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Muddling Through - A Very British Response

03/12/2015 10:43 GMT | Updated 02/12/2016 10:12 GMT

As the debates rage over how the UK should get involved with the terrible conflict in Syria, I find myself wanting to consider another way. I have to confess that naturally speaking I favour leaders who act with decision and conviction. But a book that I've been reading not only discovers that domestic politics often turn out to be an inhibiting factor in international response, but also makes a strong case for incremental decision-making. Or - as it cheekily suggests - the British approach of 'muddling through'.

I was discussing the situation in Syria with friends - some of whom have suffered in civil wars. Our conversation ranged over some of the horrific results of this conflict and the effects that spill over to neighbouring countries and Europe. None of us wanted to appease. But the lack of a clear plan of what should happen next concerned even the most hawk-like of those gathered. It made me reflect on 'muddling through' and a 3rd way. It actually reminded me of the often derided wisdom of John Major. Maybe some revision to his record is due.

Could a template for today's decision be found in the history of his tenure? Perhaps the decision of Major's Government to create a safe haven in Northern Iraq, to protect the Kurds after the first Gulf war in 1991 could offer a solution for today. An incremental step, taken whilst other options mature.

Sir John Major's recent article in the Telegraph caught my eye. He talked about the growing issue of inequality and the key role of the Voluntary and Community Sector. Some of what he has said in recent times may be uncomfortable for the government. But unpopular and unglamorous causes have always been part of Sir John Major's story. It was he after all who decided to make peace in Northern Ireland a priority. The final work was done by Mo Mowland and Tony Blair, but it was Major who had the determination to work towards lasting peace.

There is also now much more recognition of the positive economic position that New Labour inherited from the 1992-97 Government. After all, some of their innovations, such as Academies and Public Sector reform were eventually readopted.

Returning to the 1991 no-fly zone created over Northern Iraq. When this was clearly not enough to protect the Kurds from vengeful Iraqi forces, Major sent in the Royal Marines to create a safe zone. The US had led a swift and effective defeat of Saddam Hussain's forces. The big campaign was won. All the headlines were attributed. George Bush had achieved his limited objectives and was basking in the success. But the backlash against the Kurds in the north was continuing. There was little enthusiasm for further intervention in a civil war. John Major sent in a force to create a safe haven. And what started as a unilateral action - with an international force - developed along the way.

Today the UN Security Council is clear that ISIS needs to be removed. But what happens in the vacuum that is left? Maybe we should look to the actions in Northern Iraq in 1991 to find, at least in part, the answers. An internationally controlled Safe Haven; an area of Syria controlled and secured by an international force until the working of the Vienna talks can be concluded.

This would both be a policy of 'doing something' whilst at the same time muddling through. And, as in 1991, a very British response.