't willing to do so, most notably in the face of Nazism, heeding Churchill's cry of "We will never surrender". But last week we surrendered our principles. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, warned during Parliament's debate "The Assad regime will be watching very carefully to see if they can get away with what they've done." Britain's parliament, in a day in which they congratulated themselves, says that Britain is wiling to let Syria get away with gassing its own people. What do international laws mean if a parliament votes to undermine them?
And what about The Syrians? Opponents of British involvement say we don't know what would happen if we got involved, we don't know where involvement would stop. Of course we don't know the full consequences of a decision like this; that is the nature of a difficult decision. But we have to work with what we do know. And what we do know is that chemical weapons have killed Syrians and it is highly likely they will kill more. A BBC report released just after the vote suggested that a napalm-like substance was launched against a school, killing children. Present suffering takes precedence over logistical concerns. In the week of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, his sentiment of "the fierce urgency of now" was rejected in favour of feebleness and perhaps, some might say, political opportunism.
There were cheers in parliament when the result of the vote was announced and there were cheers as Ed Miliband went along the corridor to the Whip's Office. These cheers will not be heard by the people of Syria. Rather, as a doctor cries in the BBC report, "The whole world has failed our nation. And it's innocent civilians that are paying the price." In previous times, Britain has dared to what is right. Not this time. A nation's collective memory tends to use a singular event to define an era. We remember Waterloo. We remember The Blitz. We remember The Falklands. And this is a day that we will remember as the time when we failed in our duty to the people of Syria, and we failed in our duty to the people of Great Britain.