Last night, Parliament voted against the principle of the UK taking military action in Syria. Depending on your perspective, Britain has either been saved from getting blood on its hands in another messy foreign war, or has actively got blood on its hands by failing to stop a tyrant massacring his own people. We decided to go along to the House of Commons while the vote was happening to watch things unfold.
Large(ish) protests from civilians on both sides of the debate were staged in Whitehall on Wednesday, but as we arrived in Westminster there were still a few people milling about with placards, urging the stream of tourists and occasional passing MPs to vote one way or the other.
I wasn’t sure which side of the argument this guy was placing himself on. Blessed are the peacemakers who want to stop Assad from gassing his own people, or blessed are the peacemakers who don’t want to bomb the hell out of yet another country? You've got to appreciate the effort, but some elaboration wouldn't have gone amiss here.
Helpfully, Ukip had hired a van and a megaphone to honk their outrage at the idea of going to war. I couldn’t help but think of the racist Home Office van that was parading through immigrant communities, pissing everyone off a few weeks ago. It disappeared off into the dusk at about 7PM, presumably on its way back to Ukip HQ to swap the "NO to war in Syria" banner for the regular Spearmint Rhino one and cart the lads off to another night spent tucking 50s into the waistbands of Eastern European strippers.
It's not just Ukip flying the anti-war flag; the public doesn't seem too into the idea of military intervention either. One poll showed that 40 percent don't want us to get ourselves involved in any way, with 74 percent against sending troops. Less than a quarter favoured taking action.
In Westminster, it was up to the people’s elected representatives to decide whether or not they knew better. The debate was pretty heated at first, with MPs flapping their heads about like a bunch of particularly excitable South Park Canadians. Slowly but surely, things petered out as the more significant politicians, having made their speeches, slunk away to give camera interviews to the news or do whatever it is that the political class do to kick back for a few hours, leaving the unknowns to mostly repeat the same well rehearsed arguments to a diminishing audience.
That was before the chamber swelled again for the vote itself, everyone coming together to create an uncomfortable atmosphere of the usual ya-boo politics chatter held back by the solemn seriousness that tends to arise when you're discussing bombing the hell out of a country. Iraq was on everyone’s mind and lips. “They’re not going to do it again are they?” said an Australian woman we met on the way in.
On the government’s side, David Cameron was gunning to drop some peace bombs, telling the House, “By any standards, this is a humanitarian catastrophe, and if there are no consequences for it, there is nothing to stop Assad and other dictators from using these weapons again and again. Doing nothing is a choice. It's a choice with consequences. And these consequences, in my view, would not just be about President Assad and his future use of chemical weapons."
"Syria is not Iraq," he said, addressing the elephant in the room but doing so in a way that didn't really make it any more comfortable to be in the room with the elephant, given the elephant's missing limbs and PTSD-shocked eyes.
This wouldn’t have convinced Joe Glenton, who I had spoken to the previous day. Now a member of Veterans for Peace, Joe is a former soldier who – having served in Afghanistan – became the first to refuse to go back there on moral grounds, beating the military charge of desertion and the threat of prison in the process.
“We’re not in the business of rescuing people, whether it's little girls going to school or dictators who need to be removed – it's a non-argument,” he told me. “This is about great power, resources and geo-politics. That’s just my experience. Ultimately, it’s a way to diminish Iran [by weakening their ally, Syria].”
Surely using chemical weapons makes you a pariah worthy of punishment, I asked. “There's a good friend of mine, Ross Caputi – a former US combat marine who was in Fallujah. They radiated Fallujah – filled it full of white phosphorus. The place is toxic, the rates of cancer are higher than Hiroshima. I worked on ammunition in Afghanistan; we held, still hold and still use white phosphorus and red phosphorus grenades. We do chemical warfare and we have a long history of this.”
With Glenton's words ringing in my ears, I listened out for anyone in Parliament suggesting we attack America for its use of chemical weapons. Weirdly, nobody raised the issue.
Outside, Tessa Jowell gave me Labour’s take on things.
VICE: Hey Tessa. What's the feeling in your camp this evening?
Tessa Jowell, Labour Party MP: We’re waiting for the processes of the UN to create a legal framework to be given time to apply. So the first thing is that the weapons inspectors have not completed their report – they must have time to do that and have further time to investigate who the perpetrator of this report is. Secondly, there must be a debate in the Security Council and a UN Security Council resolution in order to create a legal base. The third is that any resolution in the House of Commons should be time limited and very specific in its scope.
Given our own record…
[Tessa Jowell shakes her head and walks off]
Clearly sensing a real zinger of a question, Jowell had turned heel and slipped away from me. Luckily, Lord John Reid was around to further enlighten me about Labour’s position.
(Photo by David Griffin)
Which way will you vote if and when the bill arrives in the House of Lords, Baron John?
John Reid, Baron Reid of Cardowan (Labour): I doubt it will get there – I think we’ll wait and see what the evidence says, what the inspectors and the Security Council say, and what the military, diplomatic and legal options are.
So you’re not making a decision?
No, I don't think you can. It’s not just chemical weapons; it’s a complex Syrian civil war and a regional schismatic war between Sunni and Shia.
The “wait and see” line could have been a neat way to purge the ghost of Blair by not being seen to be too gung-ho, nor too weak. Or perhaps it was just a sensible call for not blundering into things without full knowledge of the facts.
Whichever it was, the point about lack of evidence seemed a good one, resonating with what I'd heard earlier when I spoke to Professor Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired US Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
Since his retirement, Wilkerson has gone rogue, lambasting many aspects of the Iraq War, including his own preparation of Powell's presentation to the UN. He told me: “I don’t see much difference between what I was told about weapons of mass destruction certainly being in Iraq and what’s being said right now. Even if it might be true, we don’t have any evidence that it’s true. Not really. We have intelligence coming from Israel as we did in 2002 and 2003. We have intelligence coming from other countries. As far as I’m concerned, we have nothing coming from what I’d consider to be remotely reliable intelligence sources.”
We then spotted Ming Campbell hanging around with Labour's Jack Straw in the central lobby. We accosted them both, but Straw insisted he was far too busy for a stop 'n' chat, before rushing off to the toilet. Ming, however, was happy to shoot the shit.
VICE: How will you vote tonight, Sir Ming?
Sir Ming Campbell, Lib Dem MP for North East Fife: I’m going to support the government motion. But in a speech I made today, I drew attention to a lot of reservations I have, and my "Yes" vote is mostly because we’re going to have a second vote before any military action.
So you’re giving yourself a chance to get out of it?
No, I’m saying that in these UN matters the Secretary-General should report, the inspectors should report, and that Britain in the UN’s Security Council should seek a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which authorises the use of military force.
But the UN inspectors aren't allowed to say who carried out the attack.
That’s true, but we have to challenge the substantial presumption that it was Assad’s regime who used chemical weapons.
One of the key stories of the night was that of a Tory rebellion. Earlier we had cornered one Conservative rebel – which is kind of an oxymoron when you see it written out like that – named Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford.
What way will you be voting?
Tracey Crouch: I’ll be voting against the government motion and the Labour motion because they both make reference to supporting military intervention in Syria.
What do you think should happen?
I think we should continue with diplomatic resolution and provide humanitarian support. I think we could also impose sanctions.
Isn’t it a bit late for all that?
No, I don’t think it is. We haven’t got the information for certain that it was the Assad regime that used chemical weapons. I think we have to be very careful when we don’t know who makes up the opposition. With the involvement of al-Qaeda, for example, we have to be very careful whose side we take on this.
Don’t you think chemical weapons are a red line?
Why is there mass outcry with the use of chemical weapons compared to when people are being blown up and shot? People are being massacred in Zimbabwe on a regular basis and we stand back and do nothing. Are we suggesting that if Mugabe used chemical weapons we should have an intervention in Zimbabwe? We shouldn’t have people committing genocide whether it’s with chemical weapons or not. The response to that, however, is always that we should be flexing our muscles and sending in military support, whereas I don’t think that’s the right way forward. You only have to look at Afghanistan and Iraq to know that sending armed forces doesn’t always lead to the right outcome.
After speaking to Tracey, we had a wander around and bumped into David Davis – former shadow home secretary and renowned "maverick" Conservative politician – and took the opportunity to ask him his thoughts.
VICE: David, you’re a political "maverick" – tell the people which way you're going to vote.
David Davis, Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden: I will abstain on the Labour amendment – I don't want to get on Mr Miliband's moral merry-go-round. But as for the government’s motion, I’m probably going to vote against.
I don't think the case for war is made. I think there’s a general commitment to military action, and even if I were going to vote for it, it would depend on the absolute specifics – I’m not giving a blank cheque. It’s gotta be precise. Are we going for Command and Control sites, or what? And we need [to know the] expected outcomes.
So what’s an acceptable outcome?
We’re not there yet. First we need proof it was Assad and not some rogue element in his army. Once you get that, I’ll want to see the government talking to the Russians and making sure a whole load of new weapons aren't gonna be delivered. Thirdly, I'd want an assessment of whether we’ve done enough to make it unprofitable for Assad to use them again. So I could vote in favour, but at the moment I’m assuming I’m against.
If it passes, when will the missiles be in the sky?
Who knows? It’s not actually that time-sensitive. The Americans have this saying – “load, fire, aim” – and that sums up their military policy sometimes. We don’t want to get into that – we want "load, aim fire".
So what are you trying to avoid?
Well, there are historians of World War One saying the situation in the Middle East has connotations of 1913-14 about it. It’s hard to see how it’ll play out, but if we get into an escalation with us attacking Assad and the Russians and Chinese and Iranians supplying weapons, we could end up with a Vietnam situation. Also, the whole thing has impacts on Jordan and Lebanon, and that in itself is dangerous for Israel. You can just see a domino effect happening here.
Do we have any right to get involved?
I half accept the argument that we have a big role in world affairs because of our country’s history. That’s a good thing generally, but we don’t want to be the ones giving US policy an “approval stamp”, which is sort of where we’re heading if we’re not careful.
Alright, thanks David.
At some point, we got bored of politicians and sought council from someone who hadn't spent the afternoon practising reciting their opinions in front of a pocket mirror.
Father Christopher Neill: I’m Assistant Priest in the Parish on Manchester, which is Greek Orthodox, but we’re attached to the Patriarchate of Antioch, based in Syria. I used to do business out there in a previous life.
What are people you’re talking to in Syria saying?
They’re not saying a lot. You can’t pin anyone in the church down and call them pro or anti-Assad. I do know that the church out there is raising money and distributing it to everyone in need – it’s not a Christians-only thing. Having said that – yes, they’re scared. Churches get destroyed and attacked, but underlying that is a belief that Syria is a very ancient and civilised country.
What has been your response?
Our response has been to pray hard and weep.
Yeah, I can see that.
God bless you.
In the end – in what was kind of a surprising result – the government lost. Their motion was defeated by 285 to 272 – a majority of 13. David Cameron confirmed that he "gets" that Parliament has spoken and that he won't use the Royal Prerogative to go over their heads and storm in with an intervention, which is big of him. The whole ordeal was pretty embarrassing for Dave, who had re-called Parliament early only to get his plans voted out.
The question of Cameron getting his house in order and UK party politics in general seems rather trivial, though, given the context. The thousands of people dying in a war are what's important here. This was a vote with no good outcomes, in the truest sense of the word. Whatever you think the better option would have been, it would have only resulted in merely a bad outcome rather than a less bad outcome.
At the time of writing, the US are still weighing up their options, and it seems that President Obama will continue with military action against Syria without allied support.
More on the situation in Syria: