Rhetorical gales howled through Westminster over the Syria vote, but the landscape is unaltered

It was the story of this parliament in one act: a debate that left the problems it addressed unresolved, while diminishing the leaders who took part.

Britain’s retreat from military intervention in Syria has no proud author. The parliamentary vote that apparently settled the matter was a humiliation for the Prime Minister but also a shock to those who humiliated him. Most of the Tory MPs who defied their whips thought they were dabbling in principled protest. None of them thought they were hijacking British foreign policy. “Anyone who claims they weren’t surprised by the result is fibbing,” says one Tory backbencher about his rebellious colleagues.
 
Even as the votes were being counted, Labour MPs filing through the “no” lobby expected a government victory. The opposition’s goal was to rebuke the PM for adventurism and force him into greater deference to parliament and the UN Security Council. Ed Miliband did not think the debate would end with David Cameron sweeping intervention off the table with a petulant flourish.
 
None of the parties has a policy of standing idly by as Syria rips itself to shreds. Both Miliband and Cameron say Bashar al-Assad has committed atrocious breaches of international law. There is almost certainly a majority of MPs open, in theory, to endorsing an armed international rebuke. Yet parliament has rejected British participation. A vote that was hailed on the night as a historic assertion of legislative sovereignty now looks like an accident. The UK’s official stance towards Damascus is a policy orphan, unclaimed and unloved.
 
No shortage of blame is flying around to compensate for the lack of credit being taken. Cameron loyalists have mounted an effective campaign to steer debate away from questions over the Prime Minister’s judgement and towards what George Osborne called “national soul-searching” about Britain’s readiness to be a premier league player in world affairs.
 
In Downing Street’s version of events, the Tory leader, brimming with moral courage and transatlantic solidarity, has been betrayed by wicked Labour leaders present and past. Equal scorn is heaped on Tony Blair for spoiling the public’s appetite for armed interventions and on Miliband for exploiting that shrivelling of ambition to score points.
 
It is clever crisis management. What should have been the story of Cameron’s crumbling authority became a challenge to Westminster’s collective moral fibre, which in turn became doubts over whether the Labour leader has what it takes to make tough prime ministerial decisions – an attack line the Tories have been rehearsing for months.
 
Helpfully for Cameron, there are people on the Labour side who struggle to disagree with No 10’s account of the story. The murmur among some opposition MPs, including shadow ministers, is that the idea of atoning for what many on the left see as the worst sin of Blairism – bamboozling the nation into the Iraq war – seduced Miliband and the move has backfired.
 
Before the summer, the Labour leader’s internal critics were fretting about his lack of definition. The test for the autumn, they said, would be for Miliband to make some very public choices on tricky issues, express them with conviction and stick with them. Yet here he is, on a matter of life and death, advertising himself to the world as a man of convoluted inaction.
 
Miliband’s allies expected that charge from the Tories but are dismayed to hear it echoed on their own side. Defenders of the Labour leader in the shadow cabinet point out that the true failure of leadership in recent weeks belongs to Cameron. After all, it was the Prime Minister who prematurely signed Britain up to military strikes, in a phone call with Barack Obama, and then tried to bounce parliament into endorsing them without offering a credible account of what he hoped to achieve.
 
Besides, it is coalition parties that command a Commons majority and whose undisciplined MPs killed Cameron’s motion. The leader of the opposition’s job is not to make up the numbers when government whips get their sums wrong. It can hardly have been a surprise that the Iraq precedent was a factor in the debate. Even Tories who voted with the government say it made them hesitate. It is curious that the PM was so ill prepared to allay those concerns.
 
More baffling still is the role of Nick Clegg, whose party fought the last election draped in anti-war piety. The Liberal Democrat leader seems to want equal shares in Miliband’s reservations about firing missiles into Syria and Cameron’s contempt for Miliband when he acts on those reservations.
 
The temptation, when Westminster is in a state of extreme agitation, is to look for things that will never be the same again. If parliament has decided it doesn’t ever want British military muscle flexed against dictators, that is a significant moment. But that isn’t what MPs now claim they meant to say at all. The lesson of recent years is that when British politics promises never to be the same again, the same again is precisely what it turns out to be. Rhetorical gales howl through Westminster, leaving the landscape unaltered. Cameron is still a chancer with too much confidence in his own powers of persuasion and too shallow a base in his party. Miliband has proven once again to be better at political machination than his enemies expect and worse at inspiration than his friends claim.
 
As in previous years, the two candidates to be prime minister after 2015 are approaching the annual conference season with many of their supporters unable to muster reasons why they should have the top job beyond the lack of an obvious alternative. Labour and Tory MPs again find themselves urging their leaders to rise above the mediocrity to which every precedent says they are confined. The vote on Syria was a grimly symbolic prelude to the months ahead. It was the story of this parliament in one act: a debate that left the problems it addressed unresolved, while diminishing the leaders who took part. Nobody won. 
David Cameron Leaves Downing Street on August 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.