Last week’s debate in the House of Commons on Syria will enter the annals of history. It will be documented in stark contrast to the rather more supine behaviour of parliamentarians over Iraq. If we’re really lucky, the late Robin Cook will be mentioned as having effectively established the convention that the UK Parliament must sanction military interventions. And it might even be noted as the pivotal point at which the electoral tide ebbed from Cameron and flowed to Miliband.
Yet, for all the immediate commentary analysing whether this was a great moment for Miliband’s leadership, the role of Douglas Alexander as architect of this triumph of parliament over government attracted less attention. He began the strategy last weekend in the studios of setting out why we might want to pause on military intervention, seeming to pull his party back from early indications of support. That rather tortuous amendment was the work of a master tactician: it has so many get out of jail free phrases that Labour can continue to dance around supporting military intervention for some time to come. Alexander was back in the studios before the great debate explaining Labour’s position; during the debate, he sat just behind Miliband nodding sagely at every point scored, as well he might, given that he probably had a hand in writing each one; and swaying visibly from exhaustion, he was back on the late night news bulletins reinforcing the meaning of the defeat for Cameron.
Being the pivotal man behind the throne rather suits Alexander, but last week’s performance will have caused his stock to rise. Which makes him both indispensable in the run up to the 2015 election and potentially dangerous to Miliband in the aftermath.
The Scottish media largely ignored this. It also glossed over another important footnote, which was that the SNP signed up to Labour’s amendment. It doesn’t chime with the narrative of a nation divided, but here was an exemplar of parliamentary groups working together when there is at least a thread of agreement on key points. It showed, albeit in a small way, what can be achieved when tribal loyalties are set aside to consider the bigger picture and suggests that in an independent Scotland, there might be less to divide us than the current debate suggests.
As Depute Editor of Scotland on Sunday, Kenny Farquharson, pointed out on twitter, it’s not clear how comfortable those SNP members to the left of the Westminster SNP group (that will be most of them) will be when they realise that they signed up for a position on Syria which is definitely more hawkish than dove. But everyone realises that if we were to avoid the story becoming the SNP’s abandonment of Syria if a separate, less interventionist stance was taken, this was a necessary evil. That’s the problem with realpolitik: sometimes, gritting teeth is required in the short term, particularly to avoid a doing in our peculiarly parochial press on all things foreign policy.
The headlines garnered by Alistair Darling‘s sophistry at the Better Together Glasgow launch suggests such mature moments are fleeting in the Scottish media. Not one to allow the opportunity of scoring a cheap party political point in the face of an international crisis pass him by, Darling opined that independent Scotland would lack international clout in such matters. I know, cos I’ve been to some of these meetings and seen the role the UK plays on the global stage.
Those would be the meetings whereby the UK led the charge to limit international regulation of the big banks, thereby ensuring that they contributed significantly to the economic mess much of the developed world is currently mired in. And the ones where the UK stood shoulder to shoulder with our US allies on Iraq, leaning on UN partners to get retrospective backing for unwarranted military intervention.
Anyone can swagger and bully on the world stage. The UK does it rather well. We stride around these grandes salles, often using the megaphone diplomacy our permanent seat on the Security Council allows us to try and impose our way of thinking – which rarely deviates from the US’s – on everyone else.
Marginally more depressing than Darling’s remarks was the lack of a meaningful response from the Scottish Government. His assertion could easily have been countered. Smaller nations like Denmark were indeed waiting to see what the UK might do: that historic parliamentary vote halted the Danes’ shift towards backing military intervention. But it and others have been rather more focused on the need for humanitarian aid. I’m no currency specialist but Denmark’s 424 million krone contributed since 2012 and a further 100 million krone committed last week seems rather impressive compared to £348 million pledged by the UK to date.
Moreover, small nations are playing a big role in this unfolding crisis. Which country currently has the EU Presidency and therefore a leading role at the table on discussions, negotiations and decision making? That will be Lithuania, a country of just over 3 million people, and whose complex history with Russia will ensure that it takes a thoughtful stance on this issue. Which is why its Foreign Minister was engaged in consultations with counterparts within the EU and without last week, and why it is determined that a “political solution is the only viable way to secure longterm peace and stability in Syria“.
This is what independence and being a wee country in a big, bad world offers. The chance to generate and contribute to consensus and multi-lateral responses instead of strike first, think later interventions. And the opportunity to focus on saving and healing rather than bombing and maiming.
Indeed, the actions of the SNP and Plaid groups in Westminster last week hinted at what can be achieved by small nations supporting larger partners willing to display dove-like tendencies instead of hawk ones.
The machinations of how the Syrian crisis plays out domestically and internationally might be fascinating but while everyone fiddles, innocent civilians burn. The truth is that nearly every country with influence took a head in the sand approach to this unfolding disaster.
For months, we have watched nightly as the civil war intensified and still, we procrastinated. Had the international community acted sooner, the chemical weapons attack might have been avoided. The consequence of indecision by the international community to try and forge a political solution in Syria at the earliest point was always going to be an inevitable creep towards states having to act militarily.
And while everyone tries to work out what that response might be, Syrians suffer. We’ve been here so many times before and each and every time, we fail.
It seems that history teaches us very little at all.