There was something deeply depressing about the headlines on teaching British values in our schools this weekend.
Not the idea itself, though most teachers have presumably been asking what exactly the government thinks they do all day if not that. Rather, it was depressing that David Cameron thought it was the most important thing to be talking about at what should be a moment of international crisis.
The prime minister can proselytise all he likes about the need for British values in our schools; he can paint a St George’s cross on his chest and run whooping down Whitehall if England makes it out of the World Cup group stage. But these displays of patriotism will matter little if we keep our head in the sand and allow British interests to be trampled and our way of life threatened by the creation of a new Islamic fundamentalist state in the Middle East.
Cameron has not measured up to the test placed on any prime minister by the need for action beyond British borders. His weakness and lack of focus under pressure will surely go down as his greatest failing.
But we should acknowledge openly that the Iraq war weighs more heavily on Labour than any other party. Time and again, it was the reference point when members of parliament considered whether to act in Syria, and it hangs over the debate about ISIS now.
I was not in parliament during those torrid days in the run-up to war and struggle to imagine how hard it must have been for those who were forced to vote on a Labour government’s determination to send British forces into battle, knowing many would lose their lives in a deeply controversial conflict. The responsibility to vote on the mere option of action in Syria was difficult enough, even though it would almost certainly not have involved sending in troops.
But those of us in the privileged position of deciding such matters must be reminded again and again that inaction is a choice too, and one that paves the way for horrible bloodshed.
This current crisis has flowed directly from the west’s failure to act in Syria. The longer we choose the comfort of inaction, the more likely it is that we will be forced to commit troops at some point in the future to protect our way of life. Already our intelligence services warn about the prospect of British Muslims returning radicalised from the Syrian conflict.
No one should countenance a rerun of the Iraq war, but tolerant democracies like Britain will long suffer if we allow Islamic extremists to create a new terror state in the Middle East.
Historical parallels are always imperfect and often inflammatory, yet it is alas no exaggeration to say that Islamic extremism could pose as great a threat to the stability of the world in future decades as Nazism did in the 1930s. We must not let understandable post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan conflict fatigue to become a paralysing straitjacket in the way that the memory of the first world war bred isolationism in its aftermath. If we do, we will make the world less safe for future generations. And when the inquest comes into why we allowed our nation to be subsumed in conflict far greater than any conceived now, the blame will lie at our door.
Yet, while Cameron repeatedly shows he is out of his depth, it is Labour leader Ed Miliband who is better placed than anyone to lead the country out of its current introspection.
Cards on the table: I was deeply uneasy when Ed first said in the leadership campaign that Iraq was a mistake, and when Labour started saying it had ‘stopped the rush to war’ last September – as if the mess over the Syria vote was something positive.
But by being one of the first senior figures to break the consensus over Iraq, Ed is not shackled by its legacy in the way Tony Blair and others undeniably are.
He can show the leadership and courage that has marked him out in other areas and redefine the case for intervention to protect British interests and uphold our values.
In shouldering it, he will mark himself out as a far greater leader than the current prime minister who is busying himself fiddling with the school curriculum while threats to the nation gather on the horizon.
John Woodcock is member of parliament for Barrow and Furness and chair of Progress. He tweets @JWoodcockMP
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