War Cry

It sounds like a Frankie Boyle line: The citizens of Raqqa are rejoicing at a distraction from beheadings and crucifixions – yet another country is sending jets to bomb us.

And as British tornadoes at last hit the correct type of military targets – oil facilities from which the medieval terrorists get their income – how many Syrian families are grieving the loss of operators and service engineers at those plants? Because they aren’t run by men in black body suits and Kalashnikovs but rather by the same innocent workers we’re supposed to be protecting.

The dilemmas, eh? Moral dubiety abounded in the Commons as MPs wrestled with conscience and loyalty, although, to be fair, it’s in the job description. And there was scant introspection from Hilary Benn, new hero of the British Right, whose moral certainty put a cap on the Westminster talk-a-thon. It surprised me because he has always come over as a mild man, a bit diffident, and not really the alpha male Big Beast. I once shared a joke with him where his willingness to laugh with a journalist was unstuffy and refreshing. Maybe he was still in those days in the shadow of dad, hardly a surprise. And the same father, studiously polite, nevertheless exuded an air of hauteur with a reporter. He expected your attention and respect as he took out his own teabag to put in the cup of boiling water provided and ostentatiously laid his own tape recorder beside yours. He recorded every interview he ever did for the memoirs. Somewhere in that massive archive is my voice, probably sounding reverential.

In this Commons theatre Tony’s son finally came into his own, claiming his place in the pantheon of Historic Speeches, whatever one’s view of its meaning. That his position on this issue is almost certainly diametrically opposite to this father’s theoretical view is an academic point. But it must surely have crossed the mind of many when they recalled not just Tony’s natural leanings but his epic anti-war speech in the Commons before the Iraq debacle. I was puzzled by the virulence of attacks on George Kerevan who was tweeting about this along the lines of Tony spinning in his grave. Disgusting, said Jackson Carlaw. Shameful, said Blair McDougall. Tony’s granddaughter (Labour politician) Emma was cross too. But surely comparing  in this way is a natural process that all such families go through and it doesn’t stop at death. John Maxton was unfavourably compared to Jimmy. Tory Adrian Shinwell had to laugh off jibes about his Red Clydside uncle Manny. If, heaven forfend, Fergus Ewing ever defected to Labour, would not journalists write about Winnie’s despair?

I admit as a journalist that, were it possible, I would slyly put to a (resurrected) Tony that he must be secretly proud of his son whatever his policy misgivings and I have no doubt the truth would appear in his face, if not his words. But all this faux indignation, please…If you want tasteless, look no further than the bullish, infantile cheering and clapping that greeted Benn. It was a scene from Oh! What a Lovely War 2015.

It may be of course that Labour are desperately trying to cover tracks here in defending Benn. His peroration was the apotheosis but the whole 10-hour debate was a symphony of despair for Labour. Memories of Iraq which still haunt them hung over the chamber, a sizeable rebellion that represented so much more than a vote on this one issue was a cartoon for Corbyn’s leadership and the inability of Labour to redefine itself post GE2015 was grotesquely exposed. The 66 will be remembered. You know they will. They weren’t enough to swing the vote, nothing like it, but the internal invective will ensure they become the anti-Corbynistas whose every move – and reselection – will be targeted.

Labour sources began the week by implying there was nothing wrong with disagreement and that it symbolised the actuality out in the country. There is something in this but I suggest Neil Findlay, Simon Pia and others were as interested in preparing the ground for party division on Syria as they were in democratic discourse. Nevertheless, I’ve never been comfortable with a party whip system operating on matters of conscience. If an MP can’t exercise a conscience, what is the point of electing him? I appreciate the SNP members met and all agreed, rather than were obliged, to vote one way but what did they agree to? In effect they understood the political importance of a collective No vote. And they offered a sensible amendment. But, if it were agreed all could decide individually without prejudice, would not one of the 54 have been tempted to support Yes on the basis it is a relatively simple extension of an existing war; that a Scot was beheaded by the enemy and the public mood will change further if, as is expected, there is an attack on UK soil? The trouble here is that they were commanded before entering the Commons to obey the whip at any cost because loyalty was all. As a result a universal position looks pre-arranged rather than honestly made. Having said that, I can’t think of an individual who was likely to demur from voting against. And, it has to be said, with the SNP, you get what you see.

And there’s now a clear divide between Scotland’s MPs and the rest of the country which creates another break with the Union feeding into people’s sense of political estrangement. (We could see something similar in the Euro referendum, or at least the Celtic nations voting differently from England, as the National Centre for Social Research says today). I liked the way some voices on Twitter took offence at the idea that Nationalists were exploiting the bombing issue to the benefit of independence. Eh…two points. Not being part of the UK means not being part of the UK’s wars – unless we choose to. If a majority of Scots – seven out of 10 – and ninety per cent of our MPs are against something but we get it anyway, that’s the case for independence in a nutshell. Secondly, the Prime Minister couldn’t be playing politics with this issue, could he? We’re not just joining the big boys club with the bombs, are we? And we’re really going to destroy ISIS with just an aerial campaign. Is that right? He wasn’t pursuing it part to wreck Labour, I’m sure. No naked politics here. Not even Margaret Beckett saying we couldn’t let down our French allies in their hour of need – the same allies who said No to joining the coalition of the willing after 9/11. Politics, eh.

As Frankie Boyle might say: You can’t clap a point of order in the Commons but you can give a standing ovation to a war cry.

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Bombs Away

Funny how the Syria bombing saga mirrors events pre-Iraq. Cameron’s off-guard ‘terrorist sympathisers’ remark reminded me of John Reid, as Tony Blair’s studio attack dog, saying that opposition to invading Iraq meant supporting Saddam. It’s the You’re Either With Us Or You’re Against Us routine that forces you into an entrenched position and does so from a false prospectus.

This question is a kind of moral maze because as soon as you see one route through, you’re ambushed by the unforeseen. Thus, ‘I don’t agree with military action in Syria’ is immediately compromised by the fact we already have troops on the ground doing reconnaissance, intelligence and training – just not fighting as such, if you see the difference. We are now being asked to bomb ISIS using RAF jets but we have already been bombing them with drones. What’s the difference? We currently have a bombing role over the frontier in Iraq against the same enemy so, if we want to stop them, why not do so?

We are welcomed in by the Syrian ‘government’ but seem to be opposed by many of the citizens of Syria. The Syrian government of course is our sworn enemy whom we are committed to ousting – once we’ve strengthened him by destroying his – and our – enemy. Look harder and you see Turkey, a NATO ally, not just shooting down Russian jets but waging a separate war against the Kurdish Peshmerga who are the most effective force on the ground against…ISIS. Russia now doesn’t trust Turkey yet they are ostensibly on the same side. (Some Russian revenge is likely at an unexpected moment). Western nations, whose interventions always lead to radicalisation, put people and resources into the effort while Arab nations do what exactly?

Some have joined bombing raids but the reaction has been tepid, both to fighting ISIS and to taking Syrian refugees, even among the wealthy oil nations. Have we defined their role in this conflict? Saudi Arabia and Qatar stand accused of financing and arming anti-Bashir Assad rebels of whom ISIS is one.

‘The Saudi, Emirati and Qatari approach has been to sign a check and let everyone else deal with it,’ according to Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch. ‘Now everyone else is saying, That’s not fair.’

What about Britain’s role? The trial of a terror suspect was abandoned in London in June when it became clear British intelligence he had been arming the same terror groups he was accused of supporting. It was a joint mission with the CIA operating a ‘rat line’ for arms to go from Libya to Syrian opposition to Assad. (We have been arming the very people we now want to fight).

The EU imposed an arms embargo on Syria in 2011 but several states – led by the UK and France – lobbied to be able to supply arms to ‘moderate’ forces in the opposition and foreign ministers agreed to let the embargo lapse two years later. There is no official evidence of direct EU arms going to rebels though…

This is a toxic mix of conflicting loyalties and dubious objectives. But let’s put all that to one side for a moment and decide we do want to stop ISIS. Nobody says RAF bombs will do that. The only way to achieve success is to ally the bombing to a multi-national military force which is mandated by the UN. It must include troops from the Gulf area not just our personnel. This is the only way of militarily eradicating ISIS.

At the same time, all financing channels for ISIS must be closed off through the international banking system. No country should be allowed to buy the oil which pays for the terrorists. The UN should sponsor a peace conference to organize an agreed outcome for Syria which rebuilds the country, endorses a representative government, prevents reprisals and prepares for a mass return of refugees. The root cause of terrorism should be addressed to block the rise another version of ISIS.

Impossible? Of course. We do want to get rid of ISIS but not that much. There are too many vested interests and embedded attitudes at work here for anything other than a cursory mini war. If the great nations really felt threatened the impetus for action would be unstoppable and, instead of dreaming of his peace-with-Iran legacy, Obama would be leading it and demanding action from Tehran and the Saudis for a start. The grim truth appears to be that Paris is now just one of those occasional horror shows that scare us for a week and then fade. Remember the Spanish train attack in 2004? 191 killed and 1800 injured by al Qaeda. They come and go like plane crashes. We shudder and thank our lucky stars.

But let’s not pretend our political masters are totally committed to beating this and then ensuring there is political and economic stability afterwards. This is all about doing something and hoping for the best without knowing what or ultimately caring enough. Cameron wouldn’t risk a vote when he thought he might lose because a red face meant more to him than ISIS. General Dannat, former head of the Army, said Britain had to bomb to be ‘part of the club’. We have to be with the big boys, it’s our destiny, don’t you know?

So I think I am prepared to back bombing Syria, if there is a UN-sanctioned international force on the ground to finish the job, a systematic programme of stopping the funding and a comprehensive post-war peace plan for the whole Iraq/ Syria/Iran theatre. In other words, I am effectively a No.

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