Leader: This should not be the start of a new age of British isolationism

In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention.

After an era of interventionism, stretching from the bombing of Iraq in 1998 to the Libya mission in 2011, the vote in parliament on 29 August against military action in Syria is being portrayed by some as the birth of a new age of isolationism. The morning after the government’s defeat, an anguished Paddy Ashdown wrote: “We are a hugely diminished country this AM. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.” For him and others, “All is changed, changed utterly.”
 
Beyond the parliamentary theatrics, however, it is doubtful whether the vote will prove the defining moment that some suggest. The narrow defeat of the government by 13 votes was more by accident than by design. Labour, which did not oppose military action in its amendment, failed to anticipate the result or David Cameron’s abrupt decision to rule out intervention. Of the 577 MPs who took part in one or both votes, 492 supported the potential use of force. Yet, for largely political reasons, it is in the interests of both Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband to avoid a second vote and the party divisions that would result.
 
In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention. It is just two years since parliament voted by a majority of 544 to support military action, in that case against Libya, with just 13 dissenting voices. In similar circumstances, it would undoubtedly be prepared to do so again.
 
That Mr Cameron lost the vote was a result not of his failure to assert the moral case for intervention against the Syrian regime, but his failure to address adequately the practical and strategic concerns expressed by MPs of all parties. It was never explained how limited missile strikes would prevent the further use of chemical weapons or other arms against civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s administration or his opponents, nor was it made clear how Britain would avoid being drawn into a wider and more dangerous regional conflagration.
 
If devoid of the significance that some have attributed to it, the Syria vote provides a moment to reflect on the purpose of British foreign policy. Dean Acheson’s gibe in 1962 – “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” – continues to resonate. Having gone to war so often in the past 15 years, we feel a sense of impotence when we do not. This is exacerbated by an increasingly powerful isolationist tendency, most visible in the form of the UK Independence Party, which combines an aversion to foreign entanglements with hostility to the European Union, open borders and overseas aid.
 
Yet between the poles of intervention and inaction, there is still much good that the UK can do. It should work with others at the G20 in St Petersburg to address the shortfall in humanitarian support for Syrian civilians, four million of whom have been displaced internally, and the two million who have fled the country. The Syria Regional Response Plan for refugees, which has called for funding of $3bn, remains 60 per cent short of this total.
 
In addition, Britain should intensify efforts to reach a political settlement, including greater engagement with the newly moderate Iranian leadership, as advocated by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, and some Conservative MPs.
 
Policymakers must reject the false choice between a neoconservative adventurism that disregards the limits of military force and a parochial isolationism that seeks refuge in the pursuit of narrow national interests. The priority remains to craft a multilateral approach that combines a commitment to ethical principles with an awareness of the gulf between the desirable and the possible. If the Syria vote encourages greater reflection on this task, then it could yet prove a significant moment in the search for a consistent post-imperial foreign policy.
A Stop The War campaigner holds up a placard outside Parliament on August 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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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