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Fifty Parliamentary Gems – British MPs at last begin to speak sense on military intervention

War and peacePosted by john sloboda Sat, August 31, 2013 09:37:08

Below is my personal selection of 50 important (and quotable) statements made by MPs arguing against UK military involvement in Syria, extracted from Hansard ( They are listed in time order in which they appeared in the debate, with name and political affiliation of each speaker.

In the media hype that has followed this unprecedented vote, crude brush-stroke characterisations have by and large bypassed the careful and well-made contributions from so many sides of the house.

It is important that the detail of the debate is attended to, both for what was said, and for who said it. The debate was a profound turning point for British political life, and particularly our foreign and defence policy. For the first time in living memory, the House of Commons showed itself to be mature and thoughtful about issues which, in recent years, it has shown appallingly bad judgement.

For almost the first time since I took an interest in politics, I am proud of the British Parliament, and have hope that, at last, sufficient MPs have begun to take on board perspectives that they have ignored for so long, and that we may be witnessing the beginning of a profound re-alignment of the UK’s stance on what constitutes the appropriate use of its military forces.

The 50 statements

1. In our minds should be this simple question: in upholding international law and legitimacy, how can we make the lives of the Syrian people better? Ed Milliband. (Lab)

2. It is incumbent on us to try to build the widest support among the 15 members of the Security Council, whatever the intentions of particular countries. The level of international support is vital, should we decide to take military action. It is vital in the eyes of the world. That is why it cannot be seen as some sideshow or some “moment”, but is an essential part of building the case, if intervention takes place. Ed Milliband (Lab).

3. Any proposed action to deter the use of chemical weapons must be judged against the consequences that will follow. Further work by the Government is necessary to set out what those consequences would be. Ed Milliband (Lab)

4. We all know that stability cannot be achieved by military means alone. The continued turmoil in the country and the region in recent months and years further demonstrates the need to ensure that we uphold the fate of innocent civilians, the national interest and the security and future prosperity of the whole region and the world. I know that the whole House recognises that this will not and cannot be achieved through a military solution. Ed Milliband (Lab)

5. Whatever the justification on 18 March 2003, the fact was that there was an egregious intelligence failure, and it has had profound consequences, not only across the middle east but in British politics, through the fraying of those bonds of trust between the electors and the elected that are so essential to a healthy democracy. Jack Straw (Lab).

6. This morning, we woke up to hear the President of the United States, Barack Obama, saying that by acting in “a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across”Assad’s bow. Let us pause and consider the metaphor that was chosen by the President, because it is revealing. A shot across the bow is a warning that causes no damage and no casualties—shells fired over the bridge of a naval vessel. In this case, it might be a Tomahawk missile that is targeted to fly over Damascus and land in the unoccupied deserts beyond. That cannot be what the President has in mind. We need to know what he really has in mind and what the consequences of that will be. There will be casualties from any military action—some military and almost certainly many civilian. Jack Straw (Lab).

7. This is not a choice between action and inaction; it is simply a choice of what action should be taken. Some of us worry that military action might exacerbate the situation, rather than make it better, and draw us into mission creep, over which we would have very little control. Chris Bryant (Lab)

8. To go to war with Assad—that is what it would be—without the sanction of a UN Security Council resolution would set a terrible precedent. After the mission creep of the Libyan operation, it would amount to nothing less than a clear statement by the US and its allies that we were the arbiters of international right and wrong when we felt that right was on our side. What could we do or say if, at some point, the Russians or Chinese adopted a similar argument? What could we say if they attacked a country without a UN resolution because they claimed it was right and cited our action as a precedent? Dame Tessa Jowell (Lab).

9. The US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff wrote to the Senate armed services committee last month….about having examined five options. He said that controlling chemical weapons would involve billions of dollars each month and involve risks that “not all chemical weapons would be controlled, extremists could gain better access to remaining weapons, similar risks to no-fly zone but with the added risk to…troops on the ground.” Dame Tessa Jowell (Lab)

10. It respectfully seems to me that we need to examine the matter not in response to the emotion that it undoubtedly engenders in all of us. Emotion is no substitution for judgment in matters of this kind. We must look beyond what might be achieved in the short term, to the medium term and the long term. Sir Menzies Campbell (Lib)

11. I urge the Government to renew their efforts to find a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. Do we think that Tomahawk cruise missiles fired into Syria will make that easier or more difficult? It is clearly understood that this civil war is intractable and that there is little willingness to compromise. Earlier today, I heard an appeal by Sakhr al-Makhadhi, the London-based Syria expert and commentator. He said that the people of Syria, from all backgrounds, are crying out for help to resolve the civil war. Please can the UK Government focus their attention on working with the United States and the Russian Federation, and all others who have influence in the region, including Iran, to bring the different Syrian sides to the negotiating table? Angus Robertson (SNP)

12. There is no automatic approval of, or even trust in, a prime ministerial judgment on an issue such as this involving the country in military action without overwhelming justification, evidence and thorough debate. John McDonnell (Lab)

13. It must be objectively clear that there is no practical alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved. I do not believe that it has been demonstrated that all practical alternatives have been exhausted. In particular, discussions around the permanent stationing of UN weapons inspectors in Syria to prevent the use of these weapons have not been exhausted. That, linked to an insistence on the participation of all sides in a UN peace conference, has not been exhausted. John McDonnell (Lab)

14. Military intervention does not just cost lives; it undermines the credibility of the international institutions that we look to to secure peace in the world and, in the long run, it undermines peace settlements across the globe. Therefore, I believe that we should focus on conflict prevention and conflict resolution and not support military aggression. John McDonnell (Lab)

15. The conversations that have been had with the media over the past few days have talked about Syria not having impunity for the use of chemical weapons. The word “impunity” implies that there is a new doctrine of punishment as a reason for going to war—not deterrence, not self-defence, not protection, but punishment. I believe that, if that is a new doctrine, it needs considerably wider international consensus than currently exists. James Arbuthnot (C)

16. During my time in this House, chemical weapons have been used against the Kurds; they were used in the Iran-Iraq war; and they were used against the people in Gaza, in the form of phosphorous bombs—certainly a chemical bomb. Is not the real reason we are here today not the horror at these weapons—if that horror exists—but as a result of the American President having foolishly drawn a red line, so that he is now in the position of either having to attack or face humiliation? Is that not why we are being drawn into war? Paul Flynn (Lab)

17. The timing of the decision must also be questioned. If, as some of us believe, the decision on military action has already been made in Washington and agreed by the UK Government, that is the real reason why we are here: because Washington feels that there should be some bombs falling this weekend. Many atrocities have taken place in the two years since the conflict began. Surely those seeking to take military action could wait a few days longer, to ensure that their facts are straight. Elfyn Llwyd (PC).

18. From the leaked reports on the one hand we are getting stories that the attack was ordered by Assad’s brother in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt on the leadership, and on the other hand hearing that there is intercept evidence that somebody who was unauthorised was responsible and that there was a telephone conversation in which somebody said, “Why on earth did you do this?” and a panicked reaction to the unauthorised release of poison gas. The point is that it is very far from certain that the evidence stacks up. The Intelligence and Security Committee is cleared to see classified material well up to the level of the material that the JIC and the Prime Minister have seen. I see no reason why those of us who have been cleared for such access should not have it. Julian Lewis (C)

19. If Assad is behaving irrationally and if he is so desperate, what is to prevent him, if he is attacked militarily by us on the perceived basis of intelligence supplied by Israel, from retaliating with a chemical attack against Israel? What will Israel do? It will retaliate in turn. What will America, Iran and Russia do then? I began my speech by referring to the first world war. Next year, we will commemorate the centenary of the events of August 1914. Those events have a worrying parallel. At that time, a series of actions and reactions drew in, in an escalating fashion, one country after another. Nobody thought that the assassination of an obscure archduke would lead to a world conflagration. As Admiral Lord West has said, this is a powder keg, and we should not be lobbing weapons into the heart of such combustible material. Julian Lewis (C)

20. If action is taken, what would the action be? What would its impact be? How many casualties, including among civilians, would it cause? Would Assad say, “Oh, dearie me, I must be a nice boy now”? Anyone who has been in Syria, as I was when I was shadow Foreign Secretary and was trying to liberate our hostages in Lebanon, knows that this is not a nice regime that will behave as we want. The Foreign Secretary said he wanted to punish Assad, but an Assad punished would be worse than an Assad as he is now. Sir Gerald Kaufman (Lab)

21. There is plenty of forensic evidence that will come out of the UN investigation and out of other data that we can obtain by other methods. It is not a question of panic; it is a question of getting the facts right before we act. It is very simple: when we are going to do things which will lead to the death of people, civilians in particular, we should get our facts right first. David Davis (C).

22. On a practical level, we believe that any military activity will be counter-productive and will not save lives but in fact cost them. As was said earlier, it is no more pleasant for a person to be killed by a cruise missile than by gas—they are still dead. Our objective should be to be humanitarian and protect lives. Alasdair McDonnell (SDLP).

23. I wish also to pose the question of how the sight of a British and US-led attack is likely to be perceived across the middle east, not just in Syria, especially if it is carried out without credible UN backing or on the basis of uncertain or confused intelligence. That would risk handing the Syrian regime a major propaganda victory at a pivotal point, which its supporters could rally around. The impact on the wider region is even more uncertain and potentially volatile. Even if such action could ever be morally justified, which I and my colleagues do not accept, there surely needs to be a serious prospect of an endgame that has an outcome of success and of benefit in some shape or form. Alasdair McDonnell (SDLP).

24. I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to Iraq and its consequences. We have all been left scarred by Iraq. Many in this House and in Government will have convinced themselves of the courses of action that should be taken, but they have not convinced the public. I think the public know better. The public have long and bitter memories of Iraq and Afghanistan. All the promises and assurances issued then were not worth the paper they were written on. The public remember the contrived situation, the misleading of this House and the needless deaths of so many soldiers and countless civilians. While I would find it difficult, if not impossible, ever to tolerate or support military intervention, I believe that this House should contemplate such action against Syria only if it were UN approved and if we were convinced that it would improve the situation. Alasair McDonnell (SDLP)

25. I wish the Government well. If they really can come up with a way of stopping Assad murdering his own people, nobody will be happier than me. Everyone in the House would be extremely happy. But the Government have to understand the scepticism of the British people. Assad is mad and bad and it will not be easy to stop him. I fear that we will not be able to do it in a half-hearted manner with a few cruise missiles in the hope that he will not retaliate. John Redwood (C)

26. We are told that intervention could be legally justified without a Security Council resolution under the UN’s responsibility to protect, but the 2005 UN world summit outcome document, in which the Heads of State unanimously approved the new international norm of the responsibility to protect, subsequently approved by UN Security Council resolution 1674, states clearly that it is still subject to UN Security Council agreement. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who co-chaired a working group on the responsibility to protect, again stressed that it is to be implemented in accordance with the UN charter. That means that the central decision-making authority is the UN Security Council. The conclusion from all this is clearly, if inconveniently for the Government, that military action against a sovereign state, other than in self-defence, without the authority of the Security Council cannot be justified under the responsibility to protect. Caroline Lucas (Green)

27. The Government’s position would be far stronger if instead of coming here proposing military action, they had come here to tell us that they were having serious discussions with the new Government in Iran and a new round of talks with Russia, and that they were trying to build a consensus in the region to bring about what must happen at some point—a political solution to this crisis. Jeremy Corbyn (Lab)

28. We should have seen the Attorney-General’s full legal opinion….. this one-and-a-half-side summary is simply unacceptable. Caroline Lucas (Green).

29. We need to strain every sinew to get all relevant parties around the table for peace talks. On so many levels, as others have said, this is a proxy war, which is why we need China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and many others involved as well. Caroline Lucas (Green)

30. Are we going actively to degrade chemical weapons? There are hideous practical problems in attempting that, with the potential of awful collateral damage. If we go after the command and control structure in a way that is sufficiently active to degrade it, that plainly means going after Assad himself, thus actively intervening on one side in the conduct of the war. Cristpin Blunt (C)

31. This month, the Egyptian Government have, with malice aforethought, murdered well over 1,000 of their own citizens to suppress people who were supporting what had been previously an elected Government. What are they to think about the fact that we are getting ourselves into a position to intervene over Syria, and yet we have said precious little about a crime that is on the scale of five or 10 times what we are debating here? It has not been part of an insurgency yet, but the Egyptian Government have almost certainly kicked an insurgency off as a result of what they are doing. Crispin Blunt (C)

32. Legitimacy to go to war comes not from the UN, nor from international law or international lawyers, nor even from our own National Security Council. That sort of legitimacy comes only from below, not from above. It comes from the demos and those they elect. When the time comes for that second, crunch, vote, there can be no buck-passing, no deferring to a higher authority, no delegating. It will be our responsibility alone, and all the more weighty for that. Douglas Carswell (C)

33. Democracy and liberalism will one day seem as firmly rooted in the south and east of the Mediterranean as they do to the north, but if spreading democratic values is to be the cornerstone on which we are to build British foreign policy, let us do so consistently. We cannot act in defence of democratic values in Syria two months after we failed to speak out in defence of the democratically elected Government in Egypt. We cannot act when hundreds of civilians are murdered in Damascus, but continue to arm the Egyptian junta that slaughtered a thousand in Cairo. We cannot champion the right of self-determination in one part of the Arab world, yet ignore those who seek basic human rights in another, including the Gulf. I am unconvinced that the Government’s intended course of action in Syria is part of a coherent strategy, and I will not support military action until I am convinced that it is part of such a strategy. Douglas Carswell (C)

34. What are we going to do? Apparently we are going to send in a few Tomahawk land attack missiles to give Assad a bit of a spanking because he has used chemical weapons. That is nonsense and a ridiculous proposition that will lead us to the position that a lot of people have already begun to explain. We cannot write Assad a letter and say, “By the way, the TLAM missile was only to give you a spanking over chemical weapons. It didn’t mean that we were interfering in your conflict in any way, shape or form.” Frankly, that is nonsense. We cannot compartmentalise such activities in the way suggested, and there will be an effect. What will that effect be? Dai Havard (Lab)

35. Many accuse those of us who question the idea of military intervention by saying, “You believe that nothing should be done. You’re in that camp that says, ‘We should wash our hands of it and let them get on with it.’” Utter tosh! So much more could be done on the humanitarian front. The refugee camps are desperately short of basic amenities. Britain has a good record—we have done a lot of the heavy lifting—but we could do a lot more, as could the international community. Tens of thousands of women and children are living in extremely poor conditions, and yet the west is saying, “There’s very little more we can do to help the humanitarian situation,” which is utter nonsense. John Baron (C)

36. The west could also do a lot more on the diplomatic front. It makes no sense whatever to exclude Iran from the forthcoming peace talks, but that is what we currently intend to do. Iran is a key regional player and a participant in this conflict. Excluding Iran from the talks is utter nonsense. We need to go that extra diplomatic mile. This is a cliché, but it is true: you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. We need to talk to the Iranians if we hope for a diplomatic solution. A political and diplomatic solution, and not a military one, is the only long-term solution to this vicious civil war. John Baron (C)

37. We must never under-estimate the cynicism that surrounds our motives and those of our allies. We must never under-estimate the fact that even the most humanitarian of objectives can be misconstrued as a nefarious attempt by the west to project its power. We must never under-estimate the fact that we must first win the battle of perception above all else. Any intervention needs to be demonstrably scrupulous, must involve more than just the usual suspects and must be the last resort of a process that has visibly exhausted all diplomatic means. The recent ratcheting up of rhetoric has come at the expense of reason and has eschewed responsibility. The cacophony of tough words and the insidious indication that attacks could take place as early as this weekend have not facilitated diplomacy or the forging of alliances. David Lammy (Lab)

38. Any military action will, as I said, lead to a completely different attitude among many of our Muslim communities in this country. It will be the catalyst for the build-up of all sorts of extremism. Kate Hoey (Lab)

39. Many of us are reluctant about matters involving peace and war because we previously sat here and listened to a Prime Minister tell us from the Dispatch Box what I now believe to have been a fabric of lies. I cannot sit here and be duped again by any Prime Minister, whether of my party or the Labour party.
My constituents’ instinct is also against any direct UK military action. Like, I am sure, all my colleagues throughout the House, I have received not just form e-mails sent by some lobbying organisation but individually composed e-mails showing the strength of feeling and fear that lie in the British population. Cheryl Gillan (C)

40. This is not the debate that the House expected to have, it is certainly not the debate that No. 10 was planning, and it is not the one that the media predicted would happen, but there have none the less been some excellent contributions. Despite the fact that there will be another debate and vote next week, this has been a useful exercise in testing the issues at stake. Jim Fitzpatrick (Lab)

41. There have been many contributions to the debate in which colleagues have said, “If we do this, that will happen. If we do not do that, this will happen.” Only one thing is absolutely guaranteed: nobody knows what will happen if we go down the road of military action. We have seen that too often in recent decades. The difficulty I have is the fact that we do not have an exit strategy. Jim Fitzpatrick (Lab)

42. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Colin Powell cited the Pottery Barn rule—Pottery Barn is a string of American china shops. The rule is, “You break it? You own it.” The notion that we can make a military intervention on the narrow point of chemical weapons is disingenuous to say the least. Were we to intervene militarily in Syria, we would take ownership of the outcome of the civil war. I see no endgame, no idea of what victory would look like in those circumstances. Diane Abbott (Lab)
43. Assad is lucky, of course, that we are having this debate not in 2002, but in 2013. The year 2003, which so many have referred to, intervened. We must not beat around the bush—Tony Blair and his Administration were dishonest. The result has been to injure our democracy to a degree that no other single action has done, I believe, in the 85 years since women gained full voting equality. And so we are in a position now where our decision now is being influenced by that failure in 2003, and we are asked to draw lessons from that. Ben Gummer (C)
44. What is the difference between an innocent child—a non-combatant—being killed by a conventional weapon and that child being killed with a chemical weapon? It does not much matter to them or their family, because it is still a horrendous death of an innocent. We therefore need to ask whether we are being consistent in saying that this is the red line and it is appropriate for us to take this action. Andrew George (Lib)

45. This has been a great two days for Parliament; I think we have won. This time yesterday morning, the motion would have been used to justify war, perhaps this very weekend. War is not going to happen. The Prime Minister has listened to his Back Benchers. We made it perfectly clear to our Whips yesterday afternoon that we were not prepared to vote for any motion that justified war, and so the Prime Minister has offered us another motion. This is not a motion for war. I will not vote for war. I would never vote for war against Syria. If there is a second vote, I will definitely vote against, but I do not believe there ever will be a second vote, because I do not believe that the parliamentary arithmetic stacks up. It does not stack up because MPs are doing their job and listening to what the public want, and the voice of the public is completely clear: they do not want war. They are scarred by what went on in Iraq. We were lied to in Parliament and we are not going to go down that route again. I voted against the Iraq war and I will vote against this one. Sir Edward Leigh (C)

46. What would it achieve? That is what we must ask ourselves. Why is it any of our business? Has Syria ever been a colony? Has it ever been in our sphere of interest? Has it ever posed the remotest threat to the British people? Our job in Parliament is to look after our own people. Our economy is not in very good shape. Neither are our social services, schools or hospitals. It is our job to think about problems here. If I am told that we are burying our heads in the sand, I would ask: are there anguished debates in other Parliaments all over Europe about whether to bomb Syria? No, they are getting on with running their own countries, and so should we. Sir Edward Leigh (C)

47. Although we have spoken with great moral certitude in this debate, the fact is that our contribution to an attack on Syria would be infinitesimal. Have we not degraded our own armed forces in the past three years, contrary to repeated warnings from myself and others? Do we have an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean? In reality, we would simply be hanging on to the coat tails of President Obama. He was foolish enough to issue a red line. His credibility is on the line, not the credibility of the British people or ourselves. We do not have to follow him in this foolish gesture. Sir Edward Leigh (C)

48. There are two occasions where military action can be justified. The first is where British interests are imminently threatened, and clearly that is not the case in this particular debate. The other is as part of a UN-sponsored humanitarian mission to prevent dictators from causing damage to their own people. I am not convinced that the Government have made that case this evening. The reality is this; there is an evil dictator, but the opposition to that evil dictator is even worse. These are people who will oppose the west at all costs and will cause damage to their own people. They are barbaric and inhuman and we should not support them in any shape or form. I would not support any regime change, or attempted regime change. Bob Blackman (C)

49. Syria is a satellite state of Russia. Do we think that the Russian Government will sit idly by and allow the US and Britain to bomb one of their satellite states? They will react in some way, shape or form. So we should be clear that, if we embark on military action, there will be direct military consequences for the whole region and for this country. We should send a message to President Assad, if we are convinced that he and his regime are responsible for the chemical attacks, to say, “Identify those who are responsible. Make them come before the criminal courts,” so that they can be punished in the best way possible, through due process of law. Bob Blackman (C)

Thank goodness we have a British parliamentary democracy. We MPs can come here and influence the decision of the Executive. Everybody knows that MPs from both sides of the House have influenced the Prime Minister to change the position of the Executive. In the States, there are 100 Congressmen begging the President to let them debate the issue. We are so much better off in this House. Peter Bone (C)

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