Grace under pressure: Jarvis on a tour in northern Iraq, where he was responsible for security in the critical Rumaila oilfields.
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From war to Westminster: is Labour's Dan Jarvis a future Prime Minister?

In 2007, Dan Jarvis led a unit of paratrooners in Helmand Province. Four years later, he became MP for Barnsley Central. Xan Rice meets him and asks: could he go even higher?

In 2007, four years before becoming a Labour MP, Major Dan Jarvis was asked to lead a company of 150 men on a six-month mission into Helmand Province in Afghanistan. His unit, mainly paratroopers, was part of the Special Forces Support Group, the newest wing of the UK special forces.

The full details of Jarvis’s task remain classified, but it involved recruiting and training local volunteers to serve in the Afghan Territorial Force, an elite unit charged with taking on the Taliban. Jarvis was 34 and highly experienced, having served in Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone and completed multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he knew this mission would be his most dangerous and challenging yet.

On a previous deployment to Helmand in 2005, as part of a small reconnaissance team helping the British army decide where to focus its efforts in southern Afghanistan, he had been able to walk through the streets and bazaars. Now, with the insurgency raging, the only way in and out was by helicopter. Jarvis’s unit would be based at a remote fort. In desert terrain littered with improvised explosive devices and mines, the men would travel long distances in Land Rovers lined with ballistic matting – “basically a reinforced car seat”.

“The level of threat was very high and the level of protection relatively low,” is how Jarvis puts it. It was the sort of mission he had dreamed of. “I had aspired throughout my army career to lead a company of paratroopers in these very difficult circumstances,” he told me. “It was a fantastic professional opportunity.”

But Jarvis was conflicted. Unlike some of the younger men on his team, he had a family. When he first went to Iraq, in 2003, during the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it was only two days after his wife, Caroline, had given birth to a son by emergency Caesarean section. Now he also had a young daughter, born just days before he had returned from another tour of Iraq. Caroline was aware of the risks her husband faced; he had known ten of the first 100 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. And she was fighting her own battle, having been diagnosed with bowel cancer the previous year.

“Quite a reasonable question to ask is, ‘Why the hell were you in Afghanistan at that point?’” Jarvis says. “It was because Caroline had undergone treatment for cancer and was in remission, and it was her profound wish that we would maintain as normal a life as we possibly could.”

Three years later, in July 2010, Caroline died from the disease at the age of 43.

The Helmand operation was as tough as Jarvis had expected. Vetting the Afghans was hazardous: the British soldiers never knew if people were coming forward for the right reasons. The “green on blue” attacks by Afghan forces on allied troops were just beginning. Jarvis also had to balance the military objectives with his desire to bring back all of his troops.

During the assignment, one Afghan soldier was killed and several others were injured. Some of Jarvis’s own men were badly hurt. But none died, which makes him immensely proud. “Those were formative times for me, frankly compounded by the constant self-doubt as to whether I should have been in that country,” says Jarvis, now a shadow justice minister. “It gives me perspective that I draw upon because, how ever tough things can be in politics, nothing will compare to that level of pressure and risk.”

In Jarvis’s constituency office at Barnsley Town Hall his staff joke about his fondness for military acronyms and mottos. When he writes RPE on a memo it means “relentless pursuit of excellence”. R&R is “ruthless and relentless”. “Ruthless with time,” Jason Keen, his press officer, clarifies.

I’ve arranged to meet Jarvis for a run at 8am on a late February morning. At 7.50am he is waiting outside the Premier Inn in the centre of Barnsley. “I thought we’d go out for an hour or so, a steady run,” he says. “One thing I must tell you is that it is hilly around here.”

Jarvis is training for the London Marathon, as I am. Or at least he should be. It’s only nine weeks to go until the race and he has managed a total of two practice runs. With the event due to take place just a fortnight before the general election, he would have been happy to skip it.

But since Caroline’s death, Jarvis has twice run the marathon for Cancer Research UK and it is the headline charity this year. Matching his time from 2014 will be hard, he says – he ran with his father and finished in three hours and 45 minutes – though he has no trouble answering questions as we run up a steep gradient. “You do 15 years in the Paras and you develop a bit of a mindset of getting tough at experiences,” he says. “There comes a point when the embarrassment of failure is much worse than the pain associated with trying to avoid failure.”

His lack of preparation is not laziness; he has little spare time. From Monday morning to Thursday night he is London, where he likes to be at his computer by 6am and finishes around midnight. Friday is a full day of constituency work in Barnsley and so is half of Saturday.

“I remember on my first day in the House of Commons [7 March 2011] a Conservative MP said to me: ‘The thing that you need to learn about this place is that it is only really a part-time job.’ I was pretty stunned to hear that and it’s completely not the case. You can potter around and do it as a part-time job if you want, but to do it effectively requires a huge amount of effort. I think people deserve that. I am not making any comment about whether I am effective or not. I think people will see that I put the work in.” (Three days later the Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind is caught on a hidden camera saying he is “self-employed” and boasting about his free time.)

Jarvis arrived at Westminster as an outsider in both background and timing. He was not part of the Labour class of 2010 – he won his seat in Barnsley Central in 2011, replacing Eric Illsley, who had to stand down after being convicted of fraud for his part in the MPs’ expenses scandal. In doing so, Jarvis became the first person since the Second World War to resign a military commission to contest a by-election. Since then, his rise through the ranks – and in his standing among his peers on both sides of the House – has been swift.

Jarvis did not want to be typecast and so deliberately avoided being pushed towards defence and security. But he was eager to be challenged. After six months he agreed to become shadow arts minister, even though he says he knew little about culture. In parliament he drew attention for his robust defence of local libraries against the coalition cuts, and for championing the National Health Service, describing the excellent care his wife had received.

Jarvis is affable, relaxed and the same time deeply serious about his job as an MP and the concept of public service. Some things he professes to doing – such as a ritual pause to consider his constituents every time he steps into the Commons – could sound ridiculous, yet from him they feel sincere. “He comes across as a very real, authentic person, and that’s important in modern politics,” as Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP, writer and chair of the Commons defence select committee, who has worked with Jarvis in parliament, told me.

His value to his party is clear. Last year Jarvis edited a book called Why Vote Labour, part of a series explaining the main parties’ policies. And few Labour MPs can have knocked on as many doors as he has done in recent months. In January, he spent nine days touring 27 constituencies to assist the local candidates. It was a strong statement of loyalty and perhaps of ambition, too.

Writing at the time in the Telegraph, James Kirkup, the paper’s executive editor for politics, again noted the Tories’ respect for Jarvis and said he should be spoken of as serious leadership material. “How would the CCHQ attack machine approach a Labour leader who served his country in two wars? A man who is raising two children alone after losing his wife to cancer?”

The second line was incorrect: Jarvis remarried in 2013 to Rachel, a freelance graphic designer, and now has a third child. But the point was well made: Ladbrokes has Jarvis at 12/1 to be the next Labour leader, behind Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna. His ability to perform under extreme pressure may well be tested again before too long.

Military men are typically Tory supporters. The Conservatives have numerous MPs with army backgrounds, mostly with short periods of service. Labour has one – Jarvis – and with arguably the highest profile of all. (In 2011 he was awarded an MBE for military service, the only serving MP to achieve that honour during the Queen’s reign.)

Why did he choose Labour? It was not a sudden decision, he says. His parents were both Labour Party members; his father was a lecturer at a teacher training college in Nottingham and his mother a probation officer. They instilled in him the importance of public service. While still at school he came to the conclusion that he did not share Margaret Thatcher’s vision for Britain.

“The values of Labour are my values – the fundamental belief that collectively you achieve more together than you can alone,” he says. “The belief in the value of fairness, equality, the desire to stand up for the many, not just the few – giving representation to those without a voice.”

Jarvis became a member of the Labour Party while studying international politics at Aberystwyth University. By then he had already decided to become a soldier. Nobody in his family had served in the armed forces, so it was a “minor act of rebellion”, he says now. “I worked out early on that what you do for a job is an important part of your life. So do something you think is worthwhile and that gives you an opportunity to make a contribution.”

The army appealed to his sense of adventure. As one holiday approached at university, he and his younger brother, Rob, looked for something to do. “Some students went to Ibiza,” Jarvis says. “We went to K2” – the world’s second-highest mountain. Wearing their grandfather’s old tweed coats they made it up to 6,500 metres before accepting that they did not have the skills or equipment to climb higher. (Rob is now a professional mountain guide in Chamonix.)

After a year as a cadet at Sandhurst in 1997, Jarvis joined the Parachute Regiment. In Kosovo, he was appointed aide-de-camp to General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the UN force there. When Jackson returned to England in 2000 Jarvis accompanied him. He met Caroline at Jackson’s home in Wiltshire, where she worked as the family chef. They married the following year.

It was in Afghanistan in 2005, while following the UK general election at the end of a tour, that he first seriously considered a career in parliament. “My wife had not yet been diagnosed with cancer. I concluded that at some point, probably years ahead, I’d want to ease out of the army and get more involved in politics. My wife’s death accelerated that process.”

He has said that telling his children that their mother had died was the most difficult thing he has done. “It’s been hard for them. The only kind of minor saving grace was the fact my kids were so young [seven and five]. The magnitude of it was not completely lost, but if they had been the age they are now it would have been harder.

“It’s just one of those dreadful situations that you find yourself in and you’ve got two options: you can come through it or you can sink. Sinking was never an option because I had two small kids who wanted to go back to school quite quickly.”

He knew he could not return to war zones. But he did not want a desk job in the army. He quietly applied to be Labour’s candidate in Islwyn, south Wales, in 2010 and made the shortlist. The following year, the Barnsley Central seat became vacant.

Dan Jarvis, photographed in Barnsley this month by Rick Pushinsky.

Jarvis thought he stood little chance. The town has a long history of coal mining and union ties; on our run, we passed the house owned by Arthur Scargill, who Jarvis says is now a recluse. Every local MP for the previous 70 years had been from Barnsley or nearby, and most had been miners. And Nottingham, where Jarvis is from, is still associated with miners who kept working during the great strike of the mid-1980s.

“The only thing in my favour was that my predecessor was going to prison and there was huge discontent with the political classes. As someone untouched by all that, with a proven track record of service, I thought maybe I could be considered.”

He won selection through hard work and luck; at one point in the hustings when he tied with another candidate, they drew lots to see who would proceed. The by-election was more of a formality, as Barnsley Central is a safe Labour seat. But Jarvis was determined to make a point. He code-named his campaign “Operation Honey Badger” – the animal looks cuddly but is known for its strength and ferocity – and knocked on several thousand doors. He won 61 per cent of the vote, compared to the 47 per cent that Illsey had polled for Labour a year earlier.

After his victory, Jarvis moved the family home from Salisbury in Wiltshire to Barnsley. “Some people [MPs] decide that they want to be based in London,” he says. “I wanted to be rooted here. The kids are very settled and love the town.”

Initially, his parents – now divorced and both remarried – and his in-laws helped look after the children. Now Rachel takes care of most of the parental duties. Jarvis’s 12-year-old son and ten-year-daughter attend local state schools. “A bit of me thinks that it is kind of selfish for me to do it [being an MP and spending so much time away from home] . . . But we make it work.”

He thinks his children are proud that he is a politician, although his son was more impressed when he was soldier. They will help him campaign closer to the election in May.

Jarvis says Barnsley still suffers from misconceptions, with many people assuming that it is a heavily industrialised urban area. The last of the coal pits closed decades ago and three-quarters of the borough is green belt. The M1 passes close to the town and the Peak District is nearby.

Yet there are challenges. Barnsley Central is the 132nd worst of Britain’s 650 constituencies for unemployment. Underemployment is also a problem, with people who want permanent work having to settle for zero-hours or other part-time contracts.

“A lot of people are really struggling at the moment, making hard choices. This talk of an economic recovery: it’s a very different climate in London from the rest of Britain. In swaths of the country people are worse off by every metric than they were in 2010.”

Yet the Tories lead when it comes to economic stewardship and Labour is considered less friendly – even unfriendly – to business. Why is this?

“It’s because there is an election!” Jarvis says. “There are some clever election strategists paid a lot of money to run us down. There’s an absolute recognition [by Labour] that the private sector is an important part of the economy and that we can encourage business people to create wealth.”

I ask him about Ed Miliband: why are his approval ratings so poor? Opposition leaders have it tough compared to prime ministers, who have the benefit of incumbency, he says. Before they became prime minister, Jarvis recalls, Tony Blair was called “Bambi” and David Cameron was mocked for hugging huskies and cycling to work with his chauffeur behind him.

“When I talk to people about Ed, they do see him as a decent, well-meaning politician. But there is constant scrutiny upon him. I am not going to blame it all on the media but I think there’s a basic unfairness in the way the media have covered him. My take on Ed Miliband is that he’s an incredibly bright, thoughtful, decent guy who is doing the job for the right reasons.”

It’s now late morning and Jarvis is in his campaign gear: blue suit, comfortable brown walking shoes and a black waterproof jacket. As we approach the main shopping district, one of his constituents grips his hand and says: “We will beat Farage.”

Ukip isn’t a strong threat in Barnsley Central but it is in other areas nearby, including Rotherham. Labour supporters and politicians are concerned. (Later, Jarvis tells me that although the online version of Why Vote Labour initially sold better than the Conservative, Lib Dem and Ukip titles, the Ukip book is now the biggest seller. “Not that I’m competitive,” he says.)

“I am not remotely complacent about Ukip. They have successfully tapped in to a broader discontent about politics and politicians,” he says. But he thinks that support for Ukip has peaked. “They don’t have the momentum that they had at the time of the EU elections” in May last year.

The main market is busy with shoppers. Jarvis stops to talk to two female police officers and asks if they are having a quiet morning. “We don’t say the Q word!” one of
them replies in mock anger. They talk about the problem of local shops offering “legal highs”, products containing chemical substances that produce similar effects to cocaine or cannabis but not covered by current misuse of drugs laws. Jarvis is working with the government to have them banned.

We eat lunch at an Italian family restaurant. Out of earshot of Jarvis, I ask the two young waitresses if their MP is representing them well. The first says yes; she recognised him when he walked in. The second has no idea who her representative at Westminster is, and is only humouring me with an answer. “She [sic] is doing a good job,” the waitress says.

Jarvis chuckles when I tell him. I ask him what has gone wrong. “Many people think that our problems have outgrown our politics,” he says. “They feel lost in this rapidly changing world. Globalisation offers many opportunities but many challenges as well. We’ve seen how an economic crisis that had its roots on the other side of the world has had a direct impact on the livelihoods of people in this country and in my constituency. Technological improvements mean there is not as much of a role for those previously unskilled opportunities, so that brings pressures and challenges.”

The “established political order” also bears blame, he says. “Far too many politicians would never dream of knocking on people’s doors to ask them what they think. In many of the heartlands, Conservative and Labour, people sat on these big majorities and didn’t need to put the work in. The public was something of an afterthought. This has led to a breakdown of trust.

“Some people will try to simplify it and say it’s the expenses scandal. But that’s a tiny part of all this. Over many years there’s been a gradual separation between the political establishment and the people that they are there to serve.”

If the public’s confidence is to be won back, parliament needs to change. There are too few working-class people, too few women and too many career politicians, he says. “The public wants more people with life experience.”

He mentions one of Barnsley’s best-known MPs, Roy Mason, who worked underground as a coal miner at 14 and went on to represent the town from 1953 to 1987. “I suspect what he did would be much harder to do now and it’s a question of social mobility. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning: that kids who grow up here should have the same opportunities as those children in more affluent areas.”

I ask if he thinks what the New Statesman has called the 7 per cent problem – the domination of public life by a privately educated minority, as well as the correlation between poverty and educational failure – is also an issue at Westminster. “There is an over-representation of people [in parliament] who have been to public schools. That is a fact of life that we should seek to address.

“It’s not to say we have not got exceptional people who went to public schools who can do exceptional things. But we need a parliament that is truly representative of the public that it is there to serve.”

Like Jarvis, Rory Stewart – who made his name as a diplomat and author of books on Afghanistan and Iraq – entered parliament as a political novice, winning a seat in 2010. In an interview with the American magazine the New Republic last year, Stewart said: “It is difficult to work out what an MP is, what an MP does, what the role of the public servant today is supposed to be. Is this a useful way of contributing, and shaping things? I guess before I did this, it seemed much more obvious.”

When I ask Jarvis about it, he says, “I mean this in an entirely complimentary way – Rory tends to overthink things.”

He expands: “I am pretty clear what I am here to do. I am there to champion my constituents and make sure their voices are heard and to stand up for them. I think I have learned a bit about how you get things done and how parliament works.”

There are frustrations. One is a consequence of being in opposition and not being able to influence government policy. Another dislike is the “political pantomime” of Prime Minister’s Questions. “When I go round the schools I cannot justify that level of behaviour to kids who see it and ask me about it. Some people say it makes it more of a spectacle and fewer people would watch if it was not that sort of confrontational environment. I don’t really buy that.”

In a 2012 interview with the Spectator, Jarvis expressed admiration for David Miliband, describing his role as vice-chairman of the Blairite think tank Progress as evidence of him “seeing the importance of the centre ground”. When I ask him about this, he says he is also a member of Unison, Unite, the Fabian Society and the Co-operative Party. “In politics there are those who will always try to pigeonhole you. I have frustrated people by not allowing them to do that, and been very careful not to be linked with any one bit of the party.”

I ask what he thinks of David Cameron. “I have a huge amount of respect for the office of the PM and it’s the most incredibly difficult job. While [Cameron] has always been personally charming to me, I don’t know what he is about and what he stands for. He has never convinced me that he gets up in the morning filled with some ideological vigour to make the country a better place. With a number of that cohort, it’s about holding and wielding the influence and power of office for its own ends, rather than for the greater good.”

Does he aspire to be PM? He must be aware of the talk of him as a future Labour leader? He pauses. “I don’t spend much time thinking about that, to be honest. I am utterly focused on winning the election and that Ed will be prime minister. The consequences of not doing so are severe for this country. It is said of Michael Heseltine that from school he had this grand plan that he was going to do a bit of time in the army, make money in business, go into politics, go into the cabinet and be prime minister. I am always suspicious of those sorts of people. I just want to do the best job that I can.”

With a close election predicted, one might have thought that Labour would be exploring the possibility of an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. Jarvis rejects this. “We need to do everything we can to avoid the scenario of going in with the Lib Dems. Our focus is on beating them, not war-gaming on a scenario that may or may not come.”

After lunch, Jarvis’s office manager drives us to Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s constituency. Polls show that the Labour candidate here, Oliver Coppard, is within a few percentage points of defeating Clegg. Coppard and a dozen volunteers are gathered at Crookes Social Club and when Jarvis arrives they fan out into the surrounding streets to campaign. Few people are at home. “It can be a bit soul-destroying, knocking on 15 doors when there’s nobody in,” Jarvis says.

When someone does answer, he introduces himself as a Labour member campaigning for Coppard. He only lets on that he is an MP when called over to chat to a woman who wants to join the party. He asks her why. “Ukip is getting more powerful and I find that really worrying,” she says. “The only good thing is that it is getting people angry and doing things.”

After 90 minutes, it’s time to go. Jarvis is dropped off at Sheffield Station and rushes to buy a ticket before boarding a crowded train to Barnsley. His monthly meeting with local Labour Party members begins at 5pm in the town hall. Though he will be late, he will not cancel; he has missed only two of these Friday-evening meetings in four years – once to get married and once to appear on Any Questions. In the morning he will be back on Barnsley’s streets, knocking on doors. “The honey badger,” he said on the way to the station, “lives on.” 

Xan Rice is features editor of the NS

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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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