Left Watch

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The strange death of liberal interventionist Labour

By Harry Phibbs
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How would Tony Blair have voted on Thursday night had he still been an MP? Given his article in The Times one can only conclude that his only objection to the Government's motion would be that it was not stronger.

Several have noted that Mr Blair damaged his own cause of liberal intervention around the globe by exaggerating the evidence to go to war in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. That is not to say that the war was unjustified. The difficulty was that Mr Blair used dishonest means to secure approval for that conflict. He felt the ends justified the means.

Yet it is still remarkable the extent to which that legacy has prompted the Labour Party's internationalist credentials to be abandoned. Not a single Labour MP voted for the Government's motion on Syria. I can only identify four - Ben Bradshaw, Meg Munn, John Woodcock and Ann Clywd - who were present for the debate but abstained on the Government's motion. The Labour MP Mike Gapes clearly believes a military strike would be the right thing to do - yet he voted against the Government.

The Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy is a member of the Henry Jackson Society advisory council. He surely believes that what David Cameron said was true. Mr Murphy could have resigned and voted with the Government. It might have made a difference. But he didn't. You don't really expect much from George Galloway. I can understand why Michael Gove directed his anger at Mr Murphy.

The former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Robertson, who went on to be Secretary General of NATO, made a powerful, but little noticed speech in the House of Lords.

Lord Robertson felt the West's response was not too rapid and intense, but needed to be stronger:

I agree with the Government, and with other allied Governments, that there must be a response to the events of 21 August in Damascus. To do nothing in the face of this illegal, obscene, despicable and, indeed, desperate use of poison gas would in itself be a positive act. It would be in many ways to legitimise an instrument of war that has been outlawed for almost 100 years and it would open the door to much further and wider use of these chemical weapons. Effectively, it would end the responsibility to protect that has now been established by the UN General Assembly.

What we do now in response to the atrocity of 21 August has to be the beginning and not the end of what we do about the crisis of Syria and its neighbourhood. To pretend that taking action now, whatever it might be, would end our involvement in Syria is naive, short-sighted and profoundly dangerous....

To those who say that any action carries the risk of siding with one side in a civil war, I say this, which has not yet been said even by the Government: we have already taken sides. We do not recognise President Assad as the President of Syria. This country and two dozen others recognise the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

We have taken sides. All we have not done is very much about it and it is time that we did, not only by preventing the human catastrophe of another chemical weapons attack, but by helping and supporting—indeed, arming—the anti-Assad forces which we recognise as the legitimate representatives of the people; by creating truly safe areas for refugees, learning all the lessons of what not to do from Bosnia; and by being generous with Jordan and the other countries that are bearing the unbearable burdens of the spillover.

We need to make it clear that genocidal killing and ethnic cleansing by artillery, rockets, grenades and guns, as well as poison gas, are at least as evil and need to be treated in the same way.

 Interviewed by John Piennar for Radio 5 live, the Labour leader said (4 minutes 31 seconds in):

"I've been guided at all times by only one thing which is what is in the British national interest."

"Only one thing"? Leave aside for a moment the suspicions that partisan considerations have come into the equation, and assume that his comment is sincere. Of course the national interest is important - and many believe it is in our national interest to have a military intervention in Syria. But "only one thing"? Isn't preventing the gassing of children, whether relevant or not to our national interest, a concern that should also guide the leader of the Labour Party?

Of course it was appalling that Tony Blair was such a dishonest Prime Minister and employed Alastair Campbell as his spin doctor. But the substance of Mr Blair's policy on Iraq - also on Afghanistan, on Sierra Leone, on Kosovo - was right.

Now Labour are diminished. They are the "not today, thank you" party. The "be that as it may, that's no concern of mine" party. An inward looking, mean spirited, small minded party.