What denotes a country’s international standing? It’s economic, military or foreign policy? It’s record on human rights or humanitarian assistance? It’s democratic procedures, or former empire or scientific influence? Ask ten people and you will get ten different answers. Yet international standing in the past few days has been construed by some politicians and press as being the willingness to join the USA in military action. The Sun’s ridiculous front page yesterday of the ‘death notice’ of our special relationship with the USA summed up this opinion, as if Britain’s greatness has depended all along on agreeing with our American cousins.
The truth is that I believe Great Britain’s international standing rose last week. A democratically elected parliament voted not to sanction airstrikes on Syria. Reporters on the ground in the Middle East described the astonishment of local people, not that the vote was ‘no’, but that we had a live, public debate in which men and women from all walks of life and of different political persuasions were able to freely take part. The powerful witness of democracy in action should not be underestimated. In a whipped party political system where speeches on the floor of the House usually have no bearing on the result obtained, integrity trumped loyalty for those who could not accede to force. For the foreign secretary it was a salient moment: in his biography of William Wilberforce, William Hague had said when remarking on Wilberforce’s oratorical ability and persuasiveness that “the subsequent rise of disciplined political parties would ultimately render [these abilities] almost worthless”. The vote last week showed that debate, reason and persuasion on the floor of the House has not been neutered.
Public anger at the use of chemical weapons is now being added to by the disrespect that certain politicians and press are showing towards both the democratic process and our country. “Britain’s head is held low” they wail. “We have been humiliated” they cry, “We’re now just an embarrassed spectator”.