An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a position on the front line in Khazer. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The decision on whether to intervene in Iraq now rests in Labour’s hands

Cameron will need Miliband's support to win a vote on military action. But all the signs are that he will get it. 

It is just 13 months since David Cameron became the first prime minister to lose a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782. After his defeat over potential military action in Syria, many spoke as if an epochal shift comparable to Suez had occurred. William Hague, the then foreign secretary, considered resigning and told colleagues that he didn’t want to represent “a country that is not prepared to act”. Paddy Ashdown lamented that the UK had lurched “towards isolationism”. One Conservative MP told me after the vote: “We won’t be involved in military action for the foreseeable future and certainly not in this parliament.”

But a year later, Westminster is again contemplating the use of force, this time to halt the murderous advance of Islamic State. The assertion of the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, that the UK would play a “leading role” in the coalition assembled by the US was the clearest signal yet that parliament will soon be asked to give its approval to air strikes against the group in Iraq. One Downing Street strategist pointedly notes that Tornado fighter jets are already performing reconnaissance missions in the country – and they could easily shift to an offensive role.

While acknowledging the legal, technical and political obstacles, No 10 isn’t even dismissing possible action in Syria. Conservative sources downplay suggestions that parliament could be recalled as early as 25 September (“We’re not at that stage yet”) but some Tory MPs can already see the political advantages. “It would blow the Ukip conference out of the water,” notes one with Machiavellian relish.

After Barack Obama’s skilful forging of an international coalition, one that crucially includes ten Arab states, Cameron’s task is to construct a domestic equivalent. Having broken one of the first rules of parliamentary politics last year – that prime ministers shouldn’t call votes they are going to lose – the Conservatives are acting with greater diligence this time. Party whips, now led by Michael Gove, have canvassed opinion in the tea rooms and have concluded that Cameron’s own side, even when combined with the Liberal Democrats, will not be big enough to guarantee him victory.

Some of the 30 Tory MPs who voted against intervention in Syria are prepared publicly to support military action against Islamic State. One of the rebels, Sarah Wollaston, tells me: “Last time round, we didn’t have Arab League backing and we do this time. The intervention has to be led by local and regional powers; otherwise, it’s just seen as a vendetta against Muslims.” But most Tory rebels remain unmoved. John Redwood, who abstained on the government motion last year, bluntly says: “I am not persuaded that we should be bombing Iraq or Syria.”

It is Labour that will determine whether Cameron becomes the fourth successive prime minister to preside over military action in Mesopotamia. After thwarting the PM last summer, in what the Tories denounced as an act of betrayal (Labour sources maintain that no “blank cheque” was ever signed), the opposition is regarded with suspicion and enmity. But there is as yet no evidence that the two parties’ positions will diverge. Beyond opposing the deployment of “boots on the ground” (as the government does), Labour strategists emphasise they are “ruling nothing out”. One tells me the party has adopted a “bipartisan approach”, resisting the temptation to seek political advantage from the government’s often conflicting messages. Ed Miliband has supported the arming of the Kurds, British logistical support and, most significantly, targeted air strikes against Islamic State by the US.

Less than eight months before a general election, when partisan tensions are normally at their highest, some in Labour are even moved to rare praise for Cameron. One shadow cabinet minister commends his “patient multilateralism”, and another senior figure notes: “This is not a macho moment like in August 2013. He’s not doing grandstanding.”

Some of the loudest interventionist voices come from the opposition benches. Peter Hain, the former Labour cabinet minister, tells me that the government should consider “opening back-channels” to the Assad regime in order to enable air strikes in Syria. Ann Clwyd, who served as Tony Blair’s special envoy to Iraq, says that it is “irresponsible” to rule out the use of ground troops ultimately to repel Islamic State. Were Miliband to oppose air strikes, he would face a rebellion greater than that over Syria, when four Labour MPs (Clwyd, Ben Bradshaw, Meg Munn and John Woodcock) refused to vote against the government motion.

His likely support for them should not come as a surprise. Not since 1935, when Ernest Bevin denounced his leader George Lansbury for “hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”, has Labour been a pacifist party. Unlike the extra-parliamentary left, Michael Foot was resolute in his support for the Falklands war in 1982. And though labelled as a peacenik due to his opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion and his sceptical stance on Syria, Miliband, too, stands in this internationalist tradition. In March 2011, invoking Britain’s failure to act during the Spanish civil war, he supported intervention in Libya to prevent a massacre of the innocents in Benghazi.

Rather than the dawn of a new age of isolationism, the Syria vote is now identifiable as an accidental pause. After Cameron’s defeat, senior Labour figures confessed that they were surprised by his abrupt rejection of military action. Those events raised the bar for parliamentary approval of intervention. But it is a bar that the Prime Minister, humbled by experience and shorn of bluster, is now in a position to clear. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Chi Onwurah MP: I did not want to vote for Trident - but I did

I do believe the use of nuclear weapons is immoral, but there is more to consider than that.

I did not want to vote for the renewal of Trident. I don’t like voting with the Tories, I don’t want to legitimise a dialogue of death and I’d much, much prefer to vote for investment in schools and education than weapons of mass destruction. 

The fact that I’d recently returned from a commemorating the Centenary of the Somme with veterans of the Tyneside Battalions  had highlighted, again, both the horror and the futility of war. 

As friends in Newcastle and colleagues in Parliament can testify, I spent the days leading up to the vote asking for views. I read constituents’ emails on the subject as well as the (many) briefings. I studied the motion  in detail and listened carefully to the arguments of colleagues who were voting against Trident. 

I did not want to vote for Trident. But I did. Why?

The first duty of Government is to protect its citizens. That is a duty I take very seriously. Like all of my colleagues on the Labour benches, I am committed to the twin goals of a safe and secure United Kingdom and a world free of nuclear weapons. In both 2010 and in 2015 I was elected on manifestos that pledged we would retain the minimum necessary nuclear deterrent, whilst at the same time working towards reducing and eradicating nuclear weapons. Last year, Party members reaffirmed that policy at conference. However the Leader of my party and some of my frontbench colleagues voted against that position. 

For me there were four key questions – cost, effectiveness, morality and making the world safer.

1. Cost

Whilst there is not enough transparency on cost, the SNP and Green Party estimates of  up to £200bn double count all kinds of in-service costs, most of which would also be applicable to  any conventional replacement.  The estimate of between £30 to 40bn over 35 years seemed to me most credible. And this does not include the benefits of the 30,000 jobs that depend on building submarines - either directly or in the supply chain - or the value to the engineering and manufacturing sector that they represent. That is why my union, Unite, backed renewal. That is why EEF, the manufacturing association, backed renewal. If Trident were not renewed, the money saved would not go on the NHS, no more than our EU membership fee will.  We are a very unequal nation, but we are also a rich one - we should be able to maintain our defence capability and invest in a welfare system and the NHS.  

2. Effectiveness 

I read many reports citing cyber insecurity and potential drone attacks, but the evidence convinced me that, whilst these threats are real, they are not (yet) such as to significantly undermine effectiveness overall. Like Lisa Nandy, I was concerned about the apparently openended nature of the commitment to nuclear weapons but the motion did also emphasise disarmament. Jeremy Corbyn’s argument that nuclear weapons were ineffective because they did not deter the Rwandan genocide,  I found more difficult to follow. 

3. Morality 

This was for me perhaps the strongest argument agains renewal. It is one rarely articulated. Many hide behind cost and effectiveness when they believe nuclear weapons are immoral. 

I am not a conscientious objector  but I have a great deal of respect for those who are, and I do believe the use of nuclear weapons is immoral. 

But if you accept the concept of armed defence and believe in taking armed action to protect UK or global citizens, then the unilateral disarmament argument seems to resolve into 1) hiding behind the American deterrent 2) that it will make the world safer, or 3) that it doesn’t matter whether we end up in thermonuclear destruction as long as our hands are clean. The first and the third I do not accept.

4. A safer world

This was the question I ended up wrestling with.  Caroline Lucas’ argument that having nuclear weapons encourages other countries to use them would have been an excellent one to make back in 1948. The question now is not whether or not we have them -  we do -  but whether or not we get rid of them, unilaterally.

A world free of nuclear weapons needs countries like the UK to take a lead. It needs stability, balance, and a predictable pace of weapons reductions. It takes years of negotiations. I am proud of my party’s record on nuclear disarmament. The previous Labour Government was the first nuclear-armed power in the world to commit to the goal of a world free from nuclear weapons. We made the decision to decommission all land and air launched missiles. We did it unilaterally, setting an example. But nobody followed.

Working with other countries in recent decades, we have halved our own nuclear stockpiles and the US and Russia have reduced their warheads from 60,000 to 16,000 and that is expected to halve again by 2022. The evidence is clear that multilateralism works, although this Government has yet to demonstrate its commitment. 

So would Britain declaring that it was not going to renew Trident make the world, and the UK, safer? Would it tend to stabilise or destabilise? I spent hours debating that. I considered Britain on the road to Brexit with a new Prime Minister with no plan and an absent Labour leader, Europe between fear of migration and disintegration, Russia at bay, the Turkey coup, Israeli-Iranian relations, the Republican party’s candidate for President and the reality that terrorist massacres are a regular feature all over the world. I thought about my constituents, would declaring that Labour was against Trident make them feel safer and more secure?

My conclusion was that it would not make the world more stable and it would not make my constituents feel more secure.

And so I voted.