Why the Lib Dems are silent on Syria

While leaving the door open to military action, the party's MPs know that the evidence required to justify intervention hasn't been presented.

The media is full of folk pontificating that 'something must be done about' Syria. There’s an implication in the fact that Miliband was called into Downing Street yesterday, that it’s been decided that the 'something' involves flying cruise missiles into buildings where we suspect bad things happen. Parliament’s recalled and we all look forward to seeing if we’re going to be presented with a dodgy dossier and a refusal to publish the Attorney General’s legal advice (ring any bells?).

Yet in the midst of all this, my lot are strangely silent. Nick’s identikit statement to Cameron’s aside, there’s been almost nothing said, in the mainstream media or on social media, by anyone in the Lib Dems since it was announced that there’s going to be a vote. I can hazard a guess why.

Last time Parliament was asked to support military advice, there was a UN resolution already in place, and the remit of the military was clear – they were to protect civilians. Not too hard to support that. But this time it’s rather different.

Firstly, there’s no UN resolution in place. As the House of Commons Defence Committee Report on the Libyan conflict made clear: "we are concerned that the abstentions of five Council members, particularly the veto wielding countries of Russia and China, may make obtaining United Nations support more difficult for similar situations in the future".

They had that right.

Secondly, there’s apparently no mandate here to defend civilians, nor any pretence of such. This is about punishment. Setting down a marker. Letting other chemical weapon-hording dictators know that there’s a red line you just don’t cross. You can almost hear advisers whispering in Cameron’s ear that "there’s only one language these people understand". 

Thirdly, when Lib Dem MPs voted to 'defend civilians', I suspect most expected it not to extend far beyond enforcing the no-fly zone requested by some members of the Arab League. I wonder how many of those trooping through the lobby realised they were voting for regime change by military intervention (recall that the NATO operation was shut down just 11 days after the death of Gadaffi). What wording will they be asked to support this time – and what lies behind those words?

These are difficult issues for all MPs. But for the Lib Dems, with our proud record of opposing the Iraq war, it’s especially hard. Of course Iraq-is-not-Libya-is-not-Syria. But until there’s a UN resolution, and clear proof of who used chemical weapons on whom, it’s hard to see how Lib Dems can support military action. And sure the Prime Minister can tell us he’s seen that proof. But we’ve been there before, haven’t we?

I suspect Lib Dem MPs are under severe pressure to do what the political glitterati are telling them is their, ahem, moral duty, but in their heart of hearts they know the evidence hasn’t yet been presented to them to make that case. And while they are leaving the door open - hence their silence - the wider political leadership is going to have to work a lot harder to get them on side.

At least I hope so.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Danny Alexander, Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle