Ed Miliband's Commons statement on Syria: full text

"I do not rule out supporting the Prime Minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today".

I rise to move the amendment standing in the name of myself and my Right Honourable friends.

And I start by joining the Prime Minister in expressing revulsion at the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians in Ghouta on the 21 August.

This was a moral outrage and the international community is right to condemn it.

As the Prime Minister said, everyone in this House and most in the country will have seen the pictures of men, women and children gasping for breath and dying as a result of this heinous attack.

I can assure members of this House that the divide that exists does not exist over the condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and the fact that it breaches international law.

Nor does it lie in the willingness to condemn the regime of President Assad.

The question facing this House is what if any military action we should take and what criteria determines that decision and that’s what I want to focus on in my speech today.

And I think it’s right to say at the beginning of my remarks that the Prime Minister said a couple of times in his speech words to the effect of ‘we’re not going to get further involved in that conflict. This doesn’t change our stance on Syria’.

Now I’ve got to say to the Prime Minister, with the greatest respect, that is simply not the case.

For me that does not rule out military intervention – I want to be clear about this. But I don’t think anybody in this House or anybody in the country should be under any illusions about the effect of our relationship to the conflict in Syria if we were to militarily intervene.

Now as I say and as I will develop in my remarks, that does not for me rule out intervention, but I think we need to be clear-eyed about the impact that this would have.

Let me also say Mr Speaker that his is one of the most solemn duties that this House possesses.

And in our minds should be this simple question, which is upholding international law and legitimacy - how we can make the lives of the Syrian people better.

And we should also have in our minds the duty we owe to the exceptional men and women of our armed forces and their families who will face the direct consequences of any decision that we make.

The basis on which we make this decision is of fundamental importance, because the basis of making the decision determines the legitimacy and moral authority of any action that we undertake.

That is why our amendment asks this House to support a clear and legitimate road map to decision on this issue.

A set of steps which enable us to judge any recommended international action.

And I want to develop the argument of why this sequential road map is I believe the right thing for the House to support today.

Most of all, if we follow this road map, it can assure the country and the international community that if we take action we will follow the right, legitimate and legal course, not an artificial timetable or a political timetable set elsewhere and I think that is very very important to any decision that we make.

This is fundamental to the principles of Britain.

A belief in the rule of law.

A belief that any military action we take must be justified in terms of the cause and also the potential consequences.

And that we strain every sinew to make the international institutions that we have in our world work to deal with outrages such as the ones we have seen in Syria.

Let me turn to the conditions in our motion.

First, and this is where the Prime Minister and I now agree, we must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and let them report to the UN Security Council.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, said yesterday about the weapons inspectors: “let them conclude their work for four days and then we will have to analyse scientifically with experts and then we will have to report to the Security Council for action.”

So the weapons inspectors are in the midst of their work and will be reporting in the coming days.

That is why today could not have been the day when the House should be asked to decide whether to take military action.

For this House, it is surely a basic point: Evidence should precede decision not decision precede evidence.

And I am glad that on reflection, the Prime Minister accepted this yesterday.

Now it is true the weapons inspectors cannot reach a judgement on the attribution of blame.

That is beyond their mandate.

Now some might think that makes their work essentially irrelevant.

I disagree.

If the UN weapons inspectors conclude that chemical weapons have been used, in the eyes of this country and the world, that confers legitimacy on the finding beyond the view of any individual country or any intelligence agency.

What is more, it is possible that what the weapons inspectors discover, could give the world greater confidence in identifying the perpetrators of this horrific attack.

The second step in our road map makes clear there needs to be compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the attacks.

I welcome the letter from the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee today and I note the Arab League’s view of President Assad’s culpability.

Of course, in conflict there is always reason for doubt.

But the greater the weight of evidence the better.

On Tuesday we were promised that there would be the release of American intelligence that there was proof of the regime’s culpability.

We await the publication of that evidence which I gather will be later today, but that evidence too will be important in building up the body of evidence that President Assad was responsible.

The third step is that in light of the weapons inspector’s findings and this other evidence, and as the Secretary General said, the UN Security Council should then debate what action should be taken and indeed should vote on action.

I have heard it suggested that we should have “a UN moment”.

They are certainly not my words.

They are words which do no justice to the seriousness with which we must take the United Nations.

The UN is not some inconvenient side-show.

And we don’t want to engineer a “moment”.

Instead, we want to adhere to the principles of international law.

I am also clear that it is incumbent on us to try to build the widest level of support among the fifteen members in the Security Council, whatever the intentions of particular countries.

The level of international support is vital should we decide to take military action.

It is vital in the eyes of the world. That is why it can’t be seen as some sideshow or some moment, but actually an essential part of building the case if intervention should take place.

There will be those who argue that in the event of Russia and China vetoing a Security Council Resolution then any military action would necessarily not be legitimate.

I understand that view. But I don’t agree with it.

Because I believe if a proper case is made, then there is scope in international law, our fourth condition, for action to be taken even without a chapter VII Security Council resolution.

Kosovo in 1999 is the precedent cited in the Prime Minister’s speech and in the Attorney General’s legal advice.

The Prime Minister didn’t go in much detail of the Attorney General’s legal advice, but it is worth noting that in the Attorney’s legal advice he has three conditions:

Convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as whole, of extreme humanitarian distress.

Objectively clear there is no practical alternative to the use of force, if lives are to be saved.

And the proposed use of force must be proportionate and strictly limited in time.

So the Attorney concludes in his advice, and it is very important for the House to understand this, that there could be circumstances in the absence of a Chapter VII Security Council resolution for action to be taken, but subject to those three conditions. And that is the case that must be built in the coming period.

These principles reflect the Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine developed since Kosovo which commands widespread support.

Additionally, the Responsibility to Protect also demands a reasonable prospect of success in improving the plight of the Syrian people.

The Responsibility to Protect is an essential part of making this case.

This takes me to the final point of the roadmap.

Any military action must be specifically designed to deter the future use of chemical weapons.

It must be time limited, with specific purpose and scope, so that future action would require further recourse to this House.

And it must have regard for the consequences of any action.

We must ensure that every effort is made to bring the civil war in Syria to an end.

The principal responsibility for that of course rests with the parties in that conflict, and in particular President Assad.

But the international community also has a duty to do everything it can to support the Geneva 2 process.

And any action we take must assist this process and not hinder it.

That is the responsibility that lies on the Government and its allies to set out this case.

There will be some in this House who say that Britain should not contemplate action because we do not know precisely the consequences that will follow.

I am not with those who rule out action.

The horrific events unfolding in Syria rightly prompt us to consider all the options.

But we owe it to the Syrian people, to our own country, and to the future security of our world, to scrutinise any plans on the basis of the consequences that they have.

By setting this framework today, we give ourselves the time and space to actually scrutinise what is being proposed by this Government to see what the implications are.

I do not believe we should be rushed to judgement.

In the coming days the Government has a responsibility to build on the case it has set out today.

I do not rule out supporting the Prime Minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today on this question and frankly he cannot say to the House and to the country this does not change our stance on Syria, this does not change our involvement in the Syrian conflict, because frankly it would and we all have a duty to assess it.

Our amendment sets out a road map from evidence to decision that I believe can command the confidence of the House and the British public.

And crucially it places responsibility for the judgement about the achievement of the criteria for action – reporting by the weapons inspectors, compelling evidence, vote in the Security Council, legal base and time limited and proportionate and successful action - with this House in a subsequent vote.

I hope the House can unite today around our amendment today because I believe it captures a shared view on all sides of this House both about our anger at the attack witnessed on innocent civilians and also a coherent framework for making the decision on how we respond.

We’re not going to be supporting a Government motion which was briefed this morning setting out an ‘in principle’ decision to take military action. It would be the wrong thing to do and on that basis we will oppose the motion.

We could only support military action when the conditions of the amendment are met and if they are met.

We all know that stability cannot be achieved by military means alone.

Let me end by saying this: the continued turmoil in the country and the region in the recent months and years further demonstrate the need for stability across the region - to protect the innocent civilians involved, and uphold the national interest and the security and future prosperity of the whole region and world.

I am sure the whole House recognises that this will not and cannot be achieved through a military solution.

Whatever our disagreements today, we on this side of the House stand ready to play our part in supporting measures to improve the prospects for peace in Syria and the Middle East.

It is what the people of Britain and the world have the right to expect.

But this is a very grave decision which should be treated as such by this House and will be treated as such by this country

In the end the fundamental test will be this: as we think about the men, women and children who have been subjected to this terrible atrocity, and we think about the prospects for other citizens in Syria, can the international community act in a lawful and legitimate way that will help them, that will prevent further suffering?

The seriousness of our deliberations should match the significance of the decision we face.

And that is why I urge this House to support our amendment today.

Ed Miliband attends the launch of mental health charity MindFull on 5 July 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?