Vince’s three questions on Syrian airstrikes

In today’s debate on the Syrian airstrikes, Vince raised three questions. Here is his speech in full, complete with interventions.

My approach to this question was well captured by some of the independent-minded Labour Back Benchers yesterday, and particularly by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) when she said “If only the Prime Minister had asked it of me, I would have been inclined to support her.” The Prime Minister did not ask, and as a result she missed a significant opportunity to build consensus in this place and support in the country. She has clearly received other advice.

I was very struck in the middle of last week by the avalanche of editorials—notably one by the Prime Minister’s former colleague, the editor of the Evening Standard—saying that of course Parliament must not debate this issue. It had nothing to do with high-minded constitutional principles or military secrecy; the argument was, “We might lose, and if we lose that will be terrible for our prestige vis-à-vis France.” There are of course more serious arguments, which have been aired and which were put by the Prime Minister, on the grounds of secrecy and national security. I respect them. I am a Privy Counsellor and have benefited from the briefings that have been available.

We are here on an issue of trust. I like to think that in this House and in the country we have progressed beyond the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war. We are not in the position of the United States, where the President is at war with his own intelligence agencies. We have trust and should have trust in the advice that is given. If the Prime Minister had any doubt about that, she should have been reassured three to four weeks ago when she came to the House to address the Salisbury question and said, “Look, there are things I cannot explain. There are facts and information.” What happened was that almost everybody on this side of the House—nationalists, Liberal Democrats and Labour—except for those on the Opposition Front Bench, took her word, and that was as it should have been. She could have done that on this occasion, but because she has chosen to ignore a practice established by Mrs Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron—admittedly in difficult circumstances—we are now in the position of having to talk about legislative remedies for something that should have been accepted on the basis of trust.

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con)

I do not understand the logic of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. He has admitted that there are circumstances that would mean that the House could not be fully informed. The House would therefore be having a debate and making a decision that, by definition, would be ill informed. What is the sense in that?

Sir Vince Cable

Of course, not all information could be made available. That is why having trust in the Prime Minister, which I do as an individual, and in our security services and military, as I do, are absolutely imperative. If that were in place, the House would have a mature debate on the principle. I think that the Prime Minister would have had a significant majority had she followed that path.

Mr Nigel Evans

When the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the coalition Government, he made decisions as part of that Government. He is now part of the legislature. Does he not accept that there is a distinction? He says that he trusts the Prime Minister, and surely that is what today’s debate is all about.

Sir Vince Cable

I am also well aware that I have had to fight my way back into the legislature and I am no longer a member of the Government. When I was a member of the Government, I supported military intervention in this place. I think that, on that occasion, Parliament got it wrong. I also think that it got it wrong over the Iraq war, but the process was a necessary discipline. It is a pity that we are now having to talk about legislative remedies when there was a perfectly good and sound convention that successive Prime Ministers were following, but this one is not.

That is all I wish to say about the process issues, but I want to raise several specific questions of substance that I do not think were dealt with in yesterday’s debate. The first, which was raised by me and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), is whether this is a one-off operation, or a continuous series of strikes for which we need to be prepared. That is not an academic question. A lot of open-source material suggests that the number of chemical attacks in Syria is far greater than the number—five, I think—that was cited yesterday. The White Helmets, the Syrian human rights organisation, has come up with the figure of 213 in the last five years. In other words, every week the Syrian armed forces are using chemical weapons. Low-level divisional commanders are using crude chemicals, notably chlorine, and it strikes me as being perfectly plausible that they will do so again.

The question, then, is this: what is the threshold at which we once again intervene? Is it any use of chemical weapons? Is it a certain number of deaths? Is it the indignation of the President of the United States when he has seen something on television? What is the threshold for continuing involvement in this struggle? This is all the more reason why we need parliamentary authorisation for continuing action.

My second question, which relates indirectly to that, is about the role of the President of the United States. I regard the United States as an ally and a friendly country with which we have long and strong bonds, but I think that we all have problems with a President who is erratic, capricious and regarded with open contempt by the public officials who have worked with him, and who even now, in the middle of this crisis, seems to regard President Assad and President Putin as less of a problem than Stormy Daniels and Robert Mueller.

The question is, in our continuing dealings with the major power of the western world, where do we go? We know that in the last few days the President has introduced into his Administration John Bolton, who is absolutely open about the fact that if there are further strikes he will wish to include Iranian targets—we know that will inflame the issue in relation to Israel—and who wants to derail the agreement on nuclear weapons with Iran. I would like some assurance at the end of the debate that the British Government are holding fast with France and the rest of the European Union in honouring and supporting that agreement, and are not being over-influenced by the American Administration.

My third and final question relates to Russia. In her statement, the Prime Minister linked Salisbury with the chemical weapons attack. It is very striking that while we have followed the United States—perhaps rightly—in military action, we have not followed the Americans in imposing penal sanctions on oligarchs and stock market dealings. The impact is blatantly obvious. The Russians must be asking themselves, “Why haven’t they done it? Are they afraid of retaliation? Are there vested interests in the City?” That is the kind of question to which we need an answer.

We should have had answers to all those questions last week. I hope that we will improve the processes of the House to ensure that they are given in future.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Jayne mansfield 17th Apr '18 - 10:06pm

    Vince Cable has trust in the Prime Minister. Given her record, no point in reading on.

  • David Becket 17th Apr '18 - 10:46pm

    @ Jayne
    If he is to be treated like a statesman he has to make that type of comment and avoid getting into the dirty infighting of personal party politics.

  • Well spoken. Vince is an accomplished rhetorician in the Aristotelian tradition. He employs the art of discourse as a counterpart of both logic and politics skillfully in these kind of situations.

  • @David Becket & @JoeB. … and as a result, it is all so anodyne that no voters out there (other than a few true believers) notice what he is saying.

    @Jayne mansfield – Yes. Firstly I can’t see how anyone except a dyed in the wool blue could trust TM’s judgement on anything knowing the catastrophes she has instigated as Home Secretary and now PM.

    Secondly, we need someone or something to get us noticed and quick, before it is all gone. Apparently Rallings and Thrasher are expecting us to only make about 30 gains in May. That is only one tenth of the number we lost in 2014 or one percent of all the seats Nick lost us while he was leader.

    100 years before we get close to another sniff of government? 🙁


  • David Evans
    So the question is how can the Liberal Democrats and others make political capital out of this? No concerns about humanitarianism then.

  • Jayne mansfield 18th Apr '18 - 7:09am

    Who are these humanitarians of of whom you speak?

    Are they those who accept the grotesque killing of children by bombing, blowing them apart, burying them alive, starvation etc., as opposed to causing them suffering by other means. deemed ‘not on’ by some who hide behind the ‘rules of war’ ?

    There are some lives that seem to have greater worth than others in our ‘humanitarian’ world.

  • Well said Manfarang. I’ve no time for those who are so brazenly using the suffering of civilians as a result of a war crime for political point scoring. I appreciate that focusing on the issues and using his position to do what’s best for this country and for the innocent people of Syria doesn’t appeal to everyone, especially not headline writers, but I appreciate it.

    For me, Vince’s words are thoughtful, caring and show understanding of the complexity of the situation. He raises concerns about process, but draws a line under it to focus on what the UK does next. Some may think it’s anodyne, but I think it’s true leadership.

    In terms of trusting May, it’s obvious he means that he trusts her to tell the House an honest interpretation of what the security services have told her, even if she can’t give full details. This isn’t the same as trusting her political judgement, but rather means that if the security services told her that it wasn’t Assad, she’s not going to pretend that it was, just because they aren’t allowed to contradict her in public. Trying to spin that kind of trust as trusting her judgement in everything is exactly the kind of petty politicking that drags the country down.

  • Jayne
    Well said. There are too armchair warriors. Instead of denigrating people less keen to keep Britain involved the continued nonsense of the last 20 or so years, they should offer there services digging trough rubble or rebuilding the infrastructure of the failed states the enthusiasm for military intervention in the ME has helped to create. .

  • In the meantime someone has acted. pontificatingand talking is all very well, but there are times we to coin the phrase “just have to bite the bullet”. eg we pick up missiles on the way from Russia, Russian troops invade Lithuania and so on. It should be left to Government. In my view this was one of those occasions.

  • As for trusting May on anything; No chance…In what situation would anyone here consider her more trustworthy than Blair; he had a USA agenda to follow, as does she?

    Glen’s armchair warriors’ promises put me in mind of the two visits by Cameron to post Gaddafi Libya where he promised ‘everything need to rebuild the country’; how long did those promises last? Within months the ‘poor victims’ had become troublesome refugees and, under May, even promises about orphaned children are deemed politically elastic…

    The last PM to say”No!” to the US president was Wilson and, thanks to that, our families were spared the heartbreak that afflicted so many of the ‘blue collar’ families in the USA…Trump loves his military style hat but,when duty called, he made sure he never went to any recruiting office…An ‘armchair warrior’ indeed..

  • Manfarang, At a political level, if you think that being “an accomplished rhetorician in the Aristotelian tradition,” or “employing “the art of discourse as a counterpart of both logic and politics skillfully,” in order to be “treated like a statesman,” is a way to get this arrogant government to even think about the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian tragedy, you really don’t realise that the first thing you need in opposition is to get noticed.

    At a personal level, I consider your comment simply a cheap jibe using humanitarian concern as a veneer to have a go at someone pointing out the ineffectiveness of our current approach. I might ask do want us to be effective in expressing our humanitarian concerns, but that would be equally impertinent.

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Apr '18 - 12:54pm

    The PM has to be able to order military action without the agreement of Parliament to deal with a situation which is, in my view, the only reason to take such action, that is if we are attacked or about to be attacked. She has damaged this reasonable procedure because she is so desperate to look strong that she made a decision in cold blood, without following the established precedent of consulting parliament in this situation.
    This is typical of these tawdry Tories who wriggle and twist about in order to keep themselves in power, blaming others for their mistakes.

  • A good knowledge of the history and culture of the region helps. Clearly this has been lacking in the policy making of the last twenty years.
    In South East Asia the Americans didn’t take the advice of those more expert on the ground. Regarding British involvement in Vietnam, British army personnel helped build the runways of the American military bases in NE Thailand. Wilson regarded Vietnam as an area of French influence.
    To this day humanitarians are working to clear minefields left over in SE Asia. Slow painstaking work.

  • I’m with expats here; in her own mind Theresa May probably means well, but she has poor political antennae and zero analytic or strategic skills making her a perennial bungler – “Bungling May” to coin a Trumpism – so, the bottom line is she isn’t trustworthy.

  • Peter Hirst 18th Apr '18 - 4:42pm

    Surely, a time like this is an opportunity to rise above tribal politics and forge a consensus on the need for military action. We can still contest other government policies and agree with the government’s approach on this use of force. This will require more openness and trust from the government than is visible at present including a full debate in parliament.

  • I’m disappointed as I do not feel the 3 tests set by Vince Cable were answered adequately. Can we really guarantee these attacks have worked in preventing Assad from launching similar chemical weapons strikes? Of course not. If anything we should have followed the United Nations line on this at the present time. We have not resolved the humanitarian crisis and there is always the possibility we could have made matters worse.
    I would have hoped Vince would have called for greater UN involvement and insist upon inspections and the destruction of chemical weapons. This has been an opportunity lost where an impact could have been made which in the long term would benefit the region and where we as a party could have provided a different stance to the Tories and both factions of the Labour Party.

  • Steve Trevethan 18th Apr '18 - 7:56pm

    Might Sir Vince consider following up the questions from SNP Stewart McDonald to Mrs May about security briefings given to non privy councillors who are pro-air strike Labour MPS?

  • I think there should be a difference between ordering military action in defence of British territory or people, and getting involved in someone else’s civil war. The latter should require parliamentary approval.

    If the situation is compelling, then the Government of the day shouldn’t have a problem getting parliament on side.

    I still think it’s hypocritical for Britain to pretend we occupy the moral high ground in bombing Syria because of the alleged use of chemical weapons, while thousands die in Yemen at the sharp end of British-supplied weapons, as if a slow death from blood loss due to having a limb blown off is somehow an acceptable way to die.

  • @ JoeB. From what I can remember of my classical education I would say Sir Vincent’s questions were more in the Sophist tradition than the Aristotelian – and I’m with Jayne and David Evans on the issue.

    Asking questions is no alternative to having a clear stance on the issue.

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