Let’s be perfectly clear on one point: this was never about Syria. After David Cameron’s government suffered its most humiliating defeat to date, with rebel MPs from every part of the political consensus uniting to prevent Britain charging into another interventionist war in the Middle East, here's what the Chancellor had to say: "I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that…I hope this doesn't become the moment where we turn our back on the world's problems."
Not “this will mean more bloodshed.” Not “the use of chemical nerve agents as a weapon of war is utterly unacceptable.” No, what concerns George Osborne and the government he represents is what this means for Britain. How will ‘our’ refusal to join the United States in a proposed military assault on Syria with or without UN backing will look to the rest of the world. Are we still going to feel big and important? Will our exports be affected?
Somewhere in the suburbs of Syria, the bodies of the latest victims of Sarin nerve gas are only lately cooled, stiff beyond rigor mortis from inhaling a poison that causes every muscle in the body to clench up in death, suffocating the soul in its own flesh. And George Osborne is thinking about Britain’s trading prospects.
This was never about Syria. This was about us.
Much to the chagrin of the cabinet, the British public has remained doggedly against any prospect of war in Syria – over two thirds are opposed to military intervention – and for once, every scrapping faction of the commentariat has taken up that consensus. Peter Hitchens agrees with Polly Toynbee. Norman Tebbit is briefly on the same side as Caroline Lucas. Osborne and Cameron find themselves part of a dwindling neocon consensus, just them, their whipped ministerial colleagues and Assad’s former chum Tony Blair, popping up in the papers like the Ghost of Christmas Past to explain why bombing Damascus is absolutely the right thing to do.
If Cameron was following the advice of Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Russian minister who wrote in 1905 that what was needed to stem the tide of social unrest was “a short, victorious war”, he could not have been more wrong. We’ve seen where that goes. The American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been short, and they have not been victorious. The United States still has the military muscle and auto-delusory capacity to believe itself a capable world policeman. Britain is no longer labouring under that delusion. We have spent the past five years being told that the nation is too broke to afford basic welfare provision, let alone another drawn-out campaign to protect US interests in the Gulf. Very few of us want a war; very few of us believe that a war will help the Syrian people. It turns out that the British public doesn’t always have the collective recall of a damselfly in a gale. Something about a decade of war tends to jog the memory.
The situation in Syria is bloody and frightening. In two and a half years tens of thousands of lives have been lost, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country, and the war between Assad’s supporters and the disjointed forces of the Free Syrian army will not be over quickly, with or without Anglo-American intervention. The impulse, the imprecation, is that “we have to do something,” and somehow that something almost always involves cluster bombs and not, for example, sending in shedloads of aid and medical supplies, or opening our borders to refugees. That’s the sort of something that doesn’t make a satisfying thwack when we unzip it on the table of the cabinet war rooms.
For the hawkish minority, the main line of reasoning – masterfully dissected by Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb today- has been that the Assad regime ‘must be punished,’ and that the British ought to be the ones doing the punishing, six of the best, trousers down. The old cliches are lifted out and polished for the mantlepiece of modern military hypocrisy: we’re a plucky little island, punching above our weight on the world stage, standing up to bullies. We sort out “the world's problems.” “Our country,” wrote Conservative MP Robert Halfon in a plea for intervention, “has over many centuries, stood tall against tyranny. Britain gave the world modern democracy and the rule of law.
Well, no, it hasn’t, and no, it didn’t. Britain did, over many centuries, impose its own version of the rule of law on hundreds of millions of individuals in the Global South, many of whom were massacred or functionally enslaved. Nor, over the decades that followed the disintegration of the British Empire – two little words that have faltered on the tongues of every Tory statesman in a fortnight of anxious warmongering – have the British been consistent in our opposition to ‘tyranny.’ We did not intervene during the Rwandan genocide. Margaret Thatcher took tea with Pinochet. The list of dictators with whom Britain has maintained cordial relations is long, and it is damning to anyone with the gall to argue that the people of Great Britain were ever cartographers of the moral high ground.
This isn't about Syria. This is, for better or worse, about us – on the left and on the right. The generation that grew up watching the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has done a lot of “soul-searching” in ten years. We have walked across the moral high-ground that our leaders mapped out for us. We have discovered that it is a graveyard. The bodies buried on the Anglo-American moral high ground are beyond number, and the flowers that grow there are dank and reek of corruption. But not this time. Not again. Not in our name.