It has been over a month since Parliament voted to bomb Isis in Syria, yet in that time there have been fewer raids than there are Lib Dem MPs. A flurry of three attacks took place immediately following the vote on 1 December, but since then there has been only one — by an unmanned Reaper drone on Christmas Day. And even that only ‘probably’ killed some Isis guards at a checkpoint. The three earlier manned missions had focused on an oil field that a US military spokesman later described as having previously suffered ‘long-term incapacitation’ at the hands of the US air force. Presumably the facility had already been blasted to smithereens and the RAF (perhaps to justify the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s claim that Britain was ‘really upping the tempo’ in Syria) was invited in for a celebratory kick: late to the party, late to the fight, and bombing bomb sites. The British Lion roars again.
To critics like me of Britain’s participation, the ‘I told you so’s’ will come easily, of course. But that isn’t my point here. I want to suggest how David Cameron might have presented his case better, proofing himself against the sneers of such as I. He could just have told the truth. The honest case for Britain’s joining the scrap in Syria was a fairly decent one.
The honest case for Britain’s joining the US-led invasion of Iraq was quite strong, too. And the honest case for holding a referendum on our membership of the European Union, and for recommending a ‘stay’ vote when the referendum comes, is also mildly persuasive. But in all three examples a sitting prime minister has hyped up the justification in a perfectly unnecessary way, strained honesty, strained credulity and risked simply irritating citizens (and commentators) who could see all along what the real justifications were, who were persuadable, and who might have accepted an unassuming argument where they rejected the overblown one.
Let us take those three examples in turn, starting with the Iraq war. There was certainly an argument for our joining the US-led coalition to topple Saddam Hussein. A monster and a mass murderer, he was entirely capable of turning on his neighbours or their allies, and was arming his country to the teeth. It seemed very possible that he was developing weapons of mass destruction and (given his use of poison gas on the Kurds) equally possible that even if he had not yet done so, he would soon, and secretly.
The Americans probably realised that evidence for actual WMD was patchy and speculative; our own government certainly did or they would not have gone to such painful lengths to sex it up. Tony Blair may be truthful when he says he unreservedly believed all this; but if so he was surely conscious that a leap was needed between what he could prove and what he believed.
Just as compelling to him was the need he perceived for Britain to be good allies to our best friend in the world, upon whom we ultimately depended for our own security. So if the WMD evidence was finely balanced, Britain’s loyalty to an ally tipped the balance.
Then why not say that? ‘This man Hussein is a barbarous threat to the security of the region. We think he may be secretly developing weapons of mass destruction. I personally am convinced by the evidence, but I accept it is incomplete. Washington does believe this is happening. In the circumstances, I have decided it is Britain’s duty to our faithful ally to join America in military action which the Pentagon believes is urgent and vital.’ If that had been Mr Blair’s pitch, so much of the hatred and humiliation subsequently heaped upon him could have been avoided. The same is true of David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ of our EU membership. It may achieve something useful (I think that is likely) but it was never going to be the root-and-branch exercise that was promised. Everybody knows Mr Cameron’s first aim was to close down the chronic and rancourous dispute within Britain and within his party, about EU membership.
So, again I ask, why didn’t he just say that? ‘For too long this issue has poisoned political life… etc. So I have decided to bring this to a head. Let us see whether the British people — as opposed to their politicians and newspapers — have something to say. I propose to enter negotiations with our partners in which I shall be seeking important adjustments, but don’t expect miracles. Even without these changes, membership is on balance advantageous to us, and leaving would be a huge risk. That is the case I shall be making. I don’t expect convinced anti-Europeans to be persuaded — but let us, and them, listen to what the country says.’
Were that the first paragraph, as it were, of this story, how much huffing and puffing, how much risible overselling of small beer, how much contempt and how much sheer irritation on the part of people like me (no Europhile) could have been pre-empted? It would have had the virtue, you see, of being true. People do notice.
As for Syria, the speech I’d have written for the Prime Minister would have acknowledged that the help we could give would not be critical — at most it would be modestly useful. There would have been no nonsense about the 70,000 freedom fighters waiting to take democracy forward but instead a frank admission that the whole thing was a bloody mess, the outcomes uncertain, and that we could not be sure intervention would bring peace to Syria. But the underwriter of all Europe’s security, the United States, had undertaken to try, our brothers and sisters in France had been persuaded, and solidarity called us to support them.
Do you know, I could almost have voted for that. When shall we find leaders with the intellectual self-confidence to ask us for no more than a modest two cheers for a halfway decent case?