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.

Photo: Getty
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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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