Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Politicians - leading or following public opinion on Syria?

It is now a couple of weeks since THAT vote in Parliament: should we extend our bombing of ISIS/Daesh beyond Iraq and into Syria, where ISIS has its bases? The motion was passed. Since then, politicians on both sides of the argument, but particularly those who supported the extension, have encountered significant criticism online. Indeed in a few cases, mobs have even gathered outside their offices and shouted their disgust. Terms like 'warmongers' and accusations that MPs have blood on their hands, have been among the milder of the insults slung. Many of the activists haranguing their MPs asserted that because they themselves opposed the bombing campaign, their MPs should adopt that stance, regardless of their individual views. That issue - whether politicians should routinely adopt and express the views of their constituents rather than follow their own judgement - is what this post is about.

It is hardly surprising that debate over the Syrian air strikes has been so intense and emotions so febrile. Apart from the SNP, there is scarcely a political party in which opinion on the extension of bombing was not divided. That is hardly surprising. Deciding whether to go to war, even in such a limited way as the motion before the House proposed, is a highly complex and fraught issue. No government sends its forces into danger lightly. In this case, the proposed action was to extend the current campaign by a few miles across a border, rather than to embark on a new one. Nevertheless, the implications in terms of potential British casualties were still serious.

But there was more than our own casualties to consider. The Syrian situation is notoriously complex, with many different armed groups operating against each other, against ISIS and against the army of President Assad. This isn't a situation in which there is a clear 'right' and 'wrong'. All we know is that among many 'wrongs', ISIS is terribly wrong.

I would expect there to have been passionate debate and exchange of views within every party. In our own household, my husband and I had access to the same information and read the same newspapers but arrived at different conclusions. Even in the Conservative party, where one would expect there to be more supporters of bombing than in other parties - because it was a Government motion and because Tories generally tend to be more hawkish - some significant people opposed the motion. Among the opposers was the influential Chair of the Commons Defence Committee. Julian Lewis (Tory) was rightly concerned about the lack of a forward plan beyond the proposed bombing. He also made the point that bombing on its own rarely achieves its main purpose. Ground troops are almost always required to make a significant impact.

The Labour Party, sadly but not surprisingly given its currently disorganised state, managed the process of decision making very badly and also very publicly. Jeremy Corbyn, its leader, opposed the bombing on a matter of 'principle', as you might expect. However, he couldn't even get agreement within his own Cabinet, and eventually decided on allowing the Parliamentary party a 'free vote'. A free vote on such a tendentious and morally fraught issue seems to me to be perfectly appropriate. However, the decision was muddied by the fact that Corbyn could not exert his leadership on even such an important issue partly because of his own record of disobeying previous party whips. Be that as it may, on such an issue, I would want MPs to vote according to their consciences rather than be bullied into taking a position which they find abhorrent.

The Liberal Democrats were also divided. About a quarter of them voted against air strikes, despite Tim Farron, their party leader coming down in favour of them. Farron had previously been against the bombing but had changed his mind as a result of visiting refugee camps and becoming aware of the terrible lives their inhabitants had had before they took the enormous decision to leave. Torture victims, child casualties, broken families: these are the direct result of Daesh actions. Farron's view was that we had to do what we could to stop Daesh. Few of us would disagree with him on this; the issue is how, not whether.

So, given that there were convincing arguments on both sides, disagreement was inevitable. I am more concerned by the SNP, which has stated that all its MPs held exactly the same views. I cannot understand this; they are not a small party like the Greens. The SNP has many able and articulate people within its ranks. I do not believe for one minute that they all held identical views on such a major issue. On the whole, intelligent and well-informed thinkers tend to disagree with each other though they may eventually arrive at a consensus. Even if there were such a consensus, there would still be a few outliers. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been an outlier all his life!

What we are seeing here is the impressive discipline within the SNP. Senior Labour Party figures must be green with envy. Whereas divisions within Labour are apparent as soon as they appear, and are exacerbated by a generally hostile tabloid press, the SNP manage their rank-and-file members, their MSPs, MPs and the media remarkably well. We non-members actually don't know what goes on within the party ranks. This impressive cultivation of consistent party messages and moulding of public opinion is apparent at Holyrood as well as in Westminster.

Not only did the nationalist leadership manage to control its own MPs, it succeeded in using the vote to undermine their opponents. Those MPs from the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties who supported the extension of air strikes were described as voting 'with the government' rather than 'in favour of air strikes', for example. One senses that the nationalists, whose concerns during the debate focused as much on Cameron's unacceptable smearing of those opposed to air strikes as 'terrorist sympathisers', as on the fundamental arguments, were as interested in the potential for bringing down the government as in the ethical issues. MP after MP (not just nationalist) stood up to object to the fact that they had been insulted and to demand an apology, rather than to discuss the plight of people living on the other side of the Mediterranean, thus wasting valuable debating time. I suppose it was a simpler issue to address than the motion itself.

Indeed, SNP fury when Labour allowed a free vote stemmed from the fact that the government was therefore likely to win. It was almost as if the vote on Syria had a similar status to the issue of fox-hunting in England, the first cause on which the SNP took their Parliamentary stand. Bizarrely, yesterday's Herald had the headline SNP on a mission to bring clapping back to the Commons. 'Clapping', 'foxes', 'Yazidi sex slaves': which is the most important here? The SNP sometimes finds it strangely difficult to identify the high ground!

And yet, and yet.... One of the odd things about the nationalist position is that, despite their ostensible unanimity, their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, decided to apply the party whip. That is something you do not do unnecessarily or unless you are still a bit unsure about the loyalty of all your MPs.

However, this enforced unanimity is not just a matter of party discipline for it own sake. The SNP HAS to be disciplined. The party is just as diverse as Labour and has been for many years, long before Sturgeon took over. Indeed, Labour could learn a thing or two from the SNP. Many of the new cohort of nationalist MPs entered the Westminster Parliament with a mandate from their electors for achieving 'what's best for Scotland'. And here they were faced with a decision which had nothing to do with Scotland. Westminster is about more than what happens in one eleventh of the population of a very small island. The quality of SNP MPs and their preparedness for their role varies considerably. Expertise in foreign affairs would scarcely have featured in their selection as party representatives nor, indeed, is likely to have influenced the votes of those who elected them. They have not been helped by the Scottish press. Far more column inches have been devoted to a bin lorry crash in the centre of Glasgow (a sad event with significant implications, but one of many vehicle crashes this year) than to the civil war within Syria, let alone conflicts and terrorist attacks within Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan or other countries in the world. How are our political representatives to address major international issues when they are largely neglected by the Scottish media, leaving voters in relative ignorance of both their import and their context?

This diversity within the SNP, similar to that within Labour, is the product of various factors. Some nationalist MPs were not even members of the SNP when they were elected. My own MP (a nationalist, Tommy Sheppard) was, until recently, a member of the Labour Party, as were several others. A handful were actually members of the Conservative Party until a few months before the May elections. The personable and articulate MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, Tasmin Ahmed-Sheikh, has still not managed to explain satisfactorily at what point on her Road to Damascus she saw the light and heard the voice instructing her to embrace the nationalist cause. And the key policies which persuaded her, have also not been satisfactorily explained.

In the event the Commons resounded with convincing and even eloquent arguments on both sides and from within all parties. And no, Mhairi Black (SNP), both sides of the House were cheering the quality of the speech which Hillary Benn (Labour) delivered. They were not cheering at the prospect of blowing the heads off small Syrian children, and, indeed, many of those applauding the speech went on to vote against any extension of the airstrikes. The comment made by Alex Salmond (SNP) about Hillary Benn's father Tony 'turning his grave' was just the usual Salmond nastiness. And if there was cheering once the vote was passed, Jeremy Corbyn, might it not have been at the prospect of bringing to an end this horrible civil war? To suggest otherwise is either wickedly mischievous or astonishingly naive. I have had no sense at any stage of the argument over Syria that MPs of any party were bloodthirsty warmongers. Like most of us, they feel horror and despair about what is happening to Syrian families. To suggest otherwise is almost as crazy (and poisonous) as the statement by the Stop the War Coalition that ISIL is similar to the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. No it isn't. Read some history. Or the young man of my acquaintance who, after the vote for air strikes, pronounced that 'Cameron is a terrorist as bad as ISIS'. No he isn't. Do you really have no idea of the kinds of crimes ISIS perpetrates, slave markets, beheadings and so on? Was Tony Blair really to blame for the actions of the 7:7 bombers, as Ken Livingstone would have it? No he wasn't. The perpetrators made their own choices and followed their own consciences. Nasty smears are seemingly not the territory only of the Tory leader. However, they have been particularly apparent in recent weeks.

So, should MPs from all parties have paid more attention to what their constituents wanted? Many people thought so.

There is a problem, however, with this proposition. Firstly, how do you decide what your constituents want? MPs are elected to represent the constituency as a whole, not just party members, let alone party activists. Probably most decent conscientious MPs took into account any representations they received, regardless of the political opinions of those who made them. The vote on Syria was a very very difficult decision to make. I don't doubt that MPs of all parties listened to constituents, at least those who could be bothered to approach them. (No, I didn't write to my MP on this issue, though I have on others, and have had satisfactory replies, though, unsurprisingly, written around a cut-and-paste of party policy.) MPs cannot be expected to organise local referenda on such issues to find out their constituents' views. Parliamentary decision making is not like the X Factor.

Indeed, the debate itself was, rightly, an influential factor in the decision making of some MPs. That is what debates are for. One would hope that individual MPs would remain open minded enough to play a genuine role in debate rather than parroting ready-prepared party lines. Shame on those who castigated the 15 Labour MPs who changed their minds because of the arguments and speeches made during the debate. I WANT MPs who change their minds because they have listened to the opinions and evidence of others.  Shame also on those who castigated Hillary Benn for changing his position from the one he had adopted earlier on. I would much rather have an MP who is thoughtful and responsive to what he has read and heard than one who sticks to the same views, sometimes for years on end, not listening to others and regardless of changes in the context and in the range and quality of information available to him or her.

Furthermore, MPs are not delegates, as are Congressmen and women in the USA. In Britain we expect our MPs to represent us, not parrot our often ill-informed opinions. I expect my MP to have read more than me, to have carried out research, to have worked with and listened to others, and to have taken an active role in debates not just provided knee-jerk responses. And I am sure this is the case - with my local MP, anyway. If our MPs were delegates who simply transferred the views of constituents to the lobby, we would still have the death penalty, homosexuals would still be threatened with imprisonment and Britain could currently be in danger of closing its borders to immigrants for ever more.

So, what did I think should have happened?

On balance, I did not support the decision to extend the bombing campaign. I thought it was ill-thought-out and unlikely to have a sufficiently positive impact. Although my natural instinct is to take a pacifist line, a legacy of my family history, I do recognise that there are situations when the only possible response to oppression is to use force. I also recognise, however, that this stage is often reached because action has not been taken soon enough. Despite all the cries of 'child murderers', very few commentators have made the point that there is also a price to the Syrian civilian population of inaction. I don't think the leaders who opposed the extension of air strikes have made it clear what their alternative action would have been. Certainly inaction - or, indeed, appeasement - can be just as destructive and produce as many casualties as ill-timed and badly planned action.

While accepting that the vote over the invasion of Iraq was entirely different from the vote over Syrian air strikes, I do feel that when I opposed that invasion, I was letting down the thousands of Kurds gassed by Saddam Hussein. I shall never forget the photos of all those ungainly bodies lying where they dropped in their streets and homes. And that was long before we intervened. The invasion was a disaster because the premise (that there were weapons of mass destruction) was false and the follow up was badly managed. However, should we have gone in earlier? Or should we not have gone in at all, and let a dictator continue to destroy the lives of his civilian population? That was the issue the last time MPs held a vote on Syria, and Assad has continued to devastate his country and kill his own people. We are apparently now going in to support him.

Those of us who oppose the extension of the air strikes to Syria, still have to consider whether we would just do nothing to stop the rape and sale of girls and women, the cruel torture and killings of men and boys and the burying alive of old people of no use to the Daesh regime. Just saying 'we should negotiate' is not a plan: of course, we will negotiate even with air strikes. The question is when, how, with whom and to what purpose. No one has provided a satisfactory answer so far.

I believe our MPs should be leaders not followers. If they take their jobs seriously, make sure that they are well informed and refrain from being bullied into taking positions on important (repeat, important) issues with which they do not agree, then they have much to teach the rest of us. One example of this leadership role is when, in many cases, they educated their constituents about gay rights. Even if we disagree with our MPs and their parties about Syria, then that process of debate in itself will take us further in our own thinking.

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