Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
The vote in the House of Commons to reject proposed military action in the Syrian civil war reverberated around the world. US President Barack Obama has also sought congressional permission before launching any missiles, before this vote was postponed, in response to the use of chemical weapons in the country.
There are several, significant differences between the government motion and Labour’s amendment. Whilst both motions condemn the use of chemical weapons, the government’s motion states this attack was “by the Assad regime”. Labour’s amendment demands the “production of compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible”. The opposition’s amendment omits the split in the UN Security Council over this matter, which Cameron’s motion notes.
Each version backs humanitarian intervention, though specifically of a non-military nature, as Labour “supports steps to provide humanitarian protection”. The debate in the House of Commons centred on the possible use of military force, but this is not prescribed by the government motion, which reads:
[This House] agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focussed on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Also, the motion states on military action: “Before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place.” The amendment places multiple explicit conditions on such action, whereas the original motion wants it to be “legal, proportionate” but “does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives”. Whilst nearly half of the British public are against military intervention in Syria, this was not the intention of either motion. In that respect, the two were quite similar.
The two votes reveal much. Labour’s amendment was supported by 207 Labour MPs, with just 6 voting against, backed by the 3 Plaid Cymru, 6 SNP and 4 of the DUP MPs. The six Labour rebels were Ronnie Campbell, Jim Fitzpatrick, Stephen Hepburn, Sian James, Grahame Morris and Graham Stringer. The government lost their motion by just 13 votes, which is less than the number of Conservative MPs who were absent from the vote. 30 Conservatives voted against the motion, whilst 239 Conservatives and 31 Liberal Democrats supported it. There was one abstention for each party: Tim Loughton and Paul Burstow. 221 Labour MPs voted against the government, sealing the vote. No Conservative MP voted in favour of Labour’s amendment, and no Labour MP voted in favour of the government motion.
The motion itself was broad, trying to include the opposition’s stance. The House was split by a Labour amendment that placed numerous criteria on British military involvement, even though the initial vote was on the principle of a “strong humanitarian response… that may, if necessary, require military action”. These criteria could have been introduced at the second vote, or Miliband could have stated them in advance and then judged the proposed military action against them.
Parliament reflected the people, but only by accident.