How our gung-ho parliament turned against military interventionism

Blair was able to win more support for a full-scale invasion than Cameron can for arming a rebel group.

In 2003, Tony Blair made the now infamous case for the Iraq war. Despite vocal opposition from within his own party and the Lib Dems, he enjoyed the overwhelming support of Parliament. Then Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith backed the war and so did all but 15 Tory MPs. Militaristic foreign policy bought the political elite together. The atmosphere now could not be more different. As a consensus grows around Britain’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, MPs are becoming increasingly sceptical of interventionism. This is epitomised by the current split in opinion over arming the Syrian rebels.

Paul Flynn, a Labour MP who campaigned against the Iraq war, told me: "The anti-war sentiment is deep-seated among all parties. Two futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us dearly in blood and treasure."

His cynicism towards Britain’s role in the Middle East is shared by others in Parliament. Last month, Caroline Lucas led a debate in the Commons on the decision to invade Iraq, ten years on from the start of the war. The overwhelming feeling among MPs was that the government made the wrong decision.

Growing scepticism towards interventionism might also reflect Britain’s role in Libya. The 2011 action prompted little opposition (just 13 MPs voted against it) and Ed Miliband actually encouraged the government to act more quickly. Britain was better placed to intervene in Libya than in Syria; the Gaddafi regime was weaker than Assad’s and the atrocities were, at the time, seen as more 'one-sided'. The main objective of the intervention was achieved and Gaddafi was overthrown, but not all is well in post-intervention Libya. Parts of the country, particularly Benghazi, are still plagued with political violence. Many who fled at the height of the conflict are scared to return. Last month, the Libya Herald reported that 650 Libyans had refused to leave a refugee camp in Tunisia. Such reports have contributed towards the current anti-war sentiment, with MPs thinking twice before allowing Britain to support rebels in another state.

This growing movement has left David Cameron and William Hague with few allies in their attempt to argue for greater involvement in Syria. In 2003, Blair faced significant opposition when he made the case for invading Iraq, most notably from Robin Cook, who resigned from the cabinet. But he was still able to win more support for a full-scale invasion than Cameron can for arming a rebel group.

Unlikely alliances are being formed in opposition to militarism. Boris Johnson is not known for toeing the party line, but he is seldom so defiantly on the side of Ed Miliband. Last month, he warned that weapons might end up in the hands of "al-Qaeda thugs" after the Labour leader had claimed the government was too focused on arming the rebels. Eighty Tory MPs have signed a letter demanding a vote on the issue and the cabinet appears divided, with Nick Clegg and others publicly expressing their concerns.

Flynn told me: "Hague's demand that we should punch above our weight is clearly understood to lead to dying beyond our responsibilities and spending beyond our interests."

His own anti-interventionism no longer casts him as a rebel in his own party, as it did in 2003. A wind blowing through Westminster threatens to tear apart the political establishment as the Prime Minister’s critics find support from the most unlikely quarters. David Cameron may still push for increased British involvement in the Middle East but he is unlikely to have parliament – or even his own party – on side.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London on June 26, 2013, to attend Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.