The future for Britain on the world stage
So much has been written already in light of last week’s vote in the House of Commons. Editorials have concluded that it was a bad night for both the Prime Minister and for his opposite number, a worse night for British foreign policy but a good night for democracy. I don’t think the political ramifications for David Cameron or Ed Miliband are that big. Cameron has had a summer ‘fantastique’ while Miliband was left with egg literally on his face after a summer of political mismanagement. Time is running out for the leader of the Labour party to open up a substantial lead in the polls. All predecessors in his position with the ratings he has experienced have failed to win the general election (Foot, Kinnock, Hague and Howard). Cameron will rely on a steadily growing economy and the employment figures to boost his own electoral credibility.
The reality though is that last week’s vote denotes a deep schism in the country over our role as a global actor and the realisation that perhaps Britain is no longer the force for good and justice that it was once perceived as.
Former Labour minister after former Labour minister stood up in the chamber on Thursday afternoon detailing the dialectic behind their decision to vote against intervention in Syria. Each speech began with the sombre confession that their decision to support the Iraqi invasion was mistake. It seemed clear to some of us that regardless of the intelligence and support from the US, that Britain was not willing to put its neck on the line again. The sad fact of the matter is that all the evidence points to a legitimate reason to engage in military action. International law has been broken and there is global consensus that Assad must go to prevent a genocide in the region. Regardless and irreverent, the political class cowered away from making the judgement call put forward by the Prime Minister. Six years since leaving office, the true legacy of Tony Blair is now being felt. Blair’s mismanagement and frank abuse of the public’s trust over intervening in Iraq has left a deep and painful scar across the nation’s psyche. We no longer trust politicians, nor trust ourselves to carry our weight on the international stage. Someone I know put simply he does not trust the Intelligence Services findings, not on the basis of their competence but instead on their motives. The sense being we live in a Putin-esque Machiavelli state where the powers that be are corrupted and act in their own best interest alone. Nigel Farage summed up the nations post-Iraq feeling… “perhaps it is best just to do nothing”. Margaret Thatcher described the case of Suez Syndrome saying “[The political class] went from believing that Britain could do anything to an almost neurotic belief that Britain could do nothing.” This is only too evident today, only now we are in the grip of post-Iraq syndrome.
The history we teach our children is one of our great military triumphs. It has imbued a sense of pride and responsibility in the population. Going as far back as the Armada, the Napoleonic War, the Crimean War, and the ideological battles against communism and fascism in the twentieth century, Britain has consistently stood up against aggressors and won. The reality though is that whilst we once led the charge into war, we now often follow. We would never commit to a major military operation without the support of our US or European allies. In Kosovo, Iraq (1 and 2) and again in Libya we have followed the direction of our closest but most powerful friend. It reflects not just a lack of military capacity but also voice and leadership. Thatcher, Blair and Cameron are all respected by global heads’ of state but they do not lead on issues of global importance or in times of international crisis. We are after all significantly poorer. We have committed to cuts in our military, and the equipment that our services use currently is old and out of date. Our diminished capacity to spend is not just a consequence of the current recession. In 1870 we had the most advanced western economy on earth. In 1950 we were the third largest economy in the world. In 2012 we had a nominal GDP a quarter the size of China and one eighth the size of the US. Our post-war decline has extended to the point we can no longer operate a foreign policy agenda forged by our humanitarian principles and in adherence to international law.
I will not contribute too much to the debate over whether we should have voted in favour of military action or not. To provide analysis of future events is harder than to draw conclusion from previous ones. Have the events of the past few days cemented our position as a second rate power, or are they merely a remarkable blip in our national history? Our military capacity is undoubtedly limited, but our stomach for a fight may indeed return. Despite Suez syndrome, the Falklands secured our reputation as a global heavyweight. It is likely this could happen again soon!