Wednesday, 14 December 2016

MPs and Syria - a defence of politicians

Events in Aleppo shock us all and, as we do when such things happen, we look around for people or organisations at which we can point a finger. "You should have done something," we cry. "Why didn't you act." "Blood is on your hands," "Something must be done."

The most common target for these cries, for this opprobrium is the politician:
Shame on you, Ed Miliband. Look at the “complete meltdown of humanity” that (according to the UN’s spokesman) is Aleppo today. Look at the footage of terror, trauma and dislocation. Then, if you dare, ask what you might have done to prevent it.
I hold no particular love for Ed Miliband and don't consider him the finest example of the political class but I believe this sort of attack illustrates a problem. It is very easy for someone who is not a politician, in this case the journalist Matthew d'Ancona, to lay into the choices that a politician makes about war. Mr d'Ancona - or for that matter, any other commenters - did not have to spent hours thinking through the consequences of a decision to put lives at risk. And in the case of Syria - as we've seen with Iraq and seen with Afghanistan - the decision makers are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

I refuse to indulge in this attack on politicians for making difficult - life and death - decisions. I am grateful that, back in August 2013, I was not one of those MPs charged with the decision to approve military action in Syria. One part of me looks at the events in Syria before that date and cries for justice, for someone to stop the atrocities visited on innocent Syrians - I recall a work colleague who spoke of how her brother-in-law's family had been exterminated for being seen as on the wrong side of a line they didn't know about.

But another part of me remembers thinking this about Iraq and Afghanistan. Innocent civilians dying beneath our bombs however carefully targeted those bombs might have been. And British servicemen killed and maimed fighting a humanitarian war in a place they'd never heard of before they'd signed up to defend their country.

I don't know how I would have voted had I been an MP that day but, as a politician of sorts, I'm not ready to condemn Ed Miliband or anyone else for making the decision they made back in 2013. Away from the actual decision-making it's very easy isn't it.

"Launch the bombers!"

"Send in the troops."

Yet in making these decisions we condemn people to die - either because we did act or because we didn't act. So when MPs sat and debated Syria - including many now focused on the terrible scenes unfolding in Aleppo - they had to weigh up what might be the consequences of action or inaction knowing that, however much pundits like Matthew d'Ancona might shout, there is no obvious and right course of action.

Instead of finding some politician to blame let's think of the majority of MPs, from whichever party, sitting with a cup or tea or a glass of beer thinking about how to vote on committing Britain to war. For some there'll be family and friends to help (or perhaps hinder) their thoughts, for others it's entirely lonely. A few of the gung ho or ideologically-driven will, uncaringly, find the decision easy but most MPs will waver and haver over whether to drop British bombs on Syrian targets.

Perhaps we should have decided to bomb Syria in August 2013. Maybe the events of the last few days are the consequence, in part, of us deciding not to drop those bombs. Whatever, with the sunlight of glorious hindsight, seems to be right or wrong, we should not blame MPs for hesitating before committing to risk the lives of British servicemen and Syrian civilians. Above all we were not sat in the House of Commons that day charged with the horrible task of choosing between death and destruction or death and destruction with British involvement. We do not live with that decision, with those dead bodies - politicians do.


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