Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Time to live up to our responsibilities

In July, when asked how he would deal with the situation in Syria if he becomes prime minister, Ed Miliband echoed his first speech as Labour leader and responded: ‘One of the ways the party has changed since I became leader is that war is now always a last resort.’

The notion that war might not previously have been a ‘last resort’ may surprise many of the Labour members of parliament who voted for the Iraq war in 2003. However, Miliband’s remarks do underline the aversion to the use of force that has become a hallmark of Labour’s foreign policy.

The reasons for this shift are understandable. When their deployment finally comes to an end at the end of this year, British forces will have been involved in combat operations in Afghanistan for over 13 years: easily longer than the second and first world wars combined. For eight of those years, they were also deployed in Iraq. In British lives alone, the toll has been a heavy one: 453 servicemen and women have died in Afghanistan, and another 179 in Iraq. For many of their fellow citizens, that price – for attempting to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and removing Saddam Hussein from power – has simply been too high.

It is important for those who supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to recognise this fact, as well as Miliband’s desire to respond to it.

Moreover, a hostility to interventionism now crosses the political divide. This month sees the anniversary of the parliamentary vote which scuppered David Cameron’s plans for air strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Those plans, it should be recalled, were a response to a chemical weapons attack in which hundreds of Syrian civilians were killed. And that vote, in turn, effectively closed the door on Barack Obama’s intention – albeit halting and unconvincing – to enforce his ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

But while Labour led the charge against a ‘rush to war’ in Syria, Cameron’s defeat was sealed by a rebellion by 39 coalition MPs. Outside of parliament, unusual alliances were formed. While Nigel Farage declared: ‘We are a country tired of fighting wars that have nothing to do with us’, Ken Livingstone greeted the vote saying: ‘The defeat for war is historic and welcome.’

To characterise the Syria vote as a ‘defeat for war’ underlines the problem with this new political consensus. In August 2013, the death-toll in Syria stood at 100,000 people. One year on, media reports suggest it may be anywhere up to 170,000. While lower than its peak in mid-2013, the number of Syrians fleeing their country continues to rise. To date, almost three million people – one of the largest forced migrations since the second world war – have left their homeland. In July, Human Rights Watch reported that, in defiance of a unanimous UN security council resolution passed in February, the Syrian government continues to rain barrel bombs indiscriminately upon populated areas. HRW calculated there have been 650 such attacks – an average of five a day – since the UN resolution. If, indeed, Labour halted the ‘rush to war’ last summer, this will have been largely lost on the people of Syria.

Tackling the consequences of the west’s inaction does not appear to have stirred Britain’s political conscience much, either. By the end of June, only 50 Syrian refugees had arrived in Britain since the government decided in January to admit some of the displaced, albeit narrowing that generosity to only the most severely traumatised. Sadly, this pitiful performance sparked little attention, let alone outrage. As James Bloodworth argued in the March edition of Progress, what we are witnessing is the ‘Ukipification’ of Britain’s foreign policy – the belief that, as a nation, we have too many problems of our own and that what occurs beyond our borders is none of our business anyway.

The paucity of thinking behind this view is apparent in recent events in Iraq. The Medievalist Isis warriors who have swept out of Syria into Iraq, threatening genocide against the Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac Christian and Yazidi peoples of Iraq and menacing our allies in Kurdistan are our creation: the direct consequence of the west’s failure to support and arm the moderate Syrian opposition, which Isis also looks close to destroying. It is clear that only by arming the Kurds and conducting airstrikes against Isis can a humanitarian catastrophe by prevented.

The opponents of the Iraq war regularly warned of the ‘blowback’ from that conflict, linking it to radicalisation and terrorism at home. But, as the former cabinet minister Hazel Blears warned last month, inaction in Syria could have consequences at home, too. As the death toll has risen remorselessly, she suggested, an environment has been created in which ‘you can understand the motivation for young people to want to go out and do something about it’. It is not hard to envisage the threat these home-grown Jihadists, battle-hardened and radicalised, will pose on their return to Britain. The left, moreover, has always claimed to believe that foreign policy should be about more than narrow national self-interest.

The wars of the last decade show that intervention comes with a heavy price tag. But from the Spanish civil war in the 1930s to Rwanda and Bosnia, we have also learned that inaction is hardly without cost.

It is true, as the former foreign secretary, David Miliband, suggested at the weekend that the Iraq war has engendered a deep suspicion of intervention. But whatever stand people took on the war a decade ago, they should, surely, be able to agree upon Britain’s moral responsibility today to protect those at risk of genocide in Iraq. That the government and opposition seem so reticent to discharge that responsibility is both tragic and shameful.


Photo: Mustafa Khayat

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress


  • Start by thinking how a future Labour Government might so strengthen its commitment to working with our European neighbours that the UK is better trusted when intervention is discussed. Individuals have moral responsibility. Nations have interests.

  • Agree wholeheartedly with the final comment. It’s so unfortunate that the results of our actions in 2003 have led us as a country to choose such inaction in 2013, with devastating consequences

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