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Why Miliband is right to sit on the fence on Syria

Politicians, far more than commentators, have a moral and a legal duty to proceed with caution.

Ed Miliband speaks at the New Statesman centenary party at Great Hall on June 20, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

In his response to David Cameron's statement on Syria, Ed Miliband signalled that he was neither with the hawks urging US destroyers towards Damascus nor with the Stop the War protesters (addressed last night by Diane Abbott) declaring "hands off Syria!" He refused to "rule out military intervention" but also insisted that he would not be pushed into a decision today. "I do not rule out supporting the Prime Minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today," he concluded. Cameron needed to explain how intervention would affect Britain's wider stance on Syria (is regime change the de facto aim?), the UN weapons inspectors needed to report and provide "compelling evidence" that the Assad regime was responsible for the Ghouta massacre, and the approval of the Security Council needed to be sought (although, as he rightly noted, a Russian or Chinese veto should not be a bar to action). Until all of these conditions are met, it is too early to say whether military action is justified. 

For this stance, he is inevitably being denounced as a fence-sitter, as a flip-flopper, unfit to be leader of opposition and certainly unfit to be prime minister. But in a political culture that too often prizes certainty above all else, Miliband's honest expression of doubt was immensely refreshing (as well as in line with public opinion). Many of the same commentators who have openly struggled to reach a position are now denouncing the Labour leader for his equivocation. But politicians, far more than columnists, have a moral and a legal duty to proceed with caution. How many of the 412 MPs who voted for Iraq now wish that they had sided with those who called for the inspectors to be given more time? 

At some point in the next week, Miliband will need to decide whether to support Cameron's plan to take military action. But until then, who can argue with his assertion that it "is right to go about this process in a calm and measured way"? As he noted in the most important passage in his speech, "the basis of making the decision determines the legitimacy and moral action of taking action". Whatever stance Miliband takes, it will be infinitely more credible for being reached with patience rather than haste. In a repudiation of Tony Blair, who, in the infamous words of the "Downing Street memo", shaped the facts around the policy, he declared: "evidence should precede decision, not decision precede evidence." If I was leader of the opposition, I would want to wait until all the facts were in - and that is what a prudent Miliband is doing.