Margaret Thatcher leaves Downing Street for the last time. Photo: Getty Images.
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Where were you when she left Downing St?

Piers Morgan, Tony Benn, Billy Bragg and others tell us where they were on 22 November 1990.

Malcolm Rifkind

The day before she went she had a meeting individually with each member of her cabinet. We knew as a result of that discussion that she was considering stepping down before the second ballot, but I only knew her decision the following morning.

We had gathered in the anteroom outside the Cabinet Room for a cabinet meeting as we normally would, and at that point we still did not know if she was going to stand for the second ballot. She arrived in the anteroom and then went through to the Cabinet Room, and we followed. Normally the cabinet meeting would start with the formal business, but on this occasion she said she had a statement that she'd like to share with us, and that's when she announced that she was stepping down.

In making that statement she actually broke down – just for a couple of seconds, and I think it was Willie Whitelaw who passed her her glass of water and she collected herself and then carried on. She was really remarkable. Having made her statement, she began the cabinet meeting as normal, and for the next hour or hour and a half, it was as if she didn't have a care in the world.

At the end of formal business, we would normally have gathered our papers and left immediately, but because it was the final occasion, we sat around chatting informally.

I was one of those who – I didn't say, "You should step down," but that was the thrust of what I was saying. She asked, "If I stand again, will you support me?" I had voted for her in the secret ballot in the first round. But I said to her, "I can promise that I will never vote against you," meaning that I would abstain. She says in her memoirs that what I said was "some small comfort", rather sardonically.

Like many people, I had mixed feelings about her resignation. I feel she was the best peacetime prime minister of the 20th century, and at most times I'd have gone to the ends of the earth for her. But she was sometimes very difficult, and towards the end, in those later years, those times became more frequent. So I think the decision to step down was the right one.

Paddy Ashdown

I was walking through Glasgow Airport when it was announced over the Tannoy. The entire airport burst into spontaneous applause; it went on for about five minutes. There was real heart in this. It wasn't only clapping, but shouts of joy as well. People were hugging one another and shaking each other's hand. It was as if the city had collectively won the FA Cup.

Helena Kennedy

I was at the Old Bailey, acting for a gangland boss in a series of armed robberies. At lunchtime someone came into the Bar mess and announced that Mrs T had resigned. There was wild jubilation, a cheer went up and wigs were tossed in the air. Even Conservative lawyers felt she had finally lost her purchase on reality and had to go. I was exhilarated. She had become such a hate figure.

Even police and prison officers were expressing pleasure to see the back of her. But there was my client, sitting with his head in his hands. "I'm gutted, sheer gutted. That woman put the Great back into Britain. She was tough. You 'ave to be. She didn't put up with all them slackers and wasters on the dole. Them immigrants. She loved this country, just like Churchill did. They've stabbed her in the back, that shower of nonces in the cabinet. You have to watch yer back when yer at the top."

He ranted on about the absence of testosterone in male Tories and the size of Mrs Thatcher's balls until we were called back to court. "'Elena, always remember to watch yer back. It's yer mates that always do for you in the end."

Roy Hattersley

All I can remember is that I did not believe it. I was driving into the House of Commons and a television journalist, complete with camera, seemed to shout, "She's gone." Who could she mean? Not Margaret Thatcher – or at least not gone permanently. I had seen her on television, the night before, saying she was staying. Surely her going to Brussels, Washington or Grantham would not be worth the fuss. I assumed the journalist had got it wrong. It sometimes happens. Then, in Neil Kinnock's office, one of his people told me it was true. I rejoiced – which was a mistake. Had Margaret Thatcher (and the poll tax) remained, Labour would have won the 1992 general election.

Piers Morgan

I was running the Sun's Bizarre show-business column at the time, and the newsroom was absolutely explosive all day long. Kelvin MacKenzie was the editor, and always loved Margaret Thatcher, as did his boss Rupert Murdoch, so there was a real sense of sadness and anger. I felt curiously disengaged from the whole thing. My professional world was gripped by far more important things, like whether Bros were going to break up or not. But, on a personal level, I felt sorry for her that she was leaving in such demeaning and treacherous circumstances. I think she later went slightly power-mad and bonkers, but that should not negate the good things she did, the real sense of pride she brought back to the stamp "Made in Britain".

David Owen, from Time to Declare, 1991

Margaret Thatcher . . . had been brought down over the European Community, not the poll tax. She had beaten me in the 1987 election and there is from the vanquished to the victor a certain gallantry due, and in my case genuinely felt. I sensed at times we were partners in the counter-revolution and I shared some of her convictions. Nevertheless, I did not share her attitude to a whole range of social and civil liberty issues.

Margaret Thatcher's downfall was due to hubris. Her excessive self-confidence was by then being flaunted day by day in the face of friend or foe alike. The tragedy that the Greeks identified followed: Nemesis.

A N Wilson

I was working as a journalist on the London Evening Standard when Margaret Thatcher fell, so I was able to get into the House of Commons gallery and watch the drama of her final Commons appearance before she left office. I had never voted for her, but she struck me as truly magnificent on a human level. Her qualities of personal greatness outshone what you might think of her "policies".

Peregrine Worsthorne

My immediate reaction to the news – which I heard while sitting at the editor's desk in the Sunday Telegraph – was to write a piece saying that this act of modern "regicide" would rightly put the Tory party out of office for a generation. Almost certainly she would have lost the next election, but that would have done much less long-term damage to the party than the horrible spectacle of her treacherous colleagues, one by one, stabbing her in the back.

As it happened, I think I may have been the last person – outside of her family and staff – to visit her on her final night. It was a painful experience. Normally it was she who brought the proceedings to a close. Not on that night. I thought the long silences would never end. Finally, walking down the grand staircase after a farewell photograph, I ran into Carol coming up, carrying a string bag, which, she said, contained "Mum's cold chicken supper". The servants, it seemed, had already decamped.

Will Self

Sorry, can't remember – it was during the lost years (mine and hers).

Tony Benn

I was in London. My diary describes the occasion as follows:

"I was in the middle of an interview about the war in the Gulf for Dispatches on Channel 4 when my secretary burst in to say Margaret Thatcher had resigned. Absolutely dazzling news and it was quite impossible to keep my mind on the interview after that.

"To the House, which was in turmoil. We had the censure debate, and Kinnock's speech was flamboyant and insubstantial. Thatcher was brilliant. She always has her ideology to fall back on; she rolled off statistics, looked happy and joked. I spoke myself but the House was empty."

Lady Carla Powell

I was not very surprised when Margaret Thatcher resigned – Charles had been with her in Paris when the news came through that she had failed to get the majority she needed in the Conservative Party leadership election. The night before her resignation Charles came home from No 10 well after midnight and told me he thought it was all over, although she was going to sleep on her decision. He went in at 6am the next morning and rang to tell me she had made up her mind to go. He was pretty emotional about it for a normally buttoned-up Englishman.

I found it hard to believe that someone who had towered over British politics for so long could so easily be toppled by a cabal of frightened Lilliputians. It taught me that politics is as much of a dirty business in Britain as in any other country.

A L Kennedy

When Margaret Thatcher finally fell off her perch – or rather was pushed – I was out of the loop. At that time I was working as a writer with groups in hospitals and prisons and various types of centre, or visiting isolated writers with disabilities in their homes, so every day I saw people being ignored, bewildered, defrauded, bullied and humiliated by the benefit system, failed by what was left of the NHS and the welfare state.

I was helping people to write – which allowed them to vent, claw back a little dignity, maybe start making more demands, maybe have the satisfaction of creation – but it also woke them up and made them more aware of their grim situations. The days were long. And badly paid. And I had the least of the problems in any given day.

On the day she went I was getting a lift home through Glasgow and I noticed that people on the pavements were all smiling – laughing – folk were, in fact, dancing. They were making a point of dancing in the street. Literally. With strangers. Angry, on-your-grave dancing. Still here and you're not dancing. And in the car we turned on the radio and heard the news. Those people were still dancing, even in the early evening. And it did make me feel happy, but not that happy. I didn't think anything would be different in the morning . . . and it wasn't.

James Naughtie

I was in the editorial meeting for The World At One. Just after 9.30, someone noticed a strange piece of copy on the Reuters financial wire, of all places, and tentatively interrupted the meeting to say that the prime minister seemed to have resigned. Panic, excitement, adrenalin rushes . . . and then the ruling that Radio 4 couldn't mount a special programme at 10am because we wouldn't have enough to go on! So the news bulletin told listeners that the Thatcher era was over, and they then listened to a programme about birds until we were allowed to hit the airwaves at 10.30.

Looking back, it still seems inexplicable, and would strike producers today as utterly barmy. Even then it was bizarre, though we soon got into our stride, decamping to the green off Parliament Square and rolling interviews that went on all day, it seemed. But I still remember not getting on the air quickly enough . . .

Kitty Ussher

I was at my desk in my tiny little room, in my first year of university. I was trying to read something very complicated when a friend burst in shouting: "She's gone, she's gone!" I had Radio 1 on and there was a terrible 20 seconds, trying to find Radio 4.

After that we went out on to the streets in Oxford, normally a very reserved place, but that day there were just gaggles of people standing on the street talking to each other and celebrating.

All the day in the TV room we watched the news unfold. Someone placed a Thatcher Spitting Image candle on top of the TV and as the day wore on it just melted all the way down. We all had a great day, except one of my Tory friends who just stayed in her room and cried all night.

Iain Dale

I remember having had rows the night before the resignation with two Tory MPs who owed their seats to Margaret Thatcher, yet intended to switch their votes away from her in the second ballot. I went home to my dingy flat in Walthamstow feeling angry and let down – almost tearful.

The next morning, I was at my desk in Grosvenor Gardens (I had just set up a lobbying company) when I heard the news on the radio. The world stood still for a moment. I wasn't surprised that she had stepped down, but it was still a shock. Only a few days before, my three-year-old niece, Emma, had asked: "Uncle Iain, is it possible for a man to be prime minister?" We were about to find out.

Peter Preston

I was standing in the Guardian newsroom when John Cole told me she was out. I thought that the long Downing Street deep freeze could finally be over for the paper. I'd been inside No 10 only twice through the Thatcher years, once because the president of Italy, an ex-journalist, wanted to meet me, once because Bill Deedes got to choose who went to his farewell dinner. Now, maybe, normal relations might be back on the menu. That would make an immense difference to what we wrote, and how we thought – because, simply, we'd have to stop to listen more.

She'd only been to my office once, too, as it happened, a staff conference meeting while she was still opposition leader. "This room could do with an element of defenestration," she'd announced, bafflingly. It turned out to mean she was too hot and wanted a window open.

Simon Heffer

I was in Brisbane awaiting the start of the first Test match between Australia and England of the 1990-91 tour. With great foresight, my then editor had decreed that nothing much would happen in politics that winter and that I could spend part of it, therefore, writing about cricket.

I recall eating a room service dinner (I was trying to write a preview of the Test match) in a state of shock, watching on television film of Wapping, the miners' strike and the poll tax riots. I knew the rest of the Tory party, and I knew what was coming. I was not disappointed. The Australians I met were in disbelief, and mostly asked if she could have a retirement job running Australia.

England were thrashed in the Test match. I arrived home on the morning she left Downing Street in tears, and the man we now call Sir John Major left No 11 for the Palace.

Lynsey Hanley

I was in a history lesson at secondary school. Our teacher, Mrs Green, came in and said: "I don't know if anybody's interested, but Mrs Thatcher's just resigned." And the whole place just erupted. It felt like the end of this huge oppression, which sounds ridiculous – we were only 14. But it really was this massive feeling of relief, as big as when the Berlin Wall came down. The funny thing was, a lot of the parents loved Mrs Thatcher, because they were able to buy their council houses.

Michael Portillo

I was in the thick of things and I think my recollections might be worth something, so I think I will save them. Sorry!

Charles Kennedy

I was relaxing in the bath at my London flat when the newsflash announced the dramatic news. Before I'd had time to digest the enormity of what had happened, the phone rang. It was one of my closest friends – an ardent Scottish Nationalist – who was happy enough, but amazed by the perfidy of the Tories. We speculated about who would now emerge as her successor, agreeing that this would probably be an Alec Douglas-Home moment. So, step forward Douglas Hurd. That chat, looking back, was proof positive of how many of us Scots have never really understood the Tory party.

I had resigned as editor of the NS and saw the television news pictures at home after shopping. I actually felt sorry for Mrs Thatcher, watching the stricken old woman scuttling into the large black car, her power apparently over. So I was not sorry to miss Charter 88's impromptu celebratory party that night, I didn't even know about it.

Stuart Weir

I was teaching at a primary school in Kilburn. One of the teachers ran into the staffroom waving the Evening Standard with the headline that Thatcher had resigned. I suddenly noticed smiles on faces that I had never seen smiles on before. I rejoiced, too, just to stay in the vibe, but I had mixed feelings. To my mind – and I still feel this way – Thatcher should have faced the people, not be dragged offstage by a bunch of guys trying to hang on to power. Like her or loathe her, Mrs T gave Britain its groove.

Bonnie Greer

I remember coming up out of Westminster Tube station holding the Evening Standard, and it was the front-page story. I was looking at the back page and holding it out in front of me, and this group of women was looking at the front of it – a group of grannies from the north of England down for a day trip, as it turned out.

One of them came running up to me and said, oh, is it true, is it true? And I said yes it is. They were all whooping and beaming. Then at that moment a black car went past, and in it was the Queen Mum. So they went from whooping about Thatcher to whooping about that – I think it must have been the best day of their bloody lives. Then I was doing something on parliament green, and it was like a television studio, with cameras everywhere and MPs popping up to give their tuppence worth.

How did I feel about it? Wonderful! Not quick enough, in my view.

Peter York

Newsnight had convened a round table of the usual suspects to give their thoughts on the lady's political passing. I composed what I thought was a rather good conceit. Thatcher wanted a revolution within a revolution; she was always saying, "Let's redo this, let's not rest on our laurels." So I said, "Mrs T was a Maoist" – the kind of sarcastic soundbite I prided myself on.

Back in the green room, musing on what a clever chap I was, I was set upon by a rather attractive, clearly very right-wing American woman. She berated me for my sarcasm and told me, in a roundabout way, that I wasn't fit to lick the hem of the Great Lady's robe. Throughout this she was supported by a stern woman who looked to me like a classic north London left-winger.

It turns out that the "American" lady was the very Canadian Barbara Amiel – not yet Lady Black – and the stern north Londoner was Melanie Phillips. Shamefully, I can't remember who else was on the panel. But I do remember those two women and how the rest of the panel were entirely obliterated by their force field. Fitting, when you think about the circumstances.

Niall Ferguson

In 1990 I was a fellow of Peterhouse – one of the few bastions of Thatcherism in British academic life. The night she resigned the mood at High Table was despondent. Rather a large amount of Château Batailley was consumed and then I and John Adamson sat slumped in my rooms and listened to every single recording we could find of the "Siegfried Funeral March" from Götterdämmerung. As far as I was concerned, that was the night that Britain gave up any hope of seriously reforming its postwar institutions.

Stephen Pollard

I was in a tiny room with three members of the then shadow cabinet (I was a researcher for a Labour MP at the time), watching a tiny black-and-white TV. They were ecstatic, as if a dictator had been overthrown – although one had the perspicacity to say a few moments later that the next election was no longer in the bag.

My own view was less exultant. Far from hating Mrs Thatcher, I always felt that she had been a blessing for the country: a leader who had done exactly what was necessary, and which no patrician Tory or, even less, Labour PM would ever have been capable of.

Billy Bragg

I was in bed in a hotel in Dublin called Blooms. A friend of mine rang from England and said, "Switch on the telly," so I leaned over and switched it on. And there she was, tearfully resigning. And I must say that cheered me up no end. So I got out of bed and went round the corner for a celebratory fry-up, a full English – or a full Irish, I suppose.

The best thing was that I had a gig that night in Belfast. I came on stage holding the Belfast Telegraph above my head, and said, "She's resigned" – and the place just went mad. The adrenalin running through me, I think I could have done ten rounds with Mike Tyson if he'd been in the dressing room.

Belfast was a great place to be that night – people were literally dancing in the streets. It had an incredible vibe; I just don't think a gig in London would have been the same.

David Lammy

I was at SOAS, reading the first year of my law degree. I remember coming out of a lecture, when a real buzz started going around. A huge group of us ran down to a room with a TV to a really powerful scene: friends of mine, students and professors, crying tears of joy.

I had grown up in Tottenham just a street away from the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, and had been involved in campaigns against the miscarriages of justice that convicted the Tottenham Three. By the time Maggie resigned, my friends and I at SOAS had been marching against the poll tax, campaigned for retrials for the Birmingham Six, had gone to the Court of Appeal when the Guildford Four were released. When Thatcher vowed to "fight on and fight to win" we thought we might never be rid of her – which is why we were so emotional when she finally went.

Anthony Seldon

I was teaching a lesson on Hitler when it happened. Somebody burst into the room and said: "Thatcher is gone." Everyone was completely silent, even though we knew it was on the cards. I said something pathetic like: "You'll remember this moment for the rest of your lives." I felt strangely moved – I thought she was beginning to get it right, beginning to cut free from many of the people around her and beginning to articulate what she truly believed in.

David Peace

I was a student at Manchester Polytechnic and I was living in Rusholme, in Manchester. I am pretty sure we went to the Hacienda and I am pretty sure Dave Haslam played "Bye Bye Badman" by the Stone Roses and "Margaret on the Guillotine" by Morrissey, and I am pretty sure we cheered and danced and partied like 1979 had never happened. And perhaps there will be similar scenes when she dies.

I did not mourn her resignation and I will not mourn her death, but nor will I celebrate and cheer in blame and hate. For it is much too late now and, to quote Chateaubriand, one should only use contempt with economy, because of the large number of people who deserve it. So I reserve my contempt for those who came after, for those who should have known better.

Roger Scruton

I learned of Margaret Thatcher's resignation in the same way as most: from the news. I was in England at the time, just beginning a new way of life which involved leaving the university and branching out as a self-employed writer and jack of all trades. Mrs Thatcher had not a little to do with this since, as one of her vocal supporters, I had in effect ruined my university career, and as a result of her policies I had discovered how to live outside the university in any case.

I was naturally upset by her resignation, but it convinced me that the old farts who ran the Conservative Party were just as chronically self-interested and anti-patriotic as the yuppies who were wrestling for control of the Labour Party. It was a great time to say "A plague on both your houses", and to recycle the Thatcher idea as a cherished memory rather than a pious hope.

Bel Mooney

I'd just got back from a meeting at my daughter's school when my then husband, Jonathan Dimbleby, rang to say Mrs Thatcher had resigned. It would be false to say it came as a total shock. We knew of rumblings.

I remember feeling first that it was time she went and that to resign was the right thing. A brave thing. But I never shared the visceral hatred of her which poisoned rational political discourse, so I did not share the mood of vicious glee on the liberal left.

As a feminist, I could not help but admire her. I could feel compassion for this woman who had outlived her time and pushed loyalty too far. Not everything that went wrong could possibly have been her fault.

John Harris

I was a 21-year-old undergraduate and part-time music journalist at the now-defunct weekly Sounds. What I most clearly remember is Cathi and Trish, the paper's two in-house Goths, giggling maniacally and singing, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." I was a bit less thrilled. My hope had been to see Thatcher – and Thatcherism – beaten in an election, and this end to the story made me quietly feel cheated.

Brian Walden

I was nowhere exciting, unfortunately, I was just at home. I switched on the television news and there she was. I wasn't surprised by that stage, although in a sense it was extraordinary – she'd stood for three elections and won them all. But by then there was growing hubris, and of course the poll tax, and she'd just become so unpopular. It wasn't anything to do with Europe, which is often cited as the reason. The Tory party wanted to win the election, which is why they got rid of her.

My overwhelming feeling was that there was bitter civil war within the Tory party. And that went on for a long time afterwards, for about 15 years – and that's a high price to pay. Less so now, but it's taken a long time to put out the fire. And that's because Cameron is going to win: the prospect of victory puts a stop to civil war, doesn't it?

Lady Annabel Goldsmith

I found out that Margaret Thatcher had resigned when I came home from walking the dogs and switched on the news. I was deeply upset for three reasons. First, she was an inspirational leader who was driven by ideals and her unshakeable determination. Second, I knew her personally through my husband, Jimmy Goldsmith, and beneath the armour was a kind and decent human being. Third, it made me so angry to see a strong woman brought down by a bunch of scheming, second-rate men.

David Aaronovitch

In the autumn of 1990 I was the BBC's head of political news, shuffling between the news centre in White City and the Westminster operation. So I was in a Tube train carriage when my pager went off with a loud buzz, and supplied me with the two words "Thatcher resigns".

I couldn't just sit there and say nothing. "She's gone," I told the seven or eight people sitting round me. A young black woman opposite looked serious, and then asked, shyly: "She can't come back, can she?" "No," I told her. Only then did she allow herself a smile.

Roger Law

I was at work at Spitting Image, on the modelling bench. I had a phone call from my producer Geoffrey Perkins, who is sadly now dead. He said: "We finally got rid of her. She's finally stepped down."

It was a kind of relief because everybody was sick to death of her. But you knew that she'd dismantled the whole fucking lot. I grew up in a mixed economy, where you paid higher taxes in return for services, and she just dismantled the whole fucking thing. It's abundantly clear that you can't just have expansion for ever.

To celebrate when she'd gone, we had an exhibition at the Barbican called "Cutting Edge". We had a tableau based on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, and we had all the cabinet members there who'd brought her down. We had all the puppets. And Denis Thatcher was there, drunk under the table.

The irony is that all the shit we're in now started with Reagan and Thatcher – and now she can't remember a fucking thing.

Interviews by Kate Ferguson, Alyssa McDonald and David Patrikarakos.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

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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