Britain hasn't been "diminished" by the Syria vote, it has been enhanced

We should feel proud of a Parliament that seeks to be cautious in matters of war and peace, rather than gung-ho.

You can tell things have changed on the global stage when Lord Ashdown, the granddaddy of modern British politics, uses Twitter to profess his latest thoughts: "We are a hugely diminished country this am. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism."

Ashdown’s tweet is something of a weird contradiction: the man has embraced the modern form of communication but not embraced the modern role of Britain in international relations, namely, we just aren’t that big and important anymore.

Moreover, his idea that we are a "diminished" country is something which will be reiterated by hoards of pro-interventionists in the coming days, and yet all of them will proffer no description for why any of us should care. George Osborne followed Ashdown by stating that the House of Commons vote against action in Syria would prompt "national soul-searching" about Britain's role on the world stage.

The question is: why should we care? Why does our inability to enter a foreign country, be it with troops on the ground or bombers in the sky, affect our day-to-day lives? Should we all now have a national conversation about our diminished soul? Are millions of office workers hovering around office water coolers this Friday and not discussing their weekend plans but rather asking themselves, what does it mean to be British?

Just as Polly Toynbee argued in today’s Guardian, this imperialistic undertone to those angry at yesterday’s vote is anachronistic. She called it "a long-delayed acceptance that Britain is less powerful and poorer than it was, weary of wars and no longer proud to punch above its weight. No more pretending, no more posturing."

The individuals who bemoan our falling status ignore that our great status came with greed, bloodshed and racism. We may have ruled a third of the world’s population at one stage, but they really didn’t like having us in charge. An intervention in Syria isn’t going to renew our world status, for we all know China, India, Brazil and others are growing and will soon become the biggest economies, and with it, the greatest militarily.

The pro-interventionists still seem to feel patriotism comes from conflict; the individuals who think Gibraltar and the Falklands – lands they never visit, with people who hardly pay any taxes – are the last bastions of British might. If this Syrian episode diminishes our standing, will we lose these last vestiges of British imperialism? Who cares? We won’t have to spend so much money on defence for two islands that don’t pay for it.

Just as the Iraq war didn’t make us a renewed force on the international stage, a missile strike in Syria won’t show our military strength or rejuvenate our moral standing. This has to be accepted, but it doesn’t need to be met with shame, tears or tantrums. We can all go on with our day-to-day activities; we can even perhaps focus on our own economy, our welfare state, even the NHS. Things carry on when we’re not a superpower. We can rejoice in not punching above our weight, or, as rebel Tory MP Crispin Blunt said, we can "relieve ourselves of some of those imperial pretensions."

This does not mean that the events in Syria are not despicable, nor that intervention may be necessary at some point from the US or from other bodies. But the argument that we are diminished as a nation is absurd. If anything, we in Britain today feel prouder of a Parliament that seeks to be cautious in these matters, rather than gung-ho. Yesterday Parliament won, not Palmerston.

Britannia was mighty when she ruled the waves. But wars aren’t fought on the seas anymore, and I’m okay with that. 

The Houses of Parliament yesterday as MPs debated the possibility of military action against Syria. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.