According to some, Britain woke up a different country on Friday morning. But how much has really changed? Of course what happened matters, both in terms of democracy at home and the part we play in the world. But the government’s defeat is part of a much longer, occasionally painful process of adjustment whose outcomes are by no means as clear cut as some suggest.
For years, despite its claim to be “the mother of parliaments”, Britain stood out as having one of the weakest legislatures in western Europe, the paucity of its powers vis-à-vis the executive rivalled only by France’s notoriously impotent assemblée nationale. The desire to do something about that situation, however, has been growing for decades, and led, at last, to the Wright committee reforms. That some of its proposals to give MPs greater control over how Westminster works were eventually allowed to emerge was primarily down to Gordon Brown’s deep-seated desperation to distinguish himself from Tony Blair.
But it also had more than a little to do with the fact that David Cameronwas equally concerned to come over as a breath of fresh air to voters grown tired of government that didn’t seem to listen – a desire that also led him to run (or at least flirt) with Brown’s idea of slimming down some of the crown’s prerogative powers, up to and including the untrammelled freedom to commit the country to military action.
Blair himself had implicitly conceded the principle back in 2003, in agreeing to put the invasion of Iraq to a vote. And Cameron’s decision to repeat the exercise on Libya effectively turned it into a convention, in so doing adding in time-honoured tradition to myriad unwritten rules that make up this country’s famously uncodified constitution.
Still, it is one thing for a parliament to believe it has the power to do something, quite another to discover –as it did on Thursday night – that it can actually do it. That much at least has changed, and changed irrevocably.
Whether, however, refusing permission for military action will become parliament’s default setting is surely more of a moot point. Thursday’s vote, after all, was on a specific motion about a specific country at a specific time – not a rejection of the principle of a British government deploying military force, or even of deploying it in concert with the US. It may well be that politicians will now have to work much harder than an initially complacent Cameron did to convince people that military action makes practical as well as moral sense. If so, however, Thursday’s vote is far more a symptom than a cause of the new normal.
As for the idea that the government’s defeat somehow spells the end of the UK’s special relationship with America, where does one start? For one thing, that relationship has survived possibly even greater strains before. Was Obama more outraged by Cameron’s withdrawal than Lyndon Johnson was by Harold Wilson’s refusal to help out in Vietnam or Richard Nixon was by Ted Heath’s reluctance to side unequivocally with Israel during the Yom Kippur war? This notion looks especially wrongheaded after Obama’s decision to consult Congress before any action.
For another, as the Edward Snowden affair has recently reminded us, the special relationship is based on day-in-day-out intelligence co-operation that counts far more than whether the UK fires off a few missiles to lend legitimacy to what was always going to be an essentially American operation.Indeed, such is the scale and scope of co-operation between London and Washington that it is difficult to believe, if an attack does go ahead, that British assets will have played no part whatsoever in its planning, if not its delivery. In any case, given the apparent willingness of other EU member states to play a more visible role than the UK in any such operation, and given the fervent Euroscepticism of some of the Tory rebels, it can hardly be that Thursday’s vote represents a long-overdue recognition that this country’s future lies more with its continental partners than its transatlantic cousins.
Our post-imperial illusions on that score, as well as on the issue of how much we matter – and deserve to matter – globally, remain pretty much intact: the prime minister may have had to stay his hand on Syria but he’s a long way from facing serious pressure to admit the game’s up by throwing away Trident or our seat on the UN security council.
Even the impact on domestic party politics is likely to be rather more limited than those piling into – and piling out of – Cameron seem to think. No one, not even those who argue that there may be some mileage in the idea that the PM can at least claim to have listened to parliament and public opinion, is arguing that Thursday night’s defeat was anything other than a humiliation. Yet the Tories are likely to stick with their tarnished leader, even if only faute de mieux.
Nick Clegg’s pro-war stance may well have ended any lingering hope that all those Lib Dem voters who switched to Labour might one day drift back. But even those Labour people who believe that Ed Miliband has basically played a blinder over Syria probably don’t hold out too much hope that what has happened will do any more than, say, his deft handling of Hackgate a couple of years back, to boost his personal or his party’s popularity among floating voters in marginal seats.
Thursday night’s vote, then, has not so much changed things utterly as dramatised developments and dilemmas that have been going on for years and will continue to play out for decades to come. Britain, however infuriatingly, is still the same country.