Lloyd Evans

Airstrike debate sketch: terrorist sympathisers, anti-Semitism and a basket of old ribbons

Airstrike debate sketch: terrorist sympathisers, anti-Semitism and a basket of old ribbons
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The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language

Rowan Williams

Bloomsbury, pp. 224, £

Bomb Syria. That was Cameron’s priority today as PMQs was sidelined in favour of the debate on airstrikes. His opponents’ strategy was ‘Bomb Cameron.’ They demanded a withdrawal of his remark that any opponent of bombing must be a ‘terrorist sympathiser’. The snarliest words came from Alex Salmond whose grey jowls jiggled with rage as he shouted, ‘apologise for these deeply insulting remarks.’

Cameron offered a correction but no contrition: ‘There’s honour in voting for; honour in voting against.’

He didn’t hold back when describing Isil. ‘Women-raping, Muslim-murdering medieval monsters,’ he said. And he set out the case for extending the bombing from Iraq into Syria. Right now our jets have to screech to a halt at the border even if they’re in hot pursuit of a convoy of jihadis taking priceless Greco-Roman antiquities to the airport. But it’s not that simple. Everyone knows that breaking Isil with bombs will be like hunting crocodiles with badminton racquets, and yet Cameron made the campaign sound perfectly winnable. He said there are 70,000 rebels who may be a bit dodgy but they’re OK to fight with. And there are 35,000 others who are too dodgy by far so we’ll avoid them completely. Bit too neat, these rounded up figures. And Cameron seems confident that a spanking new Syria is in sight. There’s a timetable. By next June a provisional government will be gathered around a conference table drawing up constituency boundaries over biscuits and bottled Evian. A year after that an elected and pluralistic administration will assume office in a disarmed and pacified Damascus. How amazing. Isil crushed and Syria rebuilt – even before the next Bond movie’s been completed.

Corbyn’s response was like a basket of old ribbons. He needed a succinct and coherent line: you don’t rebuild by bombing, you don’t stabilise by destroying. But his speech frothed with heavy phrases. ‘A negotiated political and diplomatic solution.’ He hung his head wearily or swivelled it at his jeering opponents and tried to stare them out, like a bus-stop curmudgeon tut-tutting at playful school-boys. In one angry aside he insisted that ‘anti-Semitism’ had no place in British society. True enough. It had no place in his argument either. This was a life-or-death debate but he couldn’t quite banish the note of irritation in his voice that says, ‘I’d rather be in the shed oiling my fishing reels.’

He had the better case but he fluffed the delivery. It doesn’t matter. War alters the tempo of politics. A different pulse takes hold. The rhythm of action. It percolates down from above. Every prime minister is attracted to conflict because the MoD is the only department that likes to get detailed orders and to carry them out before morning. This is one of war’s hidden catalysts. It makes even bureaucracy exciting.