Cries of “shame” were heard in Parliament Square last night as activists at a Stop the War demonstration learned that the House of Commons had voted strongly in favour of military action against Islamic State in Syria. Air strikes are expected to commence within hours.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, had previously said that he would not call a vote until he was relatively certain it would succeed and his confidence was not misplaced, as the final majority was 174, with dozens of Labour MPs breaking ranks and joining government members in the “Yes” lobby. Just 7 Conservatives defied the party whip to oppose the motion, including the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis. The SNP’s members and the bulk of the Labour Party voted against the government, whilst the Liberal Democrats, to the surprise of many, supported action.
The debate was lengthy, with over 150 contributions, many of them from former senior government ministers. Margaret Beckett, a former Foreign Secretary, put the question in terms of offering or refusing to help an ally (France) who had been attacked and was now asking for Britain’s help. The current Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hillary Benn, also made that point, in a passionate and coherent speech in favour of the motion.
Mr. Benn, who was unusually urging MPs to vote against his own party leader, condemned IS as “fascists” who hold the British people and their values “in contempt”. He also reminded colleagues within Labour of the historic internationalism of their party, citing the fight against Spain’ General Franco, and pleaded with them not to “walk by on the other side of the road”. His contribution earned applause from all corners of the chamber; Jeremy Corbyn listened stony-faced.
In an equally eloquent contribution, Sir Gerald Kaufman condemned the planned campaign as a “gesture”, saying that he had seen no evidence that it had the capacity to significantly diminish IS. Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP, also spoke forcefully against the utility of military action and called on the government to fight IS in other ways, such as by choking off their funding and countering their use of the internet.
RAF pilots are already believed to be preparing for action, and the claims of the Prime Minister that his plan can bring an end to the threat posed by IS will be put to the test. It will, however, likely be some time before the wisdom of last night’s vote is known.