Government Defeat in the Motion on Syria

The Relationship between Politicians, Public and Nation state over Foreign and Military Policy

First published: 3rd September 2013 | Prof. G. H. Bennett

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It would be easy to consider the defeat of the Government motion on Syria in the House of Commons on 29 August 2013 as the result of temporary circumstances, the work of the awkward squad on the backbenches who initiated a rebellion, or an accident stemming from the vagaries of party management and Westminster procedure. However, it is suggestive of a medium term shift (the last 10 years or so) in a key element of British foreign policy: the relationship between politicians, public and the nation state over foreign and military policy. In the run up to the debate, Members of Parliament were deluged with messages from constituents, and a number of backbenchers have maintained that in voting against the government they were acting in accordance with the views of their constituents. With the next general election looming on the political horizon even the most cynical analyst would have grounds to accept these claims at face value.

 

A Troubled Relationship

The United Kingdom, as a leading military and economic power, and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has followed an internationalist and interventionist foreign policy since 1945. While the main lines of British foreign policy have remained unchanged, the United Kingdom has changed almost beyond recognition. Some of the shifts in the bases on which British foreign policy rests are long term and difficult to address (economic performance relative to that of BRIC etc). Others are more recent. These include:-

1. A fractured and divided society where competing voices, values and outlook mean that it is impossible to speak “for Britain”. In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-national society (where there is no agreement on what “Britishness” means, no detailed understanding of essential values and no sense of national consciousness beyond ephemeral and transient events such as Olympic success) it is difficult to find the degree of unanimity necessary to maintain the traditional lines of British foreign policy. Globalisation and population mobility, hyphenated identities and mass economic migration to the UK raise profound issues for the identity and future of the nation state. How can a state express some sense of national will when there is no nation, when key parts of it (Scotland) may break away from it in the near future, and where many within that state have minimal personal investment in that state, attachment to its past tradition and culture? For King and country is no longer a sufficient reason to ask members of the armed forces to risk their lives.

2. Legacies of distrust for Government and politicians not just over war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but over the banking crisis, MPs expenses and immigration. Rightly or wrongly, a significant proportion of the population regard politicians as self-important, corrupt and entirely self-serving. There is no sense of resolution over the Iraq war and the” lies” which preceded it. There is the strongest impression that the majority continue to toil in austerity while those who caused it go off to pleasant retirements while benefiting from tax cuts for millionaires. There is anger at the inability to recognise and respond to significant concerns over immigration and the resulting impacts that are transforming UK society. Politicians, especially those in government, are actively distrusted, and their views considered suspect. The UK government’s near automatic support for American foreign policy is seen to have led the UK down some very dark alleys in the past decade, and a certain strand of anti-Americanism is evident in public opinion. Appeals to the national interest by the government ring hollow when government itself is seen, in some respects, to have betrayed those interests through faulty judgement, poor intelligence, messianic self-belief or slavish pursuit of the “special relationship”.

3. The legacies of austerity and SDSR2010 cast a long shadow over public perceptions of UK military capabilities and public perceptions of how their armed forces are regarded by those in Westminster. The public have accepted the rhetoric of austerity, the need to rein back and to live within our means. They don’t understand why that does not apply to the government in the execution of foreign policy. They do, however, understand that gaps in our military capability, especially maritime-based airpower, have narrowed Government options over how to respond to the Syrian crisis. It was widely perceived that inability to respond on anything other than a token basis (submarine launched cruise missiles) had robbed the government of credibility in trying to frame a meaningful response to the crisis. As Edward Leigh (Conservative, Gainsborough) put it:

our contribution to an attack on Syria would be infinitesimal. Have we not degraded our own armed forces in the past three years, contrary to repeated warnings from myself and others? Do we have an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean? In reality, we would simply be hanging on to the coat tails of President Obama.[i]

 

Conclusion

In the circumstances of August 2013 it was understandable that the public, and many of their elected representatives, would not sanction the thought of military action, with the legacies of distrust, and fed by perceptions from SDSR2010 and its aftermath that the military could be asked to fight and die in the Middle East and then cast aside by the politicians as redundant and unnecessary. In the post-vote analysis there was repeated reference to the view of the man on the Clapham omnibus. That the phrase can be traced back to 1871 is deeply telling. The man on the Clapham omnibus, and his views, are no longer relevant in the circumstances of Britain 2013. “British” society is not that of mid-Victorian Britain and government is seen as badly out of touch. The diversity of views expressed by back benchers, and the deep scepticism about the possible course of government action, was a good reflection of a fractured society that is sceptical of its politicians and even more sceptical of government. The relationship between government and the people has reached a nadir of mistrust and the repercussions for UK Foreign Policy and beyond are far reaching. Defeat of the government motion in the House of Commons on Syria demonstrates the extent to which it is going to be increasingly difficult to maintain Britain’s traditional internationalist and interventionist foreign policy. It is time to recognise the shifts and, where possible, address the issues. The only other course is to radically downsize the scope and ambition of British foreign policy.

 

Footnotes

[i] Parliamentary Debates [Commons], 29 August 2013, Col.1521.


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