On Thursday night, a British government lost a vote on military action for the first time in at least 100 years. The House of Commons voted 285 to 272 against the UK government’s motion on Syria. David Cameron said that: “It’s clear to me that the British parliament and the British people do not wish to see military action; I get that, and I will act accordingly.” Phillip Hammond, defence secretary, later confirmed that there would be no UK participation in any other countries’ operations.
It is a stunning result.
Just how stunning is clear from a post published before the vote on Thursday by Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart, academics at the University of Nottingham. The number of coalition MPs voting against the motion was much smaller than the largest Labour rebellion in 2003 against the Iraq war. Then, 139 government MPs voted against. However, compared with other rebellions, Cowley and Stuart imply, Thursday evening’s was significant:
Iraq aside, most recent rebellions over military foreign policy, especially on the government side, have been small. Rebellions on the Iraq bombing of 1998 were small (just 22 Government MPs); ditto for Kosovo in 1999 (13) and Afghanistan in 2001 (11). There were some half-decent sized-rebellions amongst Opposition MPs against the first Iraq war in 1990-91, but not amongst government MPs. Iraq is very much the exception.
Until now. Over the next few days, perhaps beyond, the vote will be analysed from every conceivable angle, like a cubist artwork. Historical comparisons will be drawn: is this the most consequential revolt since devolution in 1979? Since the Corn Laws? Grand pronouncements will be made: have we botched the special relationship in an exhibition of calamitous planning or gloriously reasserted the pre-eminence of parliament?
Here are some quick, initial hypotheses for why it happened. The first three are related to the nature of the vote but the last four tentatively suggest something a bit deeper.
1. The non-binding, first-of-two aspect of the vote encouraged some MPs to take a stand against the speed of proceedings on the assumption they would be able to vote in favour next week. (If this was the case it makes the rush to pacifism tonight rather baffling.)
2. Ninety-three MPs did not register a vote. (557 of the 650 voted.) It is reasonable to assume most of these absentees or “non-presents” were more likely to be guilty of over-confidence rather than under-confidence about the government’s chances.
3. The Conservative Whips cocked it up. The opposition Labour amendment created complacency that the government’s own side would rally round. Ed Miliband proved more effective than many Tories expected.
4. The case for intervention, at least before the UN weapons inspectors reported, was simply not sufficiently convincing. A decade on from Iraq, is it any wonder that MPs paused for thought? The legal case was flimsy (although probably not disingenuous). Why this would now mean intervention is off the table all together is another question.
5. Backbenchers are of a new breed. It has been said before but it is worth repeating: the 2010 intake was large and, especially among Tories, of a more independent mind. They are temperamentally less inclined to follow the party line than their recent predecessors. Many also have a different, more modest, sense of Britain’s role in the world.
6. David Cameron is prone to mishandling the running of government. What on earth, Barack Obama could be forgiven for asking, have you been playing at? “You’ve been pressuring me to act for months and you can’t even bring your parliament along. And to think you Britons moan about Congress.” It is not the first time the prime minister has displayed a difficulty with the process of running the country (remember the EU referendum vote?). Of course, some will say this is a sign that parliament remains vital to British democracy. True. But it’s also a sign that Downing Street lacks strategic nous.
7. Britain wants a period of peaceful isolation. Public opinion was against military action in this particular case — and more broadly has become increasingly sceptical, after more than a decade of war, of intervention. Might this be further evidence that Britain, which might get a vote on EU membership in a few years time, is withdrawing from the world?
As this remarkable day draws to a close, it is also important to reflect how solipsistic it all was. While news of vote was being spread, the BBC aired harrowing footage of the reality of the Syrian conflict. For all the likely talk of winners and losers in London, the only definite winner, at least tonight, is Bashar al-Assad.
How’s that for succour?