Quotes of the day

by Naomi Colvin

The fact is that a lot of the arguments over this could give succour to the [Assad] regime.

Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s Director of Communications, via ITV, before tonight’s vote

It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.

David Cameron’s reaction to the vote, confirming that he would not use the royal prerogative and take action against Parliament’s wishes

One senior Whitehall figure talked about how the UK had “handed back its deputy sheriff badge” to the United States and would pay a heavy price in esteem and cooperation in the future with the US.

via Channel 4

The abrupt halt in British momentum towards military action left the diplomatic choreography in chaos and US officials “livid” with the British, according to Western diplomatic sources at the United Nations in New York.

via Business Insider

What happened in the House of Commons tonight was significant. It is not often that I feel that our Parliamentary system does much to provide a check on executive powers and adequately represent public feeling, but this evening – in voting against the Government’s motion on military action in Syria – it has done so.

It is a rare enough event for a British Prime Minister to lose a three-line-whipped Parliamentary vote – in theory, it’s an event that can bring down a government – but to lose a vote on an issue of foreign policy is almost unprecedented.

There will be a great deal of comment in the coming week about what this vote means, but a few things are clear now. First, and most obviously, it is clear that the Afghanistan and especially Iraq Wars have had a significant and lasting effect on our politics. Opposition to military action is much more widespread than it used to be – in fact, that much was already evident in opinion polling on UK action in Libya.

More than that, though, there is a widespread scepticism about official cases for war, intelligence dossiers, improvised legal arguments… in short, all the official paraphernalia introduced by Blair to bolster public support for wars of dubious legality.  What we’re seeing is a tearing away of the mystique of the state and the magical thinking of “national security” – and that is to be welcomed. It’s also a useful reminder that, despite lukewarm response to the Snowden revelations about GCHQ’s industrial-scale surveillance, things are changing in the UK. In at least some respects, people are more sceptical these days.

Secondly, tonight’s vote has constitutional significance. Parliament voted against the executive’s plans for the use of force and Cameron has agreed that “the government will act accordingly” – that is, he has agreed that prerogative powers will not be used to initiate military action regardless of what Parliament thinks. It is now inconceivable that, should a situation like this arise again, Parliamentary approval would not be sought. (One caveat: it’s not entirely clear that British non-involvement in military action against Syria extends to the non-involvement of British military bases abroad. It may be significant that tonight Deputy PM Nick Clegg did not rule out US use of the UK’s base in Cyprus).  Still, in the haphazard and inadequate way the British state develops, this counts as a constitutional moment of some significance. Remarkably, it’s actually a move in the right direction.

Finally, tonight’s vote marks a divergence between the foreign policy of the United States and the usual determination of the UK to entertain it at all costs. While it is not clear whether the UK’s withdrawal from action in Syria will make much difference to Obama’s plans (the New York Times and the London Times have differing takes on this), the absence of one of the regular former imperial fig leaves for US unilateralism can’t help but make the latter seem more exposed. Given that so much of the Whitehall conception of the UK’s “national interest” seems to rely on being some kind of dodgy subcontractor for the US, it’s really extraordinary that this has happened. It would be nice to be able to think of this as the start of something bigger… but I’ll try to keep those hopes buttoned down for now.

Update (30/8)

The Parliamentary vote did, in fact, make a great deal of difference to Obama’s plans.