Asked by the Guardian about his legacy when he stood down as prime minister in 2007, Tony Blair replied immediately, “liberal interventionism”.
David Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons last week has left the policy of using Western military power for “humanitarian” purposes in tatters.
No wonder Blair and his cronies—for example, Paddy Ashdown, the ex-MI6 officer who followed his spell as Liberal Democrat leader posturing as the imperial “High Representative” in Bosnia—are “depressed” and “ashamed” by the vote.
The last time a British government suffered a major parliamentary defeat on foreign policy was in January 1855. Then Lord Aberdeen’s government was brought down by a House of Commons vote over the conduct of the Crimean War.
Britain was the key imperialist power at the time. Since the attack by Japan on the US at Pearl Harbour in 1941 it has sought to maintain a global role by sticking close to its successor, the United States.
Given that all the main parties loyally support the American alliance, it would be a mistake to treat last Thursday’s vote as its rejection.
After all, in the mid-1960s Labour prime minister Harold Wilson resisted pressure from president Lyndon Johnson to send British troops to Vietnam without jeopardising the “special relationship” between London and Washington.
Nevertheless, Cameron’s failure to carry his own MPs—31 voted against the government motion and another 30 missed the key vote—is a sign of the toxic effects of Britain’s alliance with the US and of Blair’s liberal interventionism.
Even Cameron, an admirer of Blair, had to admit that Blair had “poisoned the well” with the lies and manipulation that he used to drag Britain into the disastrous invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
After the scandal surrounding the “dodgy dossier” from the Joint Intelligence Committee in the run up to the Iraq War, there was something farcical about the coalition’s own feeble dossier.
An ex-intelligence officer told the Financial Times, “The intelligence and defence establishment in this country is dead against this planned attack on Syria—and all the other ideas Cameron has come up with for helping the Syrian rebels.
“The amount of caution and blandness they would have wanted to write into a document like this would probably have been pretty high.”
The vote is also a tribute to the long-term effect that the anti-war movement has had in shifting British debate on foreign policy. George Galloway’s powerful speech against intervention was heard in respectful silence—not something that would have happened in Blair’s heyday.
And this isn’t just a British phenomenon. Barack Obama’s administration responded to the vote by cold-shouldering Britain. But the fact that he has asked Congress to endorse military action means that he feels the pressure of a highly sceptical public opinion, reinforced by last week’s vote.
The government’s defeat is as much about Cameron as it is about Syria. The coalition is busy blaming Ed Miliband for the debacle. But this isn’t the first time a Labour leader has discovered a bit of a backbone. Hugh Gaitskell opposed the Suez War in 1956.
What did Cameron in was the opposition from his own side, including, it seems, some ministers. For months his authority has been leaking away as he made concession after concession to the Tory right on Europe, only for them to come back and demand more.
It’s too simple to say that Cameron lost last week because of his own arrogance and mismanagement of his party.
A substantial section of Tories have sensed his weakness and therefore had the confidence to rebel over Syria.
This defeat’s implications affect Britain as much as they add to the chaos over Western policy towards Syria. One can’t now rule out an attempt to topple Cameron as Tory leader. Meanwhile his failure weakens the government across the board.
This should encourage everyone resisting austerity. If the coalition can be beaten over Syria, it can be beaten at home as well.