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How the miners’ strike of 1984-85 changed Britain for ever

Thirty years later questions still haunt many of those who took part. Could the outcome have been different?

Murton Colliery in County Durham, 1992. The pit ceased production the previous November. Photograph: Bob Anderson/Rex Features

One recent grey afternoon I visit the site of the old Shirebrook colliery in north-east Derbyshire with a former miner, Alan Gascoyne. “This was where we picketed . . . that was the union office, there were the shafts, and that was the coal preparation plant.” We are looking through his car windscreen at a huge steel warehouse containing Sports Direct’s central “distribution unit”.

Sports Direct is owned, like Newcastle United Football Club, by the billionaire Mike Ashley. “I’ve never met him but he comes here by helicopter,” Gascoyne says. The unit is a very 21st-century operation; its retail staff are mainly on zero-hours contracts, and most of the 5,000 people working at the warehouse are supplied by two big manpower agencies. On New Year’s Day, a newborn baby was found abandoned in a lavatory; the young mother, thought to be from eastern Europe, was arrested but later released. Employees complained to the local paper about a “strikes” policy under which six minor infringements – such as lateness or failure to meet targets – were punished with summary dismissal. The young mother was rumoured to have been close to six strikes and threatened with the sack if she took time off, late in her pregnancy. Of the colliery, which closed in 1993 and was replaced 12 years later by the warehouse as the town’s largest employer, there is no trace.

But the mine is not forgotten. Gascoyne, a forceful 59-year-old ex-faceworker who swears a lot, was the branch secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers throughout the strike of 1984-85 and until the pit closed. The son of a communist miner, he has kept its memory alive at the Shirebrook Miners’ Welfare Social Club, founded in 1920. The bar and the hire of its large hall help to finance the local Alzheimer’s group, OAP dance classes, a disco for the disabled and Outward Bound courses for the primary school. The bar and adjoining rooms are heavily decorated with mementos, including a rare photograph of a shirtsleeved A J Cook, the miners’ leader in the great lockout of 1926, inscribed in copperplate with lines from Idris Davies’s poetic chronicle of that heroic defeat, “The Angry Summer”:

Here is Arthur Cook, a red rose in his lapel
Astride on a wall, arousing his people . . .
And tomorrow in all the hostile papers
there will be sneers at Cook and all his capers
and cowardly scribblers will be busy tonight
besmirching a warrior with the mud of their spite.

There wasn’t another such “angry summer” (or as “besmirched” a miners’ leader) until 1984. In the pivotal episode of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the families of “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s army and beat Hitler’s army” – in the words of the 90-year-old Harold Macmillan’s agonised speech to the House of Lords in November 1984 – endured extreme hardship, hunger, lack of fuel and police harassment. In the process, colliery communities powerfully refreshed their traditions of collective self-help. Women, in a notably male-dominated society, not only formed a transformative and unpredicted network of support groups, raising funds to feed and sustain the most financially pressed in almost every mining village, but asserted themselves politically, travelling across the country to make the miners’ case, appeal for support and join the picket lines.

Yet that great struggle ended, like the 1926 lockout, in failure. Thirty years later two questions still haunt many of those who took part. Could the outcome have been different? And what were its long-term consequences?

On the first, those who with hindsight see the 1985 defeat as inevitable point to the unprecedentedly comprehensive arm­oury of the state mobilised by Thatcher. Her biographer Charles Moore records how she summoned Willie Whitelaw immediately on taking office in 1979 and announced: “The last Conservative government was destroyed by the miners’ strike. We’ll have another and we’ll win.” Thatcher sought not only to avenge the miners’ victories of 1972 and 1974, but also to erase the mystique attaching to the NUM, its solidarity reinforced by the small and cohesive communities in which miners lived, by the mutual dependence required by the dangers underground, and by widespread public admiration.

Moore says that the Whitehall Civil Contingencies unit in 1979 thought that “if there was to be a strike, it should begin in the spring and . . . be over pit closures, which tended to divide the union, rather than over pay, which tended to unite them”.

These two conditions were eventually fulfilled, though not until three years after an attempted pit closure programme ended in a climbdown. The government had not yet implemented Nicholas Ridley’s infamous 1977 confidential note on how to defeat the miners. This included stockpiling of coal, increasing power-station capacity to switch from coal to oil, use of non-union haulage drivers and cuts in supplementary benefit to strikers’ families. But the government was determined to be ready next time.

In her notorious characterisation of the “enemy within”, Thatcher did less than some of Arthur Scargill’s more fastidious critics to distinguish between the NUM president and its members. Unsurprisingly, given that while she repeatedly portrayed Scargill as a revolutionary Marxist seeking to bring down an elected government (a depiction that Scargill did little to disavow) she was also determined to break what she saw as the NUM’s unhealthily corporatist relationship with the National Coal Board. Dating back to nationalisation in 1946, the relationship between the union and the NCB not only contradicted her view of how an industry should be run, but also symbolised the Attlee postwar consensus she was intent on overturning.

To listen to the ex-miners coming through Gascoyne’s office today for help with social security and pneumoconiosis claims is to be aware of a historic level of union protection that would be incomprehensible to the unorganised Sports Direct workforce. A genial man called Graham Elliot recalls his first lesson in the strength of the NUM branch. In 1972, he and another 17-year-old apprentice fitter, under indentures that explicitly precluded strike action, were walking to the pit baths when they were confronted by the branch secretary. “And he said: ‘Now where are you going, lads? We’re on strike, starting today.’ And we said, ‘Yes, but they’ve told us if we go on strike that’ll end our apprenticeship.’ And he pointed up [to the winding gear]. ‘I’ll tell you summat now, son. If you lose your apprenticeship, those wheels won’t turn until you get your jobs back.’ ”

Gascoyne insists that he co-operated with the NCB in raising production, occasionally by stamping out sectional strikes. “If you’re not producing owt, you can’t make money. To me it were important the pit was a success.”

The secret plan – denied during the strike but admitted by Thatcher in her memoirs – of Ian MacGregor, imported from the United States and appointed NCB chairman in 1983, had been to cut 75,000 jobs over three years. This was slightly more than Scargill was later ridiculed for predicting.

On 1 March 1984, the South Yorkshire NCB announced plans to close Cortonwood Colliery, a challenge to the NUM’s policy of opposing all pit closures on any grounds other than geological exhaustion. With this, and MacGregor’s admission five days later that he envisaged closing, on “economic” grounds, about 20 pits over the next year at a cost of 20,000 jobs, strikes in Yorkshire and Scotland spread to 81 of the country’s 163 pits by 12 March.

At the Shirebrook Miners’ Welfare Social Club, Gordon Butler, NUM area secretary for North Derbyshire, urged a packed and noisy meeting of miners to strike. “The young ’uns were all for striking,” Gascoyne says, “but others were shouting about a [national strike] ballot.”

The status as the “barometer” British coalfield of North Derbyshire, historically led by the left-wing of the two NUM factions, is partly a function of geography. Shirebrook, its biggest pit, was in a north-eastern wedge between South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, the area always least likely to strike. The mass meeting was all the stormier because a North Derbyshire ballot had already evenly split the area with a mere 16-vote majority against a strike. But with a militant, trusted local leadership under Gascoyne warning that it would be better to walk out than be “picketed out” by Yorkshire miners, Butler’s call succeeded. Later Shirebrook became so divided that a Metropolitan Police officer called it “the Belfast of England”. But, for now, a large majority of its 1,995 miners went on strike.


To Nicholas Ridley’s prescription, Thatcher had added the appointment of Peter Walker as energy secretary. He was a Tory “wet”, a skilled communicator and ambitious. A clever choice. Working miners and coal-dependent businesses were encouraged to use the government’s new employment laws, which resulted in the sequestration of NUM funds. But it was another Ridley proposal, for “large mobile squads” of police, that would prove crucial. Besides their often huge presence at pitheads and other picketing targets, “mobile squads” were deployed on roads across the country to halt pickets seeking to prevent the movement of coal and would-be working miners.

In the book Settling Scores, Nicholas Jones, then the BBC’s outstanding labour correspondent, reviews cabinet documents that show how a frustrated Thatcher, told by Leon Brittan, the home secretary, that he had gone to “the limit of what [he] could do while respecting the constitutional independence of police forces”, urged him to “stiffen the resolve” of chief constables to adopt “the more vigorous interpretation of their duties which was being sought”. Keeping the peace was subordinated to the paramilitary role of forcing a way through for those breaking the strike – even in South Wales, where the walkout was most solid.

On a moonlit December night in 1984, I joined a group of NUM pickets who were avoiding the checkpoints in a clandestine cross-country yomp up Mynydd Merthyr, a wooded ridge above the village of Aberfan, where just two miners were going to work at Merthyr Vale colliery. The background to the mission was sombre because one of the two miners, David Williams, had been in a taxi a fortnight earlier when two strikers dropped a concrete post from a footbridge on to the car, killing the driver, David Wilkie. I remember how, early the next morning, the police charged on the pickets as the working miners’ new taxi came into view. They trampled my photographer colleague Hugh Alexander to the ground, cracking several of his ribs.

But this was trifling beside the scores of incidents across Britain in which truncheon-wielding policemen – often in riot gear, and making numerous arrests – confronted and diverted pickets. The biggest set-piece battle, now the subject of a “scoping” exercise by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to determine whether there should be a full investigation, was at the British Steel coking works at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, in June 1984.

About 10,000 NUM pickets (Scargill among them), seeking to halt the transfer of coal into the plant and coke out of it, were allowed to assemble – suggesting a set-up – and were then forced back by at least 5,000 police officers, using horseback baton charges and snatch squads. It was a payback for Scargill’s greatest triumph, the Saltley coke works closure in Birmingham during the 1972 strike. But the payback came at a severe cost. The prosecutions against 93 arrested pickets collapsed because the police evidence was unreliable. South Yorkshire Police, sued for malicious prosecution and assault, later paid £425,000 compensation and £100,000 in legal costs to 39 pickets in an out-of-court settlement. The force referred itself to the IPCC in 2012 after a BBC Yorkshire Inside Out documentary discovered identical wording in 34 separate statements by police, triggering an energetic campaign for a full public inquiry.

At Shirebrook, the police were crucial in securing a gradual return to work. This did not reach critical mass until November, by which time the NCB North Derbyshire area director, Ken Moses, had mounted a systematic effort to bus miners back.


To help me “understand” how it had been, Alan Gascoyne gave me a DVD of a June 1984 ITN film made in the village. It shows fighting between pickets and police escorting working miners. From the pavement, women and children shout “Scab”; working miners’ wives complain about intimidation: smashed windows at their homes, bullying of their children at school; a striker is hospitalised for several days after an attack by a working miner. The young, long-haired Gascoyne tells ITN: “We had a meeting – there were 700 there – and we decided that our members wouldn’t work with people who had crossed picket lines.”

It didn’t turn out like that. Gascoyne still despises those who worked from the start of the strike. But he took a different view of those who returned from November 1984 onwards – by which time Scargill’s promise of dwindling coal stocks and “General Winter” coming to their rescue was, Gascoyne says, “all bollocks”. By February 2005, 70 per cent of Shirebrook miners, many of them desperate, had gone back to work.

There is a moment in the film Billy Elliot when Jackie, a loyal NUM member, crosses the picket line to fund his son’s dream of becoming a ballet dancer. Something similar was happening here. “I had a guy come to me at Christmas, a face chargeman, in tears. He was losing his house. His wife was going to go, he’d got all these debts. So I said: ‘We’ve lost, kid, so get back to work.’ ”

Gascoyne, on strike until the end, was re-elected the following July. While his hatred of Thatcher is undimmed – “I wish she’d been burned at the stake” – he retains a certain respect for the late Ken Moses, whom he confronted at a secret night-time meeting convened during the strike by Stephen Verney, the then bishop of Repton, who had served undercover with Greek guerrillas in Nazi-occupied Crete and wanted to hear “both sides of the argument”.

Gascoyne had come from the trial of six young striking miners (who like most of the thousands arrested had never been in trouble with the police before), jailed for setting fire to empty buses used to bring working miners to the pit.

“Moses said: ‘They’ll never work again, them lads. We don’t want arsonists.’

“So I said, ‘Bishop Stephen, he thinks he’s higher than your boss, the Lord. Society says these lads are going to prison but he’s not satisfied with that.’ So the bishop, he was nice and quietly spoken, says: ‘Kenneth, I think you should reconsider that.’ ”

Which Moses promised he would – and eventually agree three years later that the men could be “set back on” at Shirebrook. Unlike MacGregor, Moses had started out at the coalface.

South Yorkshire Police grapple with the pickets outside the Doncaster NCB headquarters, March 1984. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Could another strategy have produced a different outcome? Gascoyne doesn’t think a national ballot would have helped the miners, and argues that Nottinghamshire still would not have joined the strike. But there is a strong counter-case. A successful ballot would have afforded the last chance to bring Nottingham out, and so increased support from other unionists who were wary of risking their own jobs when even the miners were continuing to work in the second-largest coalfield. The NUM leadership’s argument against a ballot was that a man in one area did not have the right to vote a man in another out of a job – which could happen if the members rejected a strike, as the NUM leadership reasoned they might.

After all, a year earlier, in 1983, a national ballot had heavily rejected a strike against the closure of Lewis Merthyr Colliery in the Rhondda Valley. Unlike at Shirebrook, the old Lewis Merthyr mineworkings have been preserved in the Rhondda Heritage Park. You can see the winding house with its 1890 steam engine, visit the lamp-room, put on a miner’s helmet and descend to the pit bottom in the cage. Above ground, an elegiac printed notice describes the “two most dramatic episodes” in the pit’s history – a 1956 gas explosion that killed nine men, and a three-day underground sit-in protest by 27 miners in 1983, emerging to a “tumultuous heroes’ welcome”. The notice also says that pits “continued to be closed . . . until a . . . strike by the NUM in 1984-85 ended in bitterness and failure. Yet what else could the miners have done?”

A smaller metal plaque commemorates the official inauguration of the heritage park after the 1987 general election by the minister who, despite his triumphs in the strike, had failed to win promotion: “Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Wales”. The man who had helped to turn the industry into a museum piece got to open the museum.

But mining at Lewis Merthyr was especially difficult and dangerous, a legacy of Victorian coal-owners who plundered the best seams with scant regard for sound engineering principles. Peter Heathfield, then still the North Derbyshire area secretary, told me that his members were saying they would not work in the pit, let alone strike to keep it open.

So the No vote on Lewis Merthyr was not necessarily a persuasive precedent. Two MORI polls of miners – in March and April 1984 – showed majorities of over 60 per cent in favour of a strike. Accepting that a ballot might well have been won, Ken Capstick, an NUM ally of Scargill’s, argued after the strike that organising a vote would have seemed “like giving in”, adding: “You’ve got to remember that we had lads . . . who were picketing every day, total commitment. And they were saying, ‘Shove your ballot up your arse.’ They looked at it that Margaret Thatcher wanted a ballot, Ian MacGregor wanted a ballot, the media wanted a ballot, and they weren’t going to have one.”

But while it was assumed that the government was confident that a ballot would be lost, it is now clear from the cabinet papers that ministers were anything but.

Another criticism, levelled with hindsight by some prominent NUM left-wingers, was over mass picketing: that the highly publicised violence it generated came at the expense of the task of building wider public support for the case for coal. Early in the strike, moreover, NUM South Wales leaders agreed with the steel unions that enough coal would be allowed into the Llanwern steelworks to keep the blast furnaces working. Scargill outlawed such “sweetheart deals” and insisted on picketing to try to stop all supplies to the steelworks. The result was up to 150 trucks loaded with coal and iron ore trundling daily up the M4 from Port Talbot and, thanks to a huge police presence, in to Llanwern.


“It’s all down to one man?” the Queen asked the Times’s labour editor, Paul Routledge, on a visit to the paper late in the strike. Routledge answered that he did not think one man could bring 100,000 men out on strike; but later wrote that he “owed the Queen an apology” and that “by this time” it was down to one man. He was right both times; many tens of thousands of miners were not “brought out” by Scargill but struck to save the industry, or out of loyalty to their local leaders, or because not crossing a picket line was in the DNA, or all of these. But Routledge was also right that “one word” from him could have ended the strike before the scarcely believable hardship of the final months. “And that’s really why people turned against Arthur as a leader,” Gascoyne says now. “There’s a time when enough is enough.”

The last hope, at least of compromise, had passed in late October 1984, when a deal was reached with the pit deputies’ union Nacods (the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers) after it threatened an all-out strike. Because of its members’ statutory safety responsibilities, this would have shut down the Nottinghamshire coalfield.

At a 30th-anniversary conference at King’s College London this year, Neil Kinnock, still scarred by the torments inflicted on him by the strike, and John Monks, at the time head of the Congress House industrial relations department, described their efforts through the summer and early autumn of 1984 to persuade Scargill to overcome his insistence that no pit could close on economic grounds. Much of this discussion revolved around a proposal that pits would be subject to closure if they could not be “beneficially” (the word was used deliberately instead of “economically”) mined. This was a masterpiece of creative ambiguity which TUC officials thought would allow the NUM president to claim victory, on the grounds that it took into account a pit’s social value as well as its mere profitability. Certainly a hawkish Times leader at the time complained about exactly that, arguing that “beneficial” was not an “innocent word”.

Finally, the TUC’s efforts to leverage the Nacods strike threat into a settlement with the NUM foundered when Scargill summarily rejected the deal accepted by Nacods. This would have provided for any planned pit closure to go before an independent, if non-binding, review body. That review procedure did not save a single pit. But TUC officials believed that with the NUM’s (and their own) authority behind it, it would have had much greater traction. Either way, with the Nacods danger passed, MacGregor and the government were now intent on all-out victory.

Scargill was right in foreseeing the industry’s ultimate destruction. Gascoyne says: “They hate miners, Tories. Always have done. Always will do.” He believes the last hope for the industry evaporated with Labour’s defeat in the 1992 general election – and is convinced that the reduction of the 160 UK deep mines in 1984 to just three today (and a single one by next year), with the loss of 142,000 jobs, “will come back to haunt” the Conservatives.


Deeply unfashionable because of carbon emissions, coal is nevertheless still the single fuel most commonly used (41 per cent) to generate electricity in Britain. It’s hard for ex-miners to accept that today 90 per cent of our power-station coal is imported, the largest single source being Russia (38 per cent). David Cameron, for geopolitical reasons flowing from the Ukraine crisis, is now arguing that Britain should be less dependent on Russia, and should therefore pursue the unproven domestic alternative of shale gas extracted through fracking.

The cost argument prevailed, though it’s a moot point whether the market intervention required for large-scale investment in the most potentially productive Midlands and Yorkshire coalfields, coupled with the development of clean coal technology, would have been any greater than the present one for nuclear power, with EDF now guaranteed twice the standard wholesale electricity price for building the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant. At the very least, the British coal industry could have been obliged – as its counterpart in much more “corporatist” and co-determinist Germany has done – to diversify into other industries employing ex-miners, and retraining them before they become redundant, with much less damage to pit communities.

So what were the legacies beyond the coal industry? One arose from the aggressive policing of the strike and was woefully under-reported at the time.

Settling Scores makes a persuasive case on what its editor, Granville Williams, calls the “many parallels” between the role of the “media, South Yorkshire Police and politicians” over Hillsborough and the steelworks battle five years earlier. Indeed, it is hard to challenge the belief of many former miners that, without Orgreave, the lethal malfeasance – and subsequent cover-up – by South Yorkshire Police at Hillsborough would not have happened. The Thatcher government’s elevation of the police above the norms of local accountability, not to mention the law, surely helped to instil in them a lasting sense of impunity, which is only, slowly, unravelling today.

In her memoirs Thatcher summed up how she saw the strike’s outcome:

From 1972 to 1985 the conventional wisdom was that Britain could only be governed with the consent of the trade unions . . . Even as we were reforming trade union law and overcoming lesser disputes . . . many on the left and outside it continued to believe that the miners had the ultimate veto and would one day use it. That day had now come and gone.

While Scargill’s most devoted supporters rejected it, Thatcher’s boast was not seriously challenged elsewhere, not even by several in the NUM’s own Labour-left/communist caucus – any more than was her confident belief that she had seen off the consensus that had prevailed, however modified by Tory governments since Attlee. The union was not destroyed when the miners went back without an agreement in March 1985. Thatcher continued to think a second national strike over closures possible. Yet it is hard now to see how the union could have commanded support for one. Terry Thomas, the left-wing NUM vice-president in South Wales during the strike and a supporter of Scargill’s presidential campaign in 1982, successfully proposed the return to work resolution at the special conference in March. He told me 30 years later at his home in Gowerton, near Swansea:

The men returned to work not because they had stopped believing in what they were fighting for . . . Houses were being repossessed, marriages were breaking up, the kids were going without, and there was no end in sight. We were not now picketing steelworkers to try and stop coal or steel. We were picketing people who had stood on the picket lines with us for a whole year. Proud, strong miners crying because they were going back to work. We had no right to demand that they continue with the strike.

Thomas sees it as a “defeat for the whole working class, a defeat for us all”, without which the battery of exploitative employment practices, such as zero-hours contracts, would not have been possible a generation later. “If ever the trade union movement needed a victory which could prove to people that they need to protect their rights, it’s now.”

It is certainly impossible to separate yawning income inequality from the halving of union membership since its 1979 peak. By ending the syndicalist dream, the defeat “clarified” for the left, to the eventual benefit of a transformed Labour Party, that the ballot box was the only way to effect political change in Britain. But something else, more social democratic than syndicalist, got lost, too. Because the NUM was the trade unions’ praetorian guard, the defeat robbed organised labour of an important source of its self-confidence. It hastened the erosion of the trade unions’ role in a political settlement that had lasted not only since 1972, or even 1945, but – for all its ups and downs – since Edwardian times.

In saying that the NUM had “blown its industrial strength”, David Basnett, the then leader of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, had in mind not only the coal industry but the TUC’s wider authority, underpinned by the power of its strongest affiliate. The National Economic Development Council and the Manpower Services Commission (set up by the Macmillan and Heath governments), on which the unions had sat on equal terms with the employers, were just two casualties.

For Thatcher, and probably for Scargill, these tripartite bodies were undesirably corporatist. But they provided a platform from which to challenge, or at least counterbalance, the increasing influence of a deregulated City of London, to lend institutional respectability to protests at the grotesque distortion, recently depicted by Oxfam, that today leaves five families, including Mike Ashley’s, owning more in wealth and assets than the 20 per cent of Britons – 12.6 million people – who are worst-off.

Much of Margaret Thatcher’s new neoliberal settlement, replacing the old social-democratic one, survived and indeed helped to shape New Labour. As she saw it, the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-85 cut the brake on the application of largely unrestrained market forces, not only in energy but in the wider ordering of society. At a time, post-2008 crash, when it is no longer so taboo to question the efficacy of unregula­ted markets, that is something to mourn.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror