The 29th August 2013. Is this a potentially epoch defining date on British political history?
The debate over the Syrian ‘crisis’ had been been lent a sudden urgency by the regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus. David Cameron decided to recall parliament to debate a motion authorising joint military action with the United States, and potentially others. It seemed very much as though the political establishment was winding up for another chapter of liberal-humanitarian-intervention of the cruise missile variety.
Cameron had re-called British parliamentarians back from their summer holidays. Cameron called a debate which would legitimise a further vote on the use of military force, though of what kind was at that point undecided. A Labour amendment had been defeated with a sizeable majority earlier in the day, but then wheels apparently came off, following a less-than-assured performance from Nick Clegg in the closing minutes of the debate. What followed was the first government defeat on a matter of war or peace for more than 200 years.
Nearly exactly a century earlier a similarly dramatic set of events had unfolded in the Commons over the issue of military action. In the summer of 1914 there had been acres of newspaper discussion given over to the possibility of armed conflict, and there was the very real possibility of war. The debate, though, was over Ireland and Home Rule, not Germany and the conflict that became the First World War. The chain of events that escalated so quickly following the infamous assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo were a complete surprise. Although tensions had existed, and were rising, between the European Great Powers for decades the immediate prospect of war was not foreseen by very many.
What relevance does this episode have for the Syrian decision, that is said to have humbled Prime Minister Cameron? It is interesting because the declaration of the war on Germany is the Syrian decision’s exact opposite at the other end of a 100 year period. The political class of August 1914 were very unwilling to intervene in European affairs through military conflict. The empire was built on ‘glorious isolation’; keeping a distance from European conflicts whilst, of course, plundering and exploiting the colonies using Britain’s maritime supremacy. It was only with great reluctance that war on Germany was declared, in the same last minute way that Cameron’s intervention against Syria was defeated. Britain dispatched with the policy because it seemed the Golden Rule of British foreign policy was being broken – that there should be a balance of power between France and Germany so neither would be in a position to threaten British interests.
The First World War then ushered in an almost unbroken period of British global interventionalism. Immediately the British and French set about exploiting their new enemies by mounting campaigns against the crumbling Turkish empire which witnessed British troops invading Iraq (guess what the reason was that time round?). Many more military adventures followed:
- Intervention in the Russian civil war 1919
- The Greek civil war 1946 – 47
- The Korean War 1950-53
- The Suez Crisis 1956
- The Falklands War 1982
- The Gulf War 1990
- Conflict in Yugoslavia 1992-99
- War in Afghanistan 2001-
- Iraq War 2003 – 09
- Libyan Civil War 2011
The only really notable conflict from which Britain is absent during that time is the Vietnam war.
Do the events in the Commons in 2013represent a change of heart from the political establishment? Are they being driven by the wishes of the people (there was certainly anecdotal evidence from MPs to support the idea)?
One possiblity that the British are becoming more ‘European’. Nobody thinks splendid isolation is possible or desirable – but which way to face? The outrageous folly of the Iraq War in particular demonstrated the naked global ambition of the US empire. Is this a recognition by the British people via their MPs that the US is no longer making the weather? For all the spleen-venting against ‘Brussels meddling’, are the British more inclined towards European-style diplomacy over military action?
And where does this leave Britain in the C21st? Arguably in a much better place. Adhering to some kind of rule of law and internationalism. Some have said this is the end of special relationship – it’s probably fairer to say this is just the swinging of a very old pendulum.