David Cameron and Ed Miliband: heroic or humiliating leadership?

Syria Vote Results

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:

I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)

So often when I witness the news reports coming in from Syria showing the after effects of the chemical attacks and incendiary bombs my heart aches for those who have been affected. Like so many of us I want to see and end to the suffering and loss of innocent life that Syria is inflicting on itself. I have little doubt that this too is the case for our nation’s leaders along with those from many other countries. To turn our backs on such evils and deliberately ignore them is not just heartless, it is plain wrong. For those who actually have the power to intervene and potentially change the situation, they have to go far beyond the theoretical arguments and opinions that the man in the street holds to making decisions that could mean life or death for others. I doubt many of us would want that responsibility.

In Proverb 3:27 it says, ‘Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.’ I believe David Cameron did the right thing by bringing the subject of military intervention before Parliament. (This debate has been a long time coming. The US have estimated that 1,429 people were killed by the chemical attack on August 21st, but the UN’s latest figures from July put the total number of deaths from the conflict at over 100,000. It is a crying shame that it has taken the use of chemical weapons despite the huge death toll to get us to this point.)
It was important that Parliament was given the opportunity to decide whether military intervention was appropriate and as you would expect, much of the seven and a half hours of debate boiled down to whether intervention came under the concept of what Christians and others would describe as a ‘just war’. Charles Reed who is an advisor to the Church of England on foreign policy issues has written a series of blog posts this week on just war and Syria. He describes the criteria for just war as just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality and prospect of success.
The first five of these could have been met, but where David Cameron and the Government’s arguments failed to persuade me and it would seem many MPs , was that there would be any significant chance of success in achieving any worthwhile and effective goals. Bishop Nick Baines posed a series of questions on his blog following the vote that are worth repeating here:
  • Is military action intended to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons and, if so, what action might achievably serve as an effective deterrent?
  • Is military action intended to weaken Assad’s military strength and disrupt his ability to fight his civil war – and, if so, how achievable is this, especially when the civil war is being fought by monsters on both sides?
  • Is military action intended to target stocks of chemical weapons and render them useless – and, if so, how does blowing them up not create an even bigger chemical problem?
  • Why is mass murder using chemical weapons the trigger for military intervention when sustained and systematic mass murder using ‘conventional’ weaponry was not?
  • Is military action intended to make a difference on the ground in Syria, or to salve the consciences of those who look on helplessly from outside?
  • What is the point of the United Nations when resolutions can be sought, but subsequently overridden by ‘exceptional circumstances’?

As a result of these and other concerns my personal view has been that military intervention at this moment in time is not appropriate, despite the situation of the Syrian people. I was therefore pleased (though surprised) that the motion was not passed. Yet despite this I came away from watching the political drama feeling troubled.

Thursday night’s vote was a sign that democracy can still be powerful in this country and this should be welcomed. The Government did not get its way but this does not make it a humiliation for David Cameron as much of the press and some in opposition touted endlessly the day after. He did make mistakes or poor choices though. Recalling MPs early, cutting their break short was unlikely to please many, especially when waiting a few more days to allow progress at the UN and intelligence information to be released would have significantly strengthened his case and allowed all MPs to return. However he did attempt to build a consensus across the political spectrum taking into account some of the lessons from the build up to the Iraq conflict. He listened to the concerns of others, especially Ed Miliband and tempered his own enthusiasm for a military strike by making concessions and changing the vote from military action to the allowance of military action following a subsequent vote. He clearly presented his case alongside Nick Clegg and asked Parliament to side with him, but despite his efforts it chose not too.

The vote still might have been won if Labour hadn’t done a last-minute about turn and voted against the motion en mass. In the days leading up to the vote Ed Miliband had gone to the Prime Minister five times asking for changes and guarantees to be made to the motion. In each case David Cameron agreed. yet despite these assurances Ed Miliband decided to do his own thing. If this was the plan all along, why make all these demands leading up to the vote? We’re still left wondering where Ed Miliband stands on the issue and if this was in fact callow party political behaviour. The cheers and hollering from the opposition benches following the announcement of the vote result only appears to strengthen this possibility.

As soon as the coverage of this vote descended into reporting tribal politics, the real issue of the plight of the Syrian people was by and large pushed to the side. This was never going to be a straightforward vote and it would seem to be a case where it should have been a free one, where MPs could vote based on their moral judgement rather than towing the party line. The war in Syria is far too serious an issue to be playing games and looking to score points against others.

When it comes to leadership, there is no greater quality than integrity. Whether it be church, business or political leaders we need people we can trust to be honest and dependable looking to serve the common good rather than their own interests. At the same time leaders shouldn’t be seen as weak just because they don’t get their own way all the time or if they make mistakes. How they respond to this says just as much about their character.

Judging by the media coverage, it’s easy to find those who were not impressed or happy with the way either David Cameron or Ed Miliband handled themselves over Syria, but at the end of the day I would much rather be living in a country led by either of them than in one ruled by a murderous despot like President Assad. For that I am constantly thankful.

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Categories: International politics, Morals & ethics, Parliament, Party politics

Tags: , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Many thanks for the blog Gillan, I come out of this week with a slightly different analysis although broadly in agreement with the overall POV. For me Cameron needs to be seen as more of a player than a facilitator. It is he along with Hollande who has been pushing Obama into an offensive position (see Moore in todays Telegraph and hear Malloch Brown at the end of this mornings Today). To take that line when he did not have a willing party or country ready behind him is either brave or stupid, or perhaps both. Too little evidence was shown to people in the Commons regarding the source of the weapons (it is now fully in the public domain) to satisfy even his own team. Whilst Miliband changed his position this is inevitable when you are being asked to come along on somebody elses mystery tour. My observation of the tribal politics is that this was at least as much a coalition fault as a Labour one, and in my view it was a great deal more the fault of Camerons front bench. However as you say this, this was not an easy day for any of the three leaders, nor us the people who were being asked to pick up the tab for an activity that may not have helped the Syrian people in any event. What really counts now is how much pressure all three parties can put on the UN to come up with a real solution.

    • Thanks Ian. I think your reading is as least as accurate as mine. Too much we don’t know fully as outsiders. I think Cameron was more brave than stupid. I’m guessing he let his hawkish tendencies get the better of him and misread the situation easily done, especially when you’ve been away on holiday!

      I agree that we need to invest our efforts at the UN now.

  2. Seems to me that the UN needs reconstituting on a democratic basis – even if they did it on a similar basis to the C of E’s General Synod, requiring a 75% majority rather than a simple majority, it would be more workable than the current situation that allows one or two dissident members to block the whole thing…

  3. well ilison to the voice of reason and the call for corshen will the forces of the tory press grind into action to lay the blame at every one door but the PM’s yet will are people feed themselves out of food banks and the children if breton loos the child credits we hear the call to spend the money they deny the oprest hear in breton having suffered the slings and arrows of ridicule pebs and under class the “fretless stay in beds” working people of britain have given voice to their anger they say no no no we are never ask never allowed a voice even the EU vot was linked to the tory getting back in power what choice is it when you have no choice it called exsplitasho and we the people say no no no to your lie we see the machine on blam grinding out the unspoken truth

    never again should we give voice to a coalition without a mandat time time now as come for all coalitions when formed to put the contract to the people for scrutiny their mandate as it were so we never again have a coalition government without a mandate had there been one i doubt they would have not been the cuts to the child car and tax credits of to day they did today . Now when they need the support of the people they sing a different choon give voice to your opinion and vote labour the party of the people for the people and who listen to the people thats politics …les

    laber give you this promise there will be no more war unless the people of britain vote for one in a referendum that you can tack to the bank …vote labour your future is safe in our hands

    • Hi Les, if Labour have made such a pledge they are more stupid than I had understood. It takes many weeks to organise referenda and there is a significant cost. What we need are 650 MPs like Sarah Wollaston who take the trouble to ask their constituents their views and then to make a judgement call (she did so on this occasion). War is never something that can be determined on the grounds of popularity. The risk is we would launch an offensive on the sick and those on benefits and travellers, and we would protect celebrities. However your comment about future coalitions is a very relevant one, we do need to prepare for any future such partnerships with some way of them getting a meaningful mandate for their work.

  4. I really struggle with the concept of a ‘just war’ although I think in some circumstances we can find justifications for way, but can any war be ‘just’ when war always seems to produce more injustice and suffering? I’m relieved the vote in the House of Commons went the way it did, because it would have opened the door to potential military intervention by Britain and I really don’t understand what positively could be achieved in Syria by such action.

  5. it as been said that they seek the royal prerogative should go to the people not the PM to stop or slow down the race to war ever herd the tale of the tortas and the hire it’s a lesson the tory need to learn along with the 7″P” prier planing and preparation provents a pis poor poformance ysr indeed i learnt that in the army having neely got my section ciled i never for got it it’s often the plebs of this world that do the dying used as cannon-fodder fire for the rich and war mongers as i often said to my officer commanding are you coming out on this one sir his reply was no but i’ll be watching how it plays out at headquarters you do not fined rich fock up at the sharp end well not many one spring to mind captain H jones mount tumbledown now that a Gent i rest my case lets see cameron leading a section out i think not

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