Sincerity on both sides of air strike vote

For me, the arguments for and against air strikes against Daesh in Syria are finely balanced, and there is no surprise that reasonable people have come to different views. I am stunned that with the SNP against, Labour split down the middle, and (the BBC predicts) 15 Conservative rebels, we might be the most hawkish party.

I am very glad that Erbil was saved in August 2014 with help from US air strikes when Daesh were rampaging across northern Iraq. Had the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, population 1.5 million, fallen, the death toll and consequences for the region would have been horrific.

But while the effectiveness of air strikes to prevent Daesh advances is clear, when it comes to territory already held and populations already massacred or enslaved, targets are harder to find and potential benefits more remote.

In this context of this difficult fine judgement, with MPs getting more detailed briefings on the military and the diplomatic strategy, than should be widely available, I would be happy to back our MPs either way. I would prefer this kind of question to be on a free vote so that every individual judgement is unimpeded, though it is understandable that when the government whips, others do too.

So I cannot support the scorn poured on Labour for having a free vote, and for the ferocity of their internal battle over how to respond. The more something matters the more it is worth fighting over even if it puts your party in a difficult position.

It gets worse. Yesterday David Cameron urged his MPs not to walk through the voting lobby “with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”. Read carefully, this is not a slur on Corbyn himself or all opponents of air strike, but it does attempt to taint all sincere opponents of air strikes by association with unnamed terrorist sympathisers. Cheap and nasty.

Though it is surely not a good reason to change your vote if you believe air strikes are right.

This feeds a narrative about the left, reinforced by Ken Livingstone’s clumsy (I am being generous) reference to suicide bombers as “laying down their lives”. His subsequent protest asserted that we need to understand terrorists in order to defeat them, but this is still clumsy. The word understanding means both comprehension and sympathy, perhaps because it is a fact of human irrationality that comprehension tends to elicit sympathy. To defeat terrorists we need ice-cold logical comprehension of them, not “understanding”.

If understanding of the sincere reasons for opposing air strikes is lacking in this debate, the converse is just as bad. Supporters of air strikes are accused of wishing to rain bombs down on Syrian civilians, of acting on behalf of the military-industrial complex, of abandoning their values.

I believe most MPs on both sides of the house and on both sides of this vote have weighed the evidence carefully and are trying to do the right thing, faced with two options both of which have terrible consequences. If all 8 of ours vote the same way that may reflect a statistical fluke, or a profound and careful joint consideration.

My ice-cold logical comprehension of those who think this is an easy question is unforgiving, but I understand them.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • I believe most MPs are voting the way they are for the right reasons too, but it LOOKS awful. Anyone who is not as politically engaged as we will simply think “oh look, there go the lib dems again, propping up the tories even though they don’t have to and there’s hardly any of them left”

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Dec '15 - 11:06am

    The danger is Cameron bombs too much. When I talk with conviction I mainly mean if we find targets then I am convinced we should hit them. But a vote against takes even the finding targets for us to hit off the table.

    This is why I wanted more discussion on the risks of civilian casualties and what the acceptable risk parameters are for us and for Cameron. It should be on the motion. If Cameron came out with something stupid I would support a vote against and I actually temporarily withdrew my support a few weeks ago when Labour and the Tories came up with an idea of seemingly a unilateral no-fly zone in Syria, which is a potential military confrontation with Russia without support from Obama. The plan was so premature it frightened me off. Such measures should be considered, but you can’t just tack a potential military confrontation with Russia on the end of a motion without support from our major allies because some people on Twitter have demanded it.

  • Richard Harris 2nd Dec '15 - 11:06am

    It does look awful…a sad, pathetic little action by a rump party that I once considered more progressive than Labour.

  • Jennie’s comment will resonate across much of Yorkshire. However leaving aside the grim likelihood of her being absolutely right, my “test” is “What do Isis want us to do and why are we doing it?”

  • Thomas Shakespeare 2nd Dec '15 - 11:21am


    That is exactly my concern. It’s all very well Tim & Greg (others too I assume) writing pages of explanation but when this comes from a paragraph of legislation it seems little more than guess work. We just don’t know what the government will do with the legislation.

  • @ Joe Otten ” Yesterday David Cameron urged his MPs not to walk through the voting lobby “with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.

    I understand where you’re coming from, Joe, and I’m pleased you picked out Cameron’s nastiness, My take on that is that either a) He’s a nasty character underneath all the Etonian polish and charm, or b) He’s showing signs of cracking under the strain. If either of these two alternatives is true it doesn’t fill one with confidence.

    It’s a pity we can’t table a reasoned amendment on the motion. Frankly I’m terribly disappointed and upset at the MPs’ decision and it will take some time for me to think it through. I’m afraid the Lib Dems and Labour are going to suffer massive damage on this issue and I foresee many resignations.

    It’s not long ago that we had a flood of books about the Centenary of the Great War. I would recommend all politicians to read up on the events of July/August 1914. Lib Dems could also usefully study George Dangerfield’s book (published 1961 – the year I joined the party) “The Strange Death of Liberal England” for the effec s of WW1 on the Liberal Party.

    It’s a sad day and goodness knows where it’s going to end up.

  • David Allen 2nd Dec '15 - 11:36am

    “Yesterday David Cameron urged his MPs not to walk through the voting lobby “with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.”

    Yesterday David Cameron urged his MPs to put Tory interests first, use bombing as a way to hurt the Labour Party, and don’t bother to think about what bombing does in Syria.

  • David Raw,
    I think Cameron has from day one has shown himself to be an easily rattled, manipulative and somewhat dishonest character. See also Coulson, the Scottish referendum, tax credits etc.

    But agree there is mostly sincerity on all sides of the argument which is why I think Cameron has behaved appallingly here and as our Prime minister should be held in contempt for this cheap shot. Sure activists and supporters on either side of the debate can get over heated and say unguarded and in some cases stupid things but they unlike David Cameron are not running the country.

  • And Assad will keep his country interesting how this started out.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Dec '15 - 11:39am


    Most (by no mans all) of the arguments I have heard trotted out by Tories and right wing Labour people in favour of bombing have been utterly facile, along the “we need to be seen to be doing something.” line.

    I await a better argument from Lib Dems. I have a feeling that I shall wait for a very long time.

    It is my belief that the UK government (like the US one) has no real intention to do anything to alter the balance of power between Assad and ISIL. It does, however, have a pressing need to be seen to do something. Cue internittent involvement of a handful of elderly planes. It is pretty much the same situation as during the Iraq/Iran War where the ‘West'(sic) ensured that slaughter continued for years just as long as no one actually won. The only people who do have such an intent are the Russians and maybe the Kurds. But the Kurds hate the Turks, the Turks hate the Russians. And don’t mention our ‘friends'(sic) the Saudis.

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Dec '15 - 12:32pm

    Tim’s intervention on Cameron’s speech (about the latter day “Kindertransport”) went nowhere but at least he made it. Surely Cameron’s (polite) fob-off shows that test no 5 has simply not been met.

  • I hear what Joe says about moving on from the terrorist sympathisers matter – but – having watched both Cameron and Corbyn’s speeches I have to say what an appalling bullying bunch the Tory backbenchers are and what an arrogant character Cameron is. How on earth we could ever work with such people is beyond belief.

  • Geoffrey Payne 2nd Dec '15 - 2:03pm

    I am opposed to military intervention but we are where we are and as a party we have to work together with people on both sides of the argument. Time will tell whether we made the right decision and I hope in due course we can make a judgement on who was right. Perhaps we did not do that over Libya, which today is a hellhole and we should have had a debate as to why it turned out that way, which in turn would influence the decision the Parliamentary party is making now.
    However I disagree with the article which on the whole I approve of. It is an irritating argument that to understand is to sympathise. Often this accusation is made but it is simply wrong. We should try to understand those we oppose, the long list of foreign policy failures in the Middle East surely shows that to be the case? It is a form of guilt tripping that stifles debate to make such accusations.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Dec '15 - 6:04pm

    Watching the debate on the Parliament Channel it is clear that many MPs are conflicted and rightly so. that includes the Prime Minister who has been in the House all day. Sadly that does not include the MP for Tunbridge Wells who smoothly told the BBC regional news on Sunday that he will support the PM. That is no surprise, it is what he usually does, but many MPs, of all parties, are saying that this vote is a heavy responsibility for all MPs, so they should vote with their consciences and judgement, ignoring party whips.
    I said that some of the best speakers have been Tory MPs opposing the government’s policy, and then, Alex Salmond agreed!
    One MP said that King Hussein of Jordan had written in the Daily Telegraph today. Hansard writers may correct him, which is a pity, because the level of knowledge of the Middle East in the debate varies from excellent to terrible. Whatever the late King thought, the current King has written about current events, including an atrocity against a Jordanian pilot by Daesh.

  • Little Jackie Paper 2nd Dec '15 - 8:31pm

    Jennie – ‘I believe most MPs are voting the way they are for the right reasons too, but it LOOKS awful. Anyone who is not as politically engaged as we will simply think “oh look, there go the lib dems again, propping up the tories even though they don’t have to and there’s hardly any of them left”’

    I disagree. Take some time away from the overbaked world of the internet. It looks like political parties being able to accommodate dissent as they grapple with a mightily tough, indeed contradictory, issue. The public understand – give them more credit!

    You really have to trust the public more – they do understand that not everything is easy and they do understand the internal conflicts. We might not be, ‘politically engaged,’ but equally we aren’t dumb.

    For what it’s worth Mr Otten, this is an excellent article.

  • AC Trussell 3rd Dec '15 - 11:41am

    We need to destroy Da’esh, and it will probably take an international army to do so.But saying getting rid of Da’esh will stop terrorism is naive and totally misleading.

    My thoughts on the sources of terrorism are stated in an interview with Abu Hafs al-Muritani on the Al Jazeera News channel 21st Nov He was a member of Al Qaeda with Osama bin ladin. He left because he did not agree with killing citizens. He stated that the reason for Al Qaeda and Isil/Da’esh is purely because of the occupation and treatment of the Palestinians by the “Israelis”. (Why does everyone ignore this?)

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