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.

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Tory arguments about public sector pay are misguided and divisive

The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else.

Is Philip Hammond right? Are public sector workers better paid than workers in the private sector who hold equivalent qualifications? Yes, if we believe the Office for National Statistics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Yet the calculations do not take into account the private sector’s bonuses (though most private sector workers never have bonuses) or the public sector’s considerably better pension rights. And if you try to take account of the burdens imposed by staffing cuts (probably greater in the public sector), you will get a headache.

The calculations are further complicated by the increasingly blurred lines between the sectors. The main point of privatisation and outsourcing, regardless of waffle about “efficiencies”, is to cut wages for ordinary workers while boosting them for the boss class. It would be surprising if this project hadn’t achieved some success, though train drivers, reportedly singled out by Hammond as “ludicrously overpaid”, are unambiguously in the private sector.

The Tories contrive such arguments to divide those who are justly aggrieved by low wages. Public v private, migrants v true-born Britons, women v men, graduates v non-graduates, train drivers v less skilled workers. The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else. Hammond cannot expect nurses and teachers to accept stagnant wages just because wages for office workers and delivery people have stagnated at a lower level.

First class

For years, everyone complained that young people didn’t bother to vote. Now, they are accused of voting too much. The Electoral Commission’s report on last month’s general election, while noting “lack of evidence of widespread abuse”, says it takes “very seriously” boasts by people on social media that they voted twice. Tory MPs and defeated candidates are also taking this seriously, with students the alleged culprits.

Electoral law allows people to register in two locations if they have two residences. Students, therefore, can register at their family home and their term-time abode. In local elections, they can vote in both locations, provided different councils are involved. In general elections, they can vote only once. It is all very confusing and, theoretically, wide open to abuse. But think of the practicalities. To influence results significantly, a voter needs to have residences in two marginal constituencies and to have time, energy, money and organisation to travel from one to the other in a day. Does that sound like any student you know?

Austerity blues

Several weeks ago, I drew attention to falling life expectancy in the US and France. Now the leading epidemiologist Michael Marmot finds that increases in British life expectancy – uninterrupted since the Second World War – are “pretty close to having ground to a halt” since 2010. Marmot says it is “entirely possible” that austerity has played a role. He offers no analysis of which sections of the population are most affected but you need only read the Times’s death notices to know that top people rarely die before their nineties. I hope Labour will use this open goal.

Sex degrees of separation

Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor, may have other things on his mind, however. To the excitement of the tabloid press, he was recently photographed embracing a young blonde lawyer not his wife. Hacks unearthed the woman’s “links” to Julian Assange, whom she once represented (no impropriety alleged), and to her close friend Amal Clooney (ditto), the human rights lawyer married to George Clooney.

In London, where the political, media, arts and legal establishments are closely entwined, it is always possible to find such “links”. When I edited the Independent on Sunday, I entertained my boss David Montgomery, the Mirror Group’s chief executive, by drawing circles of relationships between leading upmarket media figures. These showed that, if you started with A, who had slept with B, who had slept with C, and so on, you could usually get back to A in about six steps. Montgomery was so thrilled that he summoned the editors of Mirror Group tabloids to admire this product of a broadsheet editor’s intellect.

Mail pattern weirdness

The Daily Mail is outraged that the new Doctor Who will be female. Male heroes, it screams, are “disappearing from the box”. Its TV critic complains that, “in almost every new British drama, men are relegated to sidekick status or else cast as moral weaklings”. Doctor Who has been ruined by lesbianism and “transgender politics”. BBC executives are “wrecking their own Saturday night mainstay to demonstrate how right-on they are”.

I worry about the Mail. Since Theresa May’s disastrous election performance – the Mail backed her more emphatically than it backed even Margaret Thatcher – it has become increasingly deranged. A few weeks ago, it blamed her failure to woo voters on the influence of “headmasters”. Paul Dacre, the editor, celebrates 25 years in the chair this year. Is it time for the proprietor, Lord Rothermere, to suggest that Dacre retires to his 17,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands where there is excellent shooting and deerstalking to be had?

Over the top

The England cricket coach Trevor Bayliss said earlier this year: “This is an entertainment business. If you are not entertaining, people don’t turn up.” Indeed. Under him, the team has developed the habit of losing a Test match by a large margin immediately after winning one. It has just done it once more against South Africa at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. And nobody can deny that, with two matches to play, a Test series squared at 1-1 promises more entertainment and more spectators than would a series in which England led 2-0. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder