Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

If not now, when?

How happy must stopped clocks be on those rare moments when they are right! Small wonder, then, that the likes of Nick Clegg, Mehdi Hasan and George Galloway want to turn the conversation back to Iraq whenever possible.

Unfortunately, the anti-war movement is a digital watch, and their shining moment has already passed. Even then, they were only half-right, because the invasion in Iraq wasn’t a disaster. It was a personal tragedy for everyone who lost a friend or a loved one and it was a political catastrophe for Labour: but it wasn’t a disaster for Iraq or the Iraqi people, at least not if you do something as thoughtless and gauche as to ask them. Iraqi democracy enjoys a higher level of public support and popular engagement than the average result in a Eurobarometer survey. Certainly you can point to serious problems with corruption, overmighty executives, and crime-ridden streets in both Libya and Iraq, but you can do the same in Johannesburg or Cape Town, and I, for one, am not about to shed a tear for PW Botha. Yes, there are problems in Libya, Iraq and South Africa, too: but these are countries where people can resort to the ballot box, not the bomb.

All of this is second-order, though, because the issue at hand isn’t Iraq, but Syria, and the question that Labour has to answer isn’t whether Iraq was wrong or right. It’s this: if not now, when?

If you won’t intervene when chemical weapons are deployed, when will you? There would be something funny in the spectacle of erstwhile peaceniks downing their ‘Stop Trident’ placards only to encourage the proliferation of chemical weapons in every dictator’s arsenal: something funny, that is, if it weren’t for the dead children.

If you won’t intervene with the support of a dirigiste socialist administration in France and a neo-Thatcherite government in Britain, what level of international consensus would move you? It is a peculiar breed of progressive that believes that drone strikes and Big Macs permanently disbar the United States from foreign fields, but holds up the consent of the jailers of Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei as the Michelin star of just war. It may be that you believe that foreign intervention can only ever be justified if it can unite the security council of the United Nations in moral outrage, but, short of Dalek invasion, it’s difficult to see what event could plausibly bring together the nations of the world so neatly and cleanly.

The United Nations security council is a beautiful idea with just one problem: it doesn’t work. It represents the world in concert only if you have some pretty funny ideas about what the world looks like. At no point in its history has it ever been able to come to  an effective decision about dictatorship or repression. When a resolution is sufficiently content-free to gain the assent of Moscow or Beijing, they tend to be as weak and ineffective as a student union’s letter-writing campaign. It was established to prevent international paralysis in the face of injustice and aggression such as that which led to the second world war; but it wouldn’t even have sanctioned that war until 1941. Multilateral agreement is still a sine qua non of foreign policy, but alliances have to be values-based, not led by creaking and outdated institutions blessed with good PR and little else.

The debate over Syria can be divided into two camps: people who want to talk about Tony Blair, and think we shouldn’t intervene, and people who want to talk about Syria, who think we should. Ed Miliband should put his feet firmly in the latter camp; Labourism at its best is a philosophy that dares disturb the universe, that hopes and works for a better world, that accepts that its hands must be dirtied either by action or inaction: he should join with François Hollande, Barack Obama, and yes, David Cameron, in supporting air strikes against Assad’s regime.


Stephen Bush writes a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


Photo: Freedom House

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Stephen Bush

is a contributing editor to Progress, formerly wrote a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


  • This article must be a spoof … bloody good one – you nearly fooled me in thinking you are a serious writer.

  • I agree Stephen absolutely – the massacres of civilians , women and little children by gassing last week by the Syrian State was a step beyond international law and we are obligated to rid the regime of those poisons … there is no moral ‘relativity’ about this, no twists and turns, no sitting on hands, no socialist/social democrat could in any part of the world say lets look the other way after the State committed these acts of terror. Indifference and inaction is not an option and certainly not for the Labour parties of Europe.

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