Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Conflict fatigue must not become a paralysing straitjacket

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


Photo: The US Army

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John Woodcock MP

is member of parliament for Barrow and Furness


  • I am not against intervention in principle but I do need to be persuaded that what people are proposing will not make a bad situation even worse. If I lived in one of the towns taken over by ISIS, I would not want the UK and US to start bombing those towns.

  • Our armed forces have been completely decimated by defence cuts.
    Only last week we laid off another 1,000 soldiers. Britain no longer has the
    capacity to engage in any type of expeditionary warfare, even if justified. We’ve
    barely enough personnel to defend our own shores. Our politicians praise the
    sacrifice of our armed serves one day and send out the P45s the next.
    Unfortunately, military strategy isn’t taught on the PPE course at Oxford so
    most of our senior politicians haven’t a clue what our capabilities are.

  • Wasn’t it just last September 2013 that USA was ready to knock ten kinds of sherbert out of Syria? and in April 2014 TB wanted Syria to be flattened? [sic] and today they want the same Syria to lend hand knocking out a bigger evil? Shades of Stalin aint half as bad as Hitler.
    Very confusing to us poor beggars who don’t buy or read the New States[wo]man.
    At least Tony is consistent and has all his ducks in a row – you know where you are with him.
    Its not so with others and their route to the top seat may be plagued by vacillating on big issues. Not referring to Cameron or Tom Cruise.

  • Yet another uninformed politician opening his mouth. Regarding Syria, the evidence of the Ghouta chemical attack is now crumbling .. just like the Iraq WMD lie. There is now compelling evidence (not to mention common sense) to support the case that it was NOT Assad and thus Cameron would have sent soldiers to die for no good reason other than to ally with US Empire’s hegemonic interests. I find it amazing that people still actually believe Assad committed the one act that his enemies wanted him to do at the most inopportune moment ..even after Assad asked the UN 3 months before to come and investigate Khan al-Assal (to-wit this was delayed by France and UK fabricating other incidents for which the UN OPCW found to be baseless).

    Oh of course lets not forget one of the UK’s main exports is arms. Just like the US we are an economy that thrives on exporting the tools for war and then we have the stupefying temerity to set ourselves up as world policemen of morality. The hypocrisy is physically nauseating.

    Its no surprise that the people who always ring the bell for war (politicians, journalists, bankster’s, war-baiting academics and think-tank aficionado’s etc) have neither served or are in the fortunate position to make sure their children never serve. Cowards all of them.

    You announced in December 2013 that you were suffering from depression, I’ll put this piece down as a symptom of a non compos mentis disposition.

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