WMN opinion: Syria vote is reality check on UK's role in the world
The fall-out from the Commons vote on Thursday night that effectively prevents any British military involvement in an attack on the Syrian regime is going to rumble on for weeks. From questions about how seriously it damages David Cameron's authority to the impact it has on Ed Miliband, the political ramifications are significant. But yesterday one question dominated: Does this vote diminish Britain's role as a major player around the world and the closest ally of the United States in situations of global conflict? The answer must be yes. Those, including Labour's Jack Straw, who don't accept that analysis, point to the fact that it was the same Parliament and the same administration as this one that backed military action in Libya less than two years ago. Mr Straw also claimed that it was the special circumstances of the Syria civil war plus the ineffective way the West has managed its response which led to British MPs – reflecting the views of the British people – to reject military action.
But that must be only partly true. What is significant about this decision by Parliament is that, for the first time in a long time, a significant proportion of MPs – though by no means all – listened to the mood of the country and voted accordingly. After Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq, the notorious 'dodgy dossier' and the now hugely discredited warning that British forces were within 45 minutes of an attack from Saddam, appetite for military expeditions in pursuit of uncertain ends has been considerably diminished among British voters. It has been further quashed by years of action in Afghanistan – now about to end – with significant loss of life but difficult to discern national advantage, apart from the questionable claim that it has helped to reduce the threat from terrorism.
The fact is, with a substantially reduced Royal Navy, an Army subject to major cuts and an RAF that has seen pilots laid off and planes laid up, Britain is no longer in a position to sustain military action on several fronts over a long period. And while what was being proposed on Syria was a short, sharp shock to deter further chemical weapon attacks, the question of what would follow if that failed was never satisfactorily answered. And it is surely a rule of any military intervention that you should not start what you cannot finish.
Britons are weary of seeing their military forces engaged in other people's wars. They are concerned that with economic hardship at home it is unreasonable for the UK to behave as if, with the US, it must be a policeman to the world. We are still a great nation, still a major player in the United Nations and as part of Nato. But if this Commons vote and the steadily changing national attitude towards getting involved in overseas wars that led up to it, leads to a more inward looking Britain – a little more concerned with the plight of its own people, a little less keen to tackle the plight of those abroad – many will be relieved.
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