Since his premiership began, David Cameron has often proved to be a man for turning. Yet, even by his flexible standards, his volte-face over Syrian refugees was remarkably swift. Days after declaring that taking “more and more” was not the answer (having accepted a mere 216 under the UK’s relocation scheme), he agreed to do just that. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, deserves much credit for leading the political opposition to Mr Cameron. For the first time since the Labour leadership contest began, one of its participants can credibly claim to have influenced government policy.
The Prime Minister’s pledge to accept up to 20,000 refugees over the next five years, a higher figure than initially briefed, was a welcome shift. He is also right to point to the significant foreign aid provided by the UK as part of its commitment to the target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income. The government’s response, however, remains inadequate. The figure of 4,000 a year is meagre compared to the 68,500 accepted by France last year and the 800,000 that Germany is prepared to accept this year. It also contrasts unfavourably with Britain’s past generosity. As Ms Cooper noted: “In the 1930s, Britain took 10,000 children in just nine months. If counties and cities each took ten refugee families, we could help 10,000 people in the next few months.” More than 40 local authorities have signalled their willingness to take more. Were it not for the government’s absurd and discredited net migration target of “tens of thousands” a year (which includes refugees), Mr Cameron would doubtless be less restrictive.
By refusing to join the EU resettlement programme, the Prime Minister has also undermined attempts to achieve a balanced, continent-wide approach. His insistence that to do so would only encourage more Syrians to make the “potentially lethal” journey to Europe ignores the reality that many are fleeing unambiguously lethal situations. As Angela Merkel remarked: “What isn’t acceptable in my view is that some people are saying this has nothing to do with them.” Because of his reliance on the German Chancellor to achieve a successful EU renegotiation, Mr Cameron may yet regret his disdain for European solidarity.
The plight of the refugees, however, has been superseded in the headlines by the revelation that the government approved an unprecedented drone strike against two British jihadists in Syria. It was careless and inappropriate for Mr Cameron to address the two subjects in the same announcement, aware that the latter would dominate media coverage. The stated justification for the drone strikes was clear: intelligence showed that the Isis fighters represented a substantial threat to national security and there were no means for them to be brought to justice. But to maintain public trust and cross-party support, the government should publish the Attorney General’s legal advice.
The use of British force in Syria has sharpened the question of whether the Conservatives will seek parliamentary approval for a full campaign against Isis. In his interview with Jason Cowley this week, George Osborne, one of the cabinet’s most committed interventionists, promises: “When we’re ready, we will go to the House.” France’s decision to begin reconnaissance missions in advance of likely air strikes has added momentum. After his humbling in the Commons over intervention two years ago, Mr Cameron is advancing with caution. As a result of the likely election of Jeremy Corbyn, who rejects any military action, as opposition leader, the Prime Minister cannot hope to achieve formal bipartisan backing. Yet Labour MPs, just 24 of whom voted against strikes on Isis in Iraq, will feel little obligation to fall in line behind Mr Corbyn, one of the party’s most rebellious backbenchers.
If the Prime Minister wishes to avoid a second defeat on a matter so grave, he must do what he failed to do in 2013 and make a clear and persuasive case for military action. He must demonstrate above all that he recognises that the use of force, even if deemed necessary, is not sufficient. The US, Turkey and the Gulf states are already carrying out strikes against Isis in Syria. No one should pretend that the addition of the UK would tilt the balance. Without moves towards a political settlement, the cycle of violence will continue. Too often in recent history, military action has been used merely to satisfy the liberal impulse that “something must be done”. If he is truly committed to helping Syria, Mr Cameron must offer more than chimerical solutions.
This article appears in the 09 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles