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Simon Heffer: Could the general election lead to constitutional crisis?

Another hung parliament and the ill-conceived Fixed Term Parliaments Act could compromise the country's constitution.

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Although it has become a commonplace that the outcome of the general election on 7 May is less predictable than almost any in living memory, the consequences of a result that does not provide a majority government are only now beginning to be grasped. General elections are the agents of our democracy. They are supposed to ensure some relationship – however imperfect – between the will of the people and the composition of the executive that governs the United Kingdom. However, this was not strictly the case after the election in May 2010. No party won it. Once the Conservatives decided not to try to govern as a minority administration – it was never an option for Labour, with almost 50 fewer seats than their rivals – the outcome was a coalition for which, as with all coalitions formed after an election, nobody had explicitly voted. That coalition government has since then implemented a programme for which the electorate supplied no mandate, for the obvious reason that that specific programme had not been put before it at the general election.

Now it is quite feasible that what we call our democracy could be even more compromised in May. If there is a clear winner of the election, we can all continue smugly to congratulate and delude ourselves that our constitution is a model for the rest of the free world. But if there is not – as most opinion polls now suggest – the full consequences of the cocktail of constitutional changes made by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats since 2010, and by Labour after 1997, will suddenly become apparent. And it is far from impossible that they could provoke the greatest constitutional crisis in Britain since before the Great War.

Suppose no party wins outright, and the one with the largest number of seats is asked to form the government. Suppose also, for the sake of argument, that that is the Conservative Party. David Cameron, as the incumbent Prime Minister, meets parliament and offers a Queen’s Speech. His parliamentary party has made it clear it prefers minority government to more compromises with the Lib Dems; yet there may well be too few Lib Dems to give the two parties an overall majority. Even with support for him from the Democratic Unionists and Ukip MPs, he cannot carry the vote.

Labour, in this scenario, may have fewer seats than the Conservatives – thanks, perhaps, to the slump in the party’s standing in Scotland, and Ukip eating into its vote in English constituencies it hoped to win from the Tories – but with the help of the surviving Lib Dems, a much-expanded parliamentary SNP and Plaid Cymru, it can, and does, vote down a Queen’s Speech promising stringent further cuts. Cameron then resigns: and the leader of the Labour Party, for whom even fewer people voted than for the Tories, becomes prime minister. This is because the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 allows for no dissolution when a prime minister has been defeated in the Commons on his legislative programme. If, after 14 days, Labour were to find that it could not get a Queen’s Speech through, either, there would be another election. More probably, either a rainbow coalition of the same left-leaning parties which voted down the Tory Queen’s Speech would then become the government of the United Kingdom, or Labour would run a minority government, having negotiated a confidence-and-supply arrangement with those minor parties.

However, given what has been promised to Scotland in the shape of tax-raising powers, even a confidence-and-supply arrangement could prove controversial: and this is where another constitutional change, that of devolution, could start to have profound constitutional consequences in the United Kingdom parliament and in England. Passing a Budget would almost certainly entail Scottish MPs, whether SNP, Labour or Liberal, voting for some tax-raising powers that would not affect their own constituents. And when Labour began to seek to pass measures that affected only England – say on health or education – it would, as things stand, be perfectly within its rights to do so using the votes of Scottish MPs. It would, however, remain to be seen whether the English electorate would be any happier about that than their Scottish equivalents would be for English MPs to renew their control over domestic Scottish matters. There are 533 seats for English MPs, so Labour would need to have at least 267 of them to be sure to pass any measure that affected only England using English votes alone. As it currently has 190, and even the most optimistic polls suggest Labour would pick up at most 50 to 60 English seats if the election in May goes well for it, a majority of English seats may still elude it.

Early this month William Hague set out a strange plan to deal with the democratic deficit suffered by England after devolution. It specified that the committee and report stages of any legislation that affected England alone, or England and Wales alone, would be dealt with solely by English, or English and Welsh, MPs. However, in order not to do something called “compromising the integrity of parliament”, Scottish members would be allowed to vote on the third reading.

Hague seems not to have understood that this would mean the routine vetoing of legislation proposed by a Labour government, because by third reading the shape that the legislation would be in would most likely be offensive to that government. Such bills would have been butchered by an English grand committee that would most likely be dominated by English MPs, to a point where they would have had any Labour policy hacked out of them, thereby defeating the government’s original purpose for the legislation. For example, it is quite likely that a bill on the NHS proposing to undo the Lansley reforms could have the attempt to overturn those reforms completely removed from it, making it almost pointless to pass it on third reading. However, such a ludicrous system will not be put in place before the next election because the Lib Dems would not vote for it; and whatever the outcome in May, it is unlikely to happen at all, such is the widespread dissatisfaction with it.

The SNP, which could well find itself with more than 40 seats after 7 May and therefore with the sort of clout the Irish Nationalists had while keeping Asquith in power after 1910, currently does not vote on solely English matters at Westminster. It has tried to argue that it could vote on the English National Health Service, giving the argument that funding shortages in England could drive people over the border to seek treatment in Scotland. But that is too far-fetched for many English MPs and, more to the point, for many English voters. For English MPs now to demand a say in the running of the Scottish NHS would be regarded as an outrageous and reactionary act of effrontery; it is surprising that some Scots do not see that this argument cuts both ways.

The SNP’s own credibility would be at stake if it suddenly started to vote on matters that for Scots are settled at Holyrood and in which the English have no say. The widespread assumption among Tory MPs is, however, that it would start to vote on solely English measures, however hypocritical that was. Otherwise, Labour could use its own, probably diminished, numbers of Scottish and Welsh MPs to pass measures that do not affect Scotland and Wales; but that would sit oddly with the party’s supercharged commitment to devolution and the removal of English influence from Welsh and Scottish affairs. And if the SNP realises the impropriety, given its principles, of voting on solely English issues, it would confine itself to helping Labour win votes of confidence and passing measures affecting defence, foreign affairs and the National Lottery; nonetheless a Labour administration might prove unable, without SNP support, or the support of non-English Labour MPs, to pass measures essential to the government of England.

Tory MPs are preparing to make an outcry if English laws are passed with Scottish votes, and it would be unwise to underestimate the effect such a campaign might have on the government’s standing. Since last September’s referendum, attitudes to this in England have changed. It might seem to be a quick fix for Labour in enabling it to gain power, but the resentment it could well create among an English electorate that is not stupid, and certainly smart enough to notice what the Tory press would daily call the interference of Scots in important matters that do not concern them, could cause Labour profound long-term damage. Some Labour MPs are aware of the democratically contradictory nature of this possible strategy, and deeply uneasy about it.

With Labour perhaps divided on other matters – such as the extent of the implementation of spending cuts, as recently suggested by Lord Liddle, and the general continuing criticism of the party leadership by Blairites – the government might quickly lose support during such a controversy. The SNP might also not enjoy the negative publicity, conscious of the great damage done to the Lib Dems by their participation in government. The Labour government might then find itself unable to get important measures through that would affect 85 per cent of the population of the UK, and feel it has no option but to resign. And that might in turn propel into office another minority Conservative government, quite possibly under a leader other than David Cameron, again because of the difficulty under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of securing a dissolution. As before, if the Conservatives cannot form a government after 14 days, then there can be an election; or it would require a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons, something unlikely to happen because it would entail large numbers of turkeys voting for Christmas. It would be much better for the country just to have another election, as was the practice previously, but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act forbids such a simple solution. And while such a crisis plays out Britain would be at the mercy of financial speculators, and contempt among the electorate for the political process, which is already at an unhealthy level, would balloon.

Even before the ill-considered Fixed-Term Act, which senior politicians of all parties now wish to repeal, and the focus on democracy in England in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, our electoral arrangements were far from ideal or equitable. Sometimes the party with the largest popular vote comes second in terms of numbers of seats: Labour did in 1951 and the Tories in February 1974. What has been called a “postcode lottery” means that a single vote carries far more weight in some constituencies than it does in others, in terms of the ease with which one party or another can be elected. The first-past-the-post system has long enabled the Tories and Labour to win most of the seats, while the Lib Dems, with over half the number of the main parties’ votes, have nothing like half their number of MPs. Now, it is quite possible that at the May election Ukip could register many more votes than the Lib Dems, yet end up with a small fraction of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary seats. Only the introduction of a system of proportional representation, such as is used in the European parliamentary elections, could obviate this injustice.

Yet in 2011, when at the insistence of the Lib Dems a plebiscite was held on introducing the Alternative Vote, it was roundly defeated by 68 to 32 per cent. Therefore we must assume that the public, or at least the 42 per cent who cared enough about the future of our electoral system to vote, are quite happy for the present system to continue.

What we cannot assume is public support for the Fixed-Term Act. The Lib Dems had a commitment to fixed terms in their 2010 manifesto; but the dominant partner in the eventual coalition, the Conservatives, did not. Fixed terms may work in presidential systems such as the US or France, where the head of government is elected separately from the representative assembly, and where therefore the political culture is fundamentally different. Here, the act limits the democratic option, as previously existed, of a failed government going to the country as soon as it has lost the confidence of parliament – as with the Callaghan administration in 1979; or of a government so weakened by events that it decides to seek a new mandate from the electorate, as Edward Heath unsuccessfully did in February 1974. It also prevents a government calling an election at a time of its choosing, although, as John Major found in 1997 and Gordon Brown in 2010, prime ministers do not always call correctly.

When Nick Clegg introduced the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill in the Commons on 13 September 2010, the government front bench – as a Labour MP pointed out – was devoid of any Conservative ministers to support him. He claimed the measure was designed “to remove the right of a prime minister to seek the dissolution of parliament for pure political gain”. That was not quite true. Removing that right was indeed one of the reasons for the Lib Dems’ devotion to the idea of fixed terms. But the real reason why the promise was made immediately upon the conclusion of the coalition talks the previous May was an intervention by Sir Gus O’Donnell, the then cabinet secretary.

There are two categories of senior civil servant: those who act as true mandarins in tendering advice and implementing ministerial decisions with strict objectivity, whether they conform with that advice or not, and those who take a robust interest and keen delight in politics and the political process itself. Anyone who has come across Lord O’Donnell – as he has since become – will be aware that he belongs more to the second than to the first category. He was especially effective in Whitehall in dealing with ministers who were either inexperienced or not very bright. Cameron, whose first office of state was that of prime minister, and Clegg, whom few would expect to win Mastermind, were putty in his hands. O’Donnell correctly identified that the international markets were waiting to see how serious the new government was likely to be in tackling the economic difficulties of the time, notably a deficit excessive both historically and by comparison with those of economies in the eurozone. He argued that announcing in the summer of 2010 that the next general election would not be held until 7 May 2015, barring exceptional circumstances, would constitute a promise of stability that the markets would love.

Whatever Cameron’s doubts about this – and in that way that he seems to lack conviction about almost everything, it is hard to discern whether he had strong feelings either way – he could see this might be a deal-breaker with the Lib Dems: and so, despite what he must have known would be deep hostility from many in his party, he signed up to the idea. So when Clegg, in his vapid and shallow speech on the second reading, said that the result of passing the bill would be “no more feverish speculation”, once a parliament entered its latter phase, “distracting politicians from getting on with running the country”, he told less than half the story. And those who should be running the country seem to have found plenty of distraction elsewhere to compensate for not having the date of a general election to speculate about.

One of the many points Nick Clegg seemed incapable of grasping, in choosing largely to ignore or not being able to notice that there might be other consequences of this measure, was that some displacement would occur. “The political parties end up in perpetual campaign mode,” he told MPs, “making it very difficult for parliament to function effectively.” Parliament is scarcely functioning effectively now, more than three months before an election. MPs of all parties are mostly in their constituencies, attempting to secure their re-election. Fixed term or not, that was always going to happen. The arguments to which Clegg devoted his speech in September 2010 in supporting his case for this fundamental change to the constitution have turned out mostly to be hollow.

But then he gave himself away on the day in response to an intervention by Sir Peter Tapsell, the Father of the House and widely respected on both sides of it, who first sat in the Commons in 1959, nearly eight years before Clegg was born. “Why,” asked Sir Peter, questioning the change, “do the Rt Hon Gentleman and our Prime Minister think that they are wiser than their 40 predecessors?” In a response sublimely fatuous even by the Deputy Prime Minister’s standards, he replied: “It is not a question of wisdom; it is a question of the weight of history.”

Bernard Jenkin, another Tory MP, accused the government of “gerrymandering the constitution in favour of a particular coalition” and of making up the constitution “on the hoof”. He called for a constitutional convention to weigh up the pros and cons properly. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and historian of parliament, took issue with the five-year fixed term, pointing out that since the Reform Act 1832 parliaments, on average, had lasted three years and eight months. This was a more remarkable statistic than Bryant disclosed, because until the Parliament Act 1911 an act of 1716 required general elections to be held only every seven years. Jack Straw took up Jenkin’s point and accused the government of rushing through the bill without proper pre-legislative scrutiny. His colleague George Howarth came more directly to the point, describing the measure as “squalid in intent”.

The bill passed, but it is important to recall the extent of the doubts and fears expressed at the time by both Labour and Tory MPs, for it means that if we have a constitutional crisis caused by the act nobody can claim to have been unwarned. That 1911 act that established five-year parliaments as a maximum, and whose purpose was principally to end the veto of the House of Lords, was the result of precisely the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation that Jenkin and Straw (and many others) called for in 2010, but which in an act of scandalous dereliction, given the gravity of the measure, was entirely absent. The consequences of removing the peers’ veto – a necessary step in a country close to achieving full manhood suffrage, and which within 20 years would have extended the vote to all men and women over the age of 21 – were so completely discussed in the Commons, in the Lords, on public platforms, in the press and (most significantly) at two general elections within 11 months that very few were unaware of what they would be. And the widespread acceptance of this change to centuries of constitutional practice, as well as the absence of unpleasant surprises afterwards, were a tribute to the effectiveness of an exhaustive debate before it occurred.

The possible constitutional crisis of 2015 could be the gravest since that of 1909-11, which was occasioned by the peers’ rejection of Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and, once the fight over their right to throw out money bills was lost, their persistent refusal to contemplate surrendering their veto on all other measures. It was only when A J Balfour, the Unionist leader, was told in July 1911 that George V had promised Asquith, his prime minister, that he would create hundreds of Liberal peers to force the Parliament Bill through that the Unionists gave in and let the bill pass. The Lords were persuaded to surrender their veto on money bills by the Unionists’ defeat in the general election of January 1910, which forced them to pass the People’s Budget. When the peers would not agree to surrender their other veto powers Asquith requested another dissolution, and in an election in December 1910 the Unionists lost again.

Most MPs realised the game was up: many peers didn’t, hence the need for Asquith to extract the promise from the king to agree to use his prerogative to create enough peers to defeat the forces of conservatism in the upper house. But in the two years while this conflict continued, the matter was, at least, robustly discussed and extensively dissected.

Because such a debate did not precede the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, and the coalition was able to drive the measure through parliament without needing to pay attention to points of serious dissent, we stand at risk of a profoundly anti-democratic outcome from the forthcoming electoral process. This is recognised across parliament. Senior politicians from both the Conservative and Labour Parties, including Alan Duncan, Peter Tapsell, Jack Straw, Gerald Kaufman and Kenneth Clarke, have all called in recent weeks for the act to be repealed. Given that the present parliament has so little to do, it is a wonder that the Conservative Party – which has never liked the act – does not make common cause with the substantial number of Labour objectors and seek to repeal the bill now, before the election. It would hardly matter if that broke the coalition, which has but a few weeks to live in any case.

If that should mean that 2015 was a year of two elections, so be it. At least the second election would give the public the opportunity to reflect upon the indecisive outcome of the first, and to choose whether they wished to cast their votes differently. This is important not least because of the position with Scotland, and the growing controversy over the exercise of votes on English issues by Scottish MPs. If that question, raised by Tam Dalyell 40 years ago, is to be settled in a way that inspires the confidence of all concerned, it has to be settled by a government with proper democratic legitimacy. But if the British are to have a democracy in which they can properly believe, they cannot tolerate governments that come about contrary to the will of the people, and then are allowed to rule indefinitely because the mechanism to remove them has been abolished. The one lesson that should, above all, have been learned from the past 20 years or so, is that if a government decides to unpick parts of the British constitution, it should not begin to do so until all the consequences have been exhaustively considered, and – in keeping with the best ideas of a democracy – until the public has signalled its approval at a general election.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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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