The vote to bomb ISIL in Syria
The Commons surprise vote in August 2013 rejecting armed intervention in the civil war in Syria was undoubtedly David Cameron’s worst-ever parliamentary defeat. That moment reverberated when, two years later in the wake of the Paris attacks, he returned to the Commons with a motion to allow British forces to strike at ISIL, or Daesh, in Syria.
He warned MPs that ISIL was plotting Paris-style attacks against Britain and had already targeted this county. ‘We face a fundamental threat to our security. ISIL has brutally murdered British hostages. They have inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7 on the beaches of Tunisia and they have plotted atrocities on the streets here at home. Since November last year our security services have foiled no fewer than seven different plots against our people, so this threat is very real. The question is this: do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands from where they are plotting to kill British people, or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?”
He was attempting to rally all-party support for the use of British forces in Syria – they were already launching ideal partners but if action was not taken now, those forces would soon be reduced.
Another issue was the position of Labour MPs. In 2013, the Opposition Leader at the time, Ed Miliband, had not been prepared to back the Government. By 2015, a combination of horror at the brutality of ISIL and at the Paris attacks meant there were many who supported the use of armed force and would defy any attempt to make them vote against it. Crucially, their number included the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn.
Jeremy Corbyn was opposed to extending the bombing but, under huge pressure, had allowed his MPs a free vote. ‘It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister understands that public opinion is moving increasingly against what I believe to be an ill thought out rush to war. He wants to hold this vote before opinion against it grows even further.’
Another key force in the debate was the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee which had earlier published a report raising a series of questions about any intervention which the Prime Minister was careful to answer in detail. Its Chair, the Conservative Crispin Blunt MP, said Britain’s military effort in Iraq had helped stabilise the country in the face of a rapidly advancing threat from ISIL and he now supported extending that effort to across the border into Syria.
Winding up the debate for Labour was Hilary Benn who took the opposite view to Jeremy Corbyn. ‘The carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger that we face from Daesh. It could just as easily have been London, Glasgow, Leeds or Birmingham and it could still be.’ He said the UK could not leave its defence to others and asked what message inaction would send to Britain’s allies – France, in particular.
He listed some of their atrocities: the gay men thrown off the fifth storey of a building in Syria, the mass graves in Sinjar said to contain the bodies of older Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex, the killing of 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruç and of 130 people in Paris ‘including those young people in the Bataclan, whom Daesh, in trying to justify its bloody slaughter, called apostates engaged in prostitution and vice. If it had happened here they could have been our children.
‘We are faced by fascists – not just their calculated brutality but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this Chamber tonight and all the people we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy – the means by which we will make our decision tonight – in contempt… My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. That is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.’
While Jeremy Corbyn folded his arms and looked away, Mr Benn sat down to rapturous cheers and even applause from both sides of the House. A few minutes later the Government motion was carried with 66 supporters from the Labour benches outweighing the seven Conservative opponents.