The defeat of David Cameron in the British parliament is without precedent. The last time a British prime minister was humiliated by his own members of Parliament on a war resolution was in 1782. Then the House of Commons refused to support any more military action against the revolutionaries in the United States. Now the House of Commons is saying no to more war in the Middle East.
In both cases a pro-war Tory premier was repudiated by his own followers. In the decade since 2003, Britain has gone from being America’s best friend to standing up for an alternative policy to the endless use of cruise missile and bombs to try and change politics in the Arab world.
Now only France appears to want to pick up and wear the deputy sheriff’s badge that the House of Commons has just ripped off Mr. Cameron’s chest. After more than a decade of military attacks on Muslim-majority nations, the mood in Britain is simply one of “that’s enough.” The endless sacrifice of young lives in Iraq and Afghanistan is seen, as in Vietman, to be pointless. Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron sought to cover themselves with the laurels of war with their attack on Libya. But today in Libya there is permanent violence spilling south as well as increasing instability in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.
The fury over Europe’s impotence in face of the descent into civil wars in Yugoslavia after 1990 led to the doctrine of the right to intervene and the duty to protect. It justified – rightly – the military action taken to stop the Serbian genocidal massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. But this doctrine was too easily perverted into an absolute right by any Western, white power to attack any Muslim countries that are seen as a threat, as sheltering terrorists or as doing ugly things to their people.
To be sure, the murders of innocents in Ghouta shocked the world. Today in Washington, serious doubts are being raised as to whether the use of gas is 100 per cent attributable to Bashar al-Assad. Syria has become a proxy battlefield for the Saudi-Iran conflict, and as in Afghanistan in the 1980s a new training ground for Islamist jihadis. The British intelligence services believe 100 British Muslim fanatics are now fighting in Syria, learning all the techniques that can be used to target British citizens in the fascistic cause promoted by Islamists.
In the 1870s, the great British liberal politician, William Gladstone, tried to create a climate of fury against the Ottoman Empire as he described their atrocities in the Balkans in gruesome detail. He wanted Britain to “punish” Turkey. But a cynical, old, Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, said No to war. Today, a young, inexperienced, Anglican prime minister, David Cameron, sought to commit Britain to warlike action but was stopped by his own parliament.
The Labour Party under its new leader, Ed Miliband, is not anti-war. Mr. Miliband supported Mr. Cameron in Libya. But Labour has learnt the lessons of failure in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and now is much more cautious. It was 70 of Mr Cameron’s own MPs voting with Labour who caused Thursday’s historic defeat.
This reflects the deep unhappiness in the Conservative Party at Mr. Cameron’s leadership. The right in Britain is decomposing on issues like Europe, taxation, economic growth, immigrants and gay marriage. The vote was a reflection of British public opinion. The British are now less ready to give a blank cheque to any prime minister wanting to go into a war initiated and controlled by Washington.
Thursday night’s vote does not answer the question of what is to done in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. But it does suggest that the days when cruise missiles were a substitute for politics and diplomacy are over.
Now the strangest silence in Europe is that of the French Socialist Party and the National Assembly in Paris. Will France follow Britain? Or is socialist France now the only friend the warmakers in Washington have in Europe?
Denis MacShane is a former Europe Minister in Britain.