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This is democracy - it's good for all of us, so get used to it

By Mark Wallace
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CommonsIn my view, Parliament made a mistake on Thursday. In fact, it made the latest mistake in an series of mistakes Britain has been making for two years.

Had we helped to protect innocent Syrians at the start of the conflict, rather than waiting while Assad slaughtered a hundred thousand of his own people and drove the survivors into the arms of extremists, then things would be very different today.

As it is, we will continue to sit on our hands, like people peering through their curtains while someone is murdered in the street outside. I wrote the other day that we may well say "Never again", yet again, as a result - and come to regret allowing yet another massacre of the type we promised and failed to prevent in Bosnia and Rwanda.

However, it is right that this was Parliament's mistake to make. The Conservative manifesto in 2010 promised that Royal Prerogative powers would be subject to greater democratic oversight, and so they now are. War costs lives and money, but it also changes our national identity in fundamental ways - the people's representatives, not just the Prime Minister, must have a say in deciding to engage in it.

The consequences of the vote will be numerous. More Syrians will die, many of them probably through further uses of chemical weapons. Other dictators and murderous tyrants around the world will be emboldened, using Assad's impunity as a private and public justification for their own atrocities and weapons programes. 

But there will be positive results, too - albeit of little comfort to those alive in Syria today who will not survive 2013 thanks to our inaction.

Already, America has chosen to pursue a more democratic route for making its own war decisions as a result of the British Government's actions. We believe democracy makes Britain stronger and wealthier. By the same token, a more democratic America - and a less gung-ho America - is a better ally to have.

(As an aside, a much-neglected argument in the Syria debate is that greater democracy and freedom abroad is in Britain's self-interest. We know that dictators bring poverty to their countries, weakening our trading opportunities, and destabilise the regions in which they operate. We benefit when others become free, and we lose out when they suffer under the yoke of tyranny - compare and contrast the benefits South and North Korea bring to the British economy.)

More directly beneficial to us is the impact this week's decision will have on British politics. There are plenty of things people can justifiably dislike about the vote - be it Michael Gove's rage at the rebels, Ed Miliband's disgraceful behaviour, Labour MPs' raucous crowing over the result or, for supporters of intervention, what Andrew Roberts calls a policy of "hideous, amoral selfishness".

Each of those is a stain on this new, more democratic, age, but for that reason I doubt they will last. If MPs have the power to make such important decisions, they will have to grow up.

No, Parliament didn't cover itself in glory in the way it behaved on the first occasion it got to use its new powers. But that is often the way in life - maturity takes a while to catch up with new responsibilities. 

We will probably see the same with powers of initiative, if they are given to the people. "Collect a million signatures and you get a referendum" will be a boon to our democracy - certainly we would have had an EU referendum already, for example - but in all likelihood the first such petition will be about whether Simon Cowell should get a haircut that looks less like a toilet brush, or whether Cheryl Cole should publicly apologise for her new bum tattoo.

Newly empowered people will be demob happy, embarrass themselves, and eventually come to realise - through consequences or the stomach-sinking feeling that often follows an ill-judged practical joke - that they must do better in future. 

An uncomfortable first outing is no reason to remove a new power. Growing up involves trial and error, and for too long our MPs have been infantilised by the centre holding too much control. Getting used to the new order of things may see the Commons make different decisions on issues like this - as I might prefer - or it might make the same decision in a better, more mature way. 

One way or the other, this is democracy, and all of us, voters, politicians and the media, had better get used to it.


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