3 September 2013
Thomas Raines

Thomas Raines

Research Fellow and Programme Manager, Europe Programme


The British parliament's vote rejecting intervention in Syria was remarkable, both as a moment of democratic drama and seemingly as a pivot in British foreign policy. Three points stand out: the parliamentary process, the influence of the Iraq war, and the debate now about the direction of UK foreign policy.

An assertion of parliamentary authority or an aberration?

The UK parliament may be sovereign, but through the royal prerogative the prime minister has the power to deploy military force. The defeat of a government-backed motion on the use of force is a significant historical aberration. According to Philip Cowley of Nottingham University, the last instance of this was in the 19th century. Was this then a spectacular assertion of parliamentary authority by a legislature with comparatively weak formal powers of scrutiny over military matters?

In fact, the vote appears to have involved a sequence of political misjudgements and miscalculations. David Cameron's decision to recall parliament early and before the UN inspection team completed their report, created an undue sense of urgency many parliamentarians resisted. The decision to commit to two different votes also generated complacency among the Whips and some Tory MPs, 30 of whom did not vote at all.

The current parliament has been notably rebellious, and the majority of those who defied the Conservative whip to oppose intervention were backbenchers from the independently-minded 2010 parliamentary intake. Chatham House research last year showed that Conservative voters, in stark contrast to Liberal Democrat voters, tend to think that British interests rather than ethical considerations should drive foreign policy. Although they think the armed forces are the UK's best foreign policy asset, they are less supportive than Liberal Democrats of military action for humanitarian purposes (by 9%), or to serve the broader interests of the international community (by 16%). In this sense, the rebels' position chimes with the attitudes of many Conservative voters.

Of the leaders of the three major Westminster parties, two had strongly supported action but Labour leader Ed Miliband had not yet ruled it out. Yet that appears to have been the upshot of the vote. Why?

The Iraq effect

There is much that is different about Syria in 2013 compared to Iraq 2003, but the spectre of the Iraq war – in particular the way that war was sold to parliament and public – was inescapably present in the chamber. Parliamentarians sought assurances and guarantees. There is little deference or trust without verification on matters of intelligence.

Among some MPs there is a declining belief in the utility of force. 'No matter how clinical the strikes, there is a real risk that they would result only in escalating the violence,' said one rebel. Many were reluctant to be seen to prejudge a UN process still in motion. Others were worried about being drawn into a wider conflict. MPs wanted compelling evidence and unambiguous legitimacy. But the prime minister could offer them only his own conviction, the summary of the legal case and the headlines from the Joint Intelligence Committee's assessment. This was, he said, a judgement call. Much of foreign policy necessarily is.

If Cameron was right that the decision was a judgement call, last week's vote has shown that UK parliamentarians now require a higher burden of proof when making judgements on the use of force than they may have done in the past. This parliament is also perhaps more comfortable with inaction than previous ones have been, although that brings its own consequences, including on the international perception of the UK.

An isolationist turn?

The apparent willingness of MPs to break from the lockstep with the United States that has characterized so much of the last two decades of British foreign policy appears significant. When coupled with continuing ambivalence over membership of the European Union, a picture can be painted: a UK outside of the EU and with a diminished relationship with the United States would be a very different diplomatic beast.

The systemic sources of the UK's influence – its permanent seat on the UN Security Council; its membership of NATO and the EU; its position as a leading trading nation and major global economy; and still comparatively large defence expenditure – remain in place, albeit diminished by five years of economic stagnation. But some policies rest on credibility. How would Tehran now view a suggestion by a British minister that, in the ongoing nuclear dispute, all 'options are on the table'? The UK will be less useful to – and hence less influential with – the US if it is not a willing participant in contributing to international security.

Although the vote shows that keeping in-line with US policy was not a persuasive case for intervention on its own, it should be remembered that the transatlantic relationship has seen differences and divergences before and recovered (for example, over the Falklands War). A serious distancing from the United States should not be expected. 

Research by Chatham House last year showed that a majority of the public continue to think the UK should seek to be a 'great power' with an ambitious foreign policy. The experience over the intervention in Libya demonstrates that, where action is sanctioned by the UN and the case is made persuasively that force can deliver the desired outcome, the UK – its political class and public – are comfortable with using force. Indeed, none of the leaders of the main political parties actually opposed outright to intervening in Syria. UKIP stands isolated as a voice calling to pull up the drawbridge completely and leave the problems of the world to others. Let us hope it remains that way.

This article was originally published on Total Politics.