Last night’s vote by the UK Parliament to reject a government motion to clear the way for punitive action against Hafez Assad’s regime in Syria feels like a very important moment in British politics. It is a small but decisive step away from Britain’s centuries-old role as a Great Power on the world stage. This has good and bad aspects.
The vote itself has divided opinion among in my social network. The less political of them, including my liberal leaning but unpolitical friend at the gym this morning, are very happy. A depressing chain of events that started with Tony Blair’s joining of the Iraq war has reached an end. But many of my Lib Dem Facebook contacts are very unhappy: who will restrain President Assad’s regime now? But just as many share the views of my friend at the gym. I find my feelings very mixed. I do not want this country to take sides in this conflict; but the thought that Mr Assad’s government will take comfort from it is not a comfortable one.
But what will non-Britons make of this episode? It doesn’t seem to be all that important. The real power is with the United States; Britain’s military capacity is puny by comparison. This debate is not being had in many other countries, from the economic powerhouses of German and Japan, to other world powers such as Brazil or India. Only our French neighbours are weighing up the same issues, apart from America, and, in a different way, Russia. It all seems to be more about maintaining the status of our political elite than something that a third rank world power should be concerning itself with. It will be more difficult now for that elite to maintain its delusions of grandeur.
In one way this a good thing. The expense of the country maintaining this world status is increasingly unsustainable, as cutbacks to the armed forces show. There have been successful military interventions: in Kosovo, Libya and Sierra Leone. And places were we probably should have intervened but didn’t: Bosnia and Rwanda. But the results of the bigger interventions, Iraq and Afghanistan, are at best ambiguous. Syria looks more like the latter, though the government has been trying to limit the scope of any intervention. The judgement of our political leaders and the civil servants and military men that back them up has not proved particularly sound. And successful small interventions only encourage them to think bigger. We are now facing up to a more realistic view of Britain’s place in the world.
But there is also a dark side. It is not good if a country turns in itself, and does not want to accept the implications of being part of a bigger world. There is a strong undercurrent of this in Britain: from anti-immigrant feeling to criticism of foreign aid, as well as resistance to taking part in the European Union. But the country’s fate is more bound up than ever by what goes on in the rest of the world, and far too often this sort of isolationism leads to paranoia and conflict.
Personally I would like to see Britain take further steps back from its pretension to a world role: giving up the country’s seat on the Security Council and our nuclear weapons. But I would also like the country to take part in military interventions if these are needed, especially in Europe and (perhaps) Africa. But we need new ways of going about this, and a clearer idea about when and how we go about it. I hope last night’s vote is a step along the path to a better way.