November 28, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
We must never lose sight of the fact that a decision to go to war puts many lives on the line.
There was, allegedly, a fist fight at a Labour Party Constituency Party meeting on Thursday night. An actual fist fight. Men, brawling. About Syria. Whether we should get involved in military action in Syria. A fist fight.
As my friend told me about this, horrified. I at first empathised with her feelings of increasing desperation at the state of Labour Party internal politics. And yet, and yet….when she told me about the conversation that took place before the fight, I realised that what went on at that Constituency Labour Party meeting is the kind of conversation that SHOULD be happening when our political leaders make probably the biggest decision they ever have to make.
It went like this. The local MP called a meeting, as instructed, to get soundings from their constituency party about how they should vote in any debate on Syria. Like many constituency Labour Party meetings around the country at the moment, there is a significant rump of hard left members who are much more assertive now than they will have been for the previous thirty years. In fact, what happened reminded my friend of the Labour Party meetings she was at 30 years’ ago.
Those on the hard left still view the world through the prism of class conflict. Many of them are not working class themselves, but social class consciousness still runs through everything they think and say.
One man, about sixty years’ old, a veteran of the previous internal Labour Party conflicts in the early 80s, made the point, and this point has been proven to be true throughout history, that when you send armed forces to war, it is the front line troops who are most likely to be killed, and those front line troops are more likely to be working class or from a poor background. So, the man pointed out, what we have here are rich upper class MPs voting to put working men in harm’s way to political objectives.
The man was supported by others making points such as how airstrikes without ground forces will achieve very little, how the threat to UK citizens (again, most likely to be working people on the tube or going about their daily business) will increase, and how there wasn’t a plan for the aftermath in Syria.
Others pointed out that the threat to the UK exists whether or not we get involved in Syria. They mentioned how the main role of our politicians is to keep us safe. A Labour Party unable to focus on that fundamental role would not be seen as a serious political party.
But this sixty year old man would not let go. Getting increasingly irate, he wanted to press home the point that the whole argument was about whether to put working men and women in harm’s way. His increasing aggression was met by increasing aggression from others. Eventually a punch was thrown and a group of men were having a full scale brawl in full view of their MP.
That this fracas hasn’t yet reached the media is, I think, a sign of the overall importance of the debate that they were having. This debate is important, and some, on both sides, are seeking to stifle the debate in unhelpful ways.
On the pro-intervention side, there are some using the straw man argument that those who are against intervention don’t care about our country’s security. There are perfectly good arguments that further intervention will reduce terrorism. The main one for me is that as long as there is a Caliphate, ISIS are providing a place for Muslims to go when they have no choice but to leave their home countries as terrorism forces us to turn on them. But there are perfectly good arguments that further intervention will increase terrorism. It certainly would feed the narrative of those who seek to blame terrorism on Western foreign policy.
Then there are arguments about ‘if not now, when?’ as used by David Cameron on Thursday. Well, ISIS haven’t yet attacked us directly. That might be when. But at the moment there are many arguing for intervention on the basis that we shouldn’t just let other countries carry the burden of fighting ISIS when they are planning on attacking all of us in the West. I had agreed with that until yesterday, then I thought again about the 60 year old man at the Constituency Labour Party meeting pointing out that just because others are involved doesn’t mean we should automatically put our young men and women in harm’s way.
Perusing Twitter as I do, I am struck by the different tactics of those who are against military intervention. Some say that voting for military intervention is “voting with the Tories”. To those I say that this is not about petty party politics, this is about defending ourselves and our right to go about our daily lives without fear of instant death. Others talk about the increased risk of terrorism, but to those I say that terrorist acts are going to be attempted against the UK whatever we do, so if intervention in Syria has a chance of reducing that, we should be looking at it.
Others email and tweet Labour MPs known to be considering voting for intervention. They threaten them with ‘consequences’ if they go against their leader, who has a mandate from so many Labour Partu a Members. There IS and internal problem in the Labour Party, which is that many MPs are in safe seats, put there thanks to patronage by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whose politics were very different to Jeremy Corbyn’s.
This is why he is having to circumvent his Parliamentary Party, believing that they no longer represent the views of their members. Corbyn himself, remember, is sticking to principles he has always had. We have always said we want our political leaders to do that. Now we have one, we are finding out just how difficult our Parliamentary party system finds this to deal with.
Ultimately, we must realise that our Prime Minister actually possesses a Royal Prerogative to declare War. He doesn’t have to go through Parliament, but he is. We should also remember that MPs are not simple ‘delegates’ of their constituents. They shouldn’t be subject to the ebb and flow of public moods but should seek to use their knowledge and judgement and the greater amount of information they have access to in order to help their decision to ‘represent’ their constituents.
But when they do make their decision they should never lose sight of whose lives they are putting on the line. It isn’t their lives. It’s ours. Whoever, whatever, and wherever we are.