Syria, solidarity, and virtue signalling from 40,000ft

It turns out we stand with France after all.

By 397 votes to 223, MPs gave their backing to the Prime Minister’s motion for air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria.

The decision came at 10.30pm on Wednesday after a marathon debate in the House of Commons. Speeches were measured, angry, passionate, clinical, accusatory and resolute – some all at once. Harsh words were uttered, some of which might be regretted in the morning, but that is to be expected when a matter as fundamental as war and peace is at stake.

At least, MPs thought it was a question of war and peace. It was really a choice between messy mini-war and the peace of the ostrich. The action proposed by David Cameron is a modest extension of current operations over Iraq, little more than virtue signalling from 40,000ft. The 70,000 “moderate” fighters touted by the Prime Minister, if they exist and in such numbers, would still not be equal to the mission at hand.

There are virtue signallers aplenty on the other side too who want us to know how moral they are. Women are being sold into sexual slavery and gays flung from rooftops but at least their consciences are clear. You have to peer through the looking glass to glimpse their ethical high ground.

Cameron was partially honest about the limitations of his proposals:

I am not pretending that the answers are simple. The situation in Syria is incredibly complex. I am not overstating the contribution our incredible servicemen and women can make; nor am I ignoring the risks of military action or pretending that military action is any more than one part of the answer.

I am absolutely clear that we must pursue a comprehensive strategy that also includes political, diplomatic and humanitarian action, and I know that the long-term solution in Syria – as in Iraq – must ultimately be a government that represents all of its people and one that can work with us to defeat the evil organisation of ISIL for good.

The Prime Minister’s speech was solid if plodding and overshadowed by what was, depending on your take, a shameful smear, a truthful gaffe or a bit of ruthless strategising.

There was outrage, much of it confected but some genuine, over private comments he made to Tory MPs on Tuesday night. Cameron reportedly urged wavering backbenchers not to walk through the No lobby with “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.

The PM’s remarks struck this observer as a fairly clear reference to Corbyn’s associations with Hamas and Hezbollah, from which he has not resiled, and John McDonnell’s praise for the IRA’s “bombs and bullets”, for which a plainly disingenuousapology has been hawked. (He may have had in mind too Andy Slaughter, shadow minister for human rights, who accompanied Corbyn to a 2010 meeting with Hamas representatives.)

The theatrically offended cried “McCarthyism” and it was: Shameless demagoguery with a small, uncrackable kernel of truth.

I will not dwell on Jeremy Corbyn’s effort in response to the Prime Minister; even I take pity on the man now. The speech of the night, perhaps of the year, was given by Hilary Benn.

He brought the Commons to applause with this:

What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.

A stirring cry for internationalism and a reminder why, for all its manifold idiocies, Britain needs a Labour Party. A correction, however: The entire House did not stand up against Hitler and Mussolini. There were appeasers and isolationists back then.

Benn’s defence of solidarity in the face of barbarous fascism was surely instrumental in convincing some of the 66 Labour MPs who defied Jeremy Corbyn and his heavies to vote in support of the government’s motion. The Prime Minister’s air strikes may not be enough but they are a start in any campaign to destroy ISIS.

The far-left, which has near-total control of the Labour Party, does not see the world this way. The motor engine of all conflict in their eyes is the injustices perpetrated by the West. Even as medieval totalitarians apportion death to innocent civilians, we are to blame. We had it coming. We brought it on ourselves. Keep our heads down and don’t upset them. Thus is logic tortured and self-defeat trumpeted. Solidarity with France? Warmonger! Standing up for women and girls and gays and minorities? Imperialist! Protecting our streets from carnage? Blair! Iraq! Dodgy dossier!

This is not socialism, it is surrender. French concert-goers are not being AK-47ed because the Americans ousted Saddam or because Jews can now climb beyond the seventh step to Me’arat ha-Machpela. The Islamic State seeks a global caliphate in which infidels must convert to their pseudo-Quranic ideology or die. The US Air Force could bomb Tel Aviv and Western leaders withdraw every last soldier from the Middle East. It would neither deter nor provoke ISIS. They don’t care what we do. They want us dead.

Scotland’s MPs were evenly divided on the question. David Mundell and Alistair Carmichael supported air strikes while Ian Murray and Nicola Sturgeon opposed.

The Nationalists have not covered themselves in glory in recent days. Their celebrity former leader and nominal foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond skipped the Prime Minister’s statement on Syria last Thursday and unveiled a portrait of himself in Edinburgh. Given his indication that an independent Scotland would have contemplated strikes against Assad, his opposition to the government motion smacked of opportunism. No doubt he considers it unpardonable folly that a majority of MPs did not heed his geopolitical wisdom.

Salmond’s contribution was loud but shallow and lacked the sharp and agile approach taken by Angus Robertson, leader of the Westminster SNP. Until Hilary Benn spoke, it was the most powerful speech of the day. He was particularly strong on the dubiety of claims about 70,000 “moderate” militiamen and on the lack of post-bombing reconstruction plans. Had the SNP engaged constructively with the government, it might have had the opportunity to influence the latter point. Had the government approached the debate with more humility, it might have had compelling answers to both points. No one on the opposition benches put ministers under more pressure than the Moray MP, all the while reassuring “our armed forces that, regardless of the differences in this place, we wish for their safety and we appreciate their professionalism”.

Nevertheless, I confess to disappointment. I had a dog in this fight. This was an opportunity for the Nats to prove they are more than the party of grievance. Nicola Sturgeon is fond of saying that Scotland should be independent because we’re just as good as every other country. Syrians are just as good as us, their entitlement to freedom from theocratic fascists no lesser than our right to vary our income tax rates.

The SNP is adept at putting a kilt on conservatism and calling it social democracy. However sincerely MPs might oppose war, their party’s stance will appeal to every hard-hearted Little Scotlander crowing “not in my name”. Not in my name: Never has a statement of insular reaction so audaciously posed as the voice of progressive conscience.

Perhaps I am being unjust in suggesting Nationalist MPs are one indistinct monolith, a dutiful instrument of the First Minister. One of the 54 tweeted after the vote: “I voted against UK air strikes. Hugely disappointed that the opposing view has won the day.” Another quipped: “Labour, Conservatives and LibDems #BombingTogether.” There couldn’t be a starker contrast between everything that is good and conscientious about the SNP and everything that is snide and intolerant.

All this for token air strikes. Imagine how ugly things will get when the Commons has to decide on real action.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Chatham House by Creative Commons 2.0.

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