Syria: When Two Tribes Disagree Over Going To War….

by George_East on August 29, 2013

Two TribesAs I write this news has come through that the government has lost its motion on Iraq, 285-272.  This is the first motion, of course – not the promised second one that would actually authorise intervention.  Given how David Cameron has behaved over the last few days – the arrogance, the tantrums (briefing that Ed Miliband is “a fucking cunt”, saying he gave “succor” to the Syrian regime etc), and given how poorly made the case so far for intervention has been, I have to say I am delighted.

I will be writing a longer post on my views on Syria over the next 24 hours or so but  this post is instead about the curious alliances that appear to have built up across British politics on the issue.  In the light of the vote tonight, the issue is now about American led intervention, rather than British participation – which is now surely unimaginable.

The origin was an email received from my colleague Charlie East-West who observed that the divisions over intervention don’t appear to split easily down left/right lines or party lines.   I agreed with his observation but it made me start to think about who was on each side of the intervention dividing line.  Although not perfect I  have identified some broad political headings which I think more or less accurately sum up how the pros and antis line up.

Firstly, some definitions are required – what do I mean by pro-intervention or anti-intervention?  I am taking the dividing line as of today – so the question is not whether those in any of the groups would be set against intervention under any circumstances, but rather whether they would favour intervention now, with nothing further: no UN resolution, no further evidence about the culpability (or otherwise) of the Assad regime and an intervention based on limited missile strikes/air attacks led by the US.

Another way of looking at the question is whether if Barack Obama said that  attacks were going to take place tonight on what we know, would you support them.

This is how I see the Britain’s political tribes breaking down.  The line up is far from what would be expected.


The left of the Labour Party (and all points left of the Labour Party):  here in Labour Party terms I am talking about the traditional left from Diane  Abbott (who at one point looked like she was going to resign from the shadow cabinet before Ed Miliband had even come to a decision about the vote), to what’s left of the campaign group to the journalist activists like Owen Jones.  Points left of the Labour Party is bleedin’ obvious – Galloway, Stop the War Coalition, Trot groups various.

1. The Tory right:  the leading voice on the Tory benches against the War so far has been the new star of the Tory right, Douglas Carswell who has been brutal in his view that Cameron has not made his case.  Other opponents are those old stalwarts of the Tory right, Michael Forsyth (who praised Ed Miliband yesterday), Edward Leigh (who made a sterling speech against in the Commons today) and Norman Tebbit.  Journalists in this camp include the Telegraph’s Iain Martin and Peter Oborne.

2. The Shire Tories/UKIPpers:  This is a slightly more nebulous group as it doesn’t really include any prominent MPs (I am not counting staunch opponent Sarah Wollaston as she is a fairly maverick figure in the Conservative Party – a reflection of her selection origins, through Britain’s first primary).    What it does reflect though is that vast swathe of Golf Club and Rotary Club Tories, who contribute to the comments on Conservative Home – which have been overwhelmingly hostile to intervention.  These are people who see Syria as ‘not our fight’ and who are suspicious of David Cameron.  The closest to a typical Tory figure in this camp is the former MP and now editor of Conservative Home: Paul Goodman.  I am also lumping under this heading the shire Tories close cultural cousins, UKIP.  Nigel Farage has made it clear that he is against intervention.

3.The Metropolitan Liberal-Left: These are not all Labour Party members or supporters.  Some are those who deserted the Labour Party over Iraq and who marched in huge numbers in February 2003.  They are overwhelmingly middle class professionals, overwhelmingly London (or university town based) and well educated.  Ed Miliband is of their number.

4.Greens: Of course.  What would the Greens purpose be, if they weren’t against.

5.Old Fashioned Liberals: The Ming Campbell wing of the Liberal Democrats and a couple of prominent exceptions aside, those who ran the party until being elbowed out the way by the Orange Bookers.   I don’t mean those who necessarily originated in the old Liberal Party, as I suspect that Charles Kennedy is also likely to be among their number (though I have not heard him comment yet and I may be wrong about that).  I suspect also representative of very many Lib Dem activists and members in the country as a whole, particularly in areas where the Liberal Party was historically strong.   It is notable that the Carol Lindsay (Co-Editor of Lib Dem Voice) is among those who oppose.



1. The Blairites:  Both inside and outside of the Labour Party, those who identify as supporters of Tony Blair have been the single most vociferous group in favour of intervention.  Interestingly very few MPs have publicly broken rank with Ed Miliband (though there are some exceptions like Meg Munn) to argue for intervention now.  Outside of MPs though it is all of the usual suspects from the just about still within the Labour Party bloggers and commentariat: Darren Murphy, Rob Merchant and Dan Hodges (who edges ever closer to justifying his ‘I didn’t leave the party, it left me endorsement of David Cameron, due sometime around April 2015).   Amongst journalists  this group is typified by John Rentoul and David Aaronovitch (who are also using it to re-run their Iraq was legal arguments).  It also includes El Tony himself and his immediate circle, like Alistair Campbell

2.The Cameroons/Metropolitan Tories:  What at one point (though it seems like an age ago) would have been thought of as the Tory modernisers.  It includes both the circle at the top of the Tory party and a huge section of ambitious incomers in the 2010 intake like the ubiquitous Robert Halfon (MP for Harlow).  A mixture between Tory internationalists and heir to Blair liberal interventionists.

3.Orange Book Lib Dems/Lib Dem Establishment:  Clegg and his immediate coterie, and a large proportion of the Lib Dem parliamentary party.  Also includes Lib Dem stalwarts like Paddy Ashdown, Shirley Williams and the ever less liberal, Simon Hughes.    The primary driver, as with most of what Clegg does, appears to be to Look Serious and to Be A Party Of Government.  I some  ways this is the most contemptible of all of the groups in favour as they were to an individual against the illegal intervention in Iraq on the grounds of a lack of a UN Security Council resolution in support of it.   Clegg’s attempts to justify this volte face have been teeth-grindingly embarrassing: my personal favourite was that we need to support the Syria intervention because there is a Democrat in the White House (no one appears to have told him that this would have been an argument for Britain to join LBJ’s US in the Vietnam War).

4. Fleet Street:  There are a few exceptions amongst the columnists, but amongst the owners and the editors the support is almost universal (though the liberal broad sheets may still come out against).  The drum beat to war, the castigating of opponents as complicit in the gassing of children etc  has already begun and will ratchet up over the coming days.

There are exceptions to all of this, of course.  Peter Tatchell is heavily in favour.  Our own Ray North….

Which tribe are you in?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Ray_North August 29, 2013 at 10:11 pm

I’m not in favour per se. I take the (impressive) Ed M line on this. I want the weapons inspectors to report, I want the UN to get off it’s arse, I want Assad dragged kicking and screaming to the table for peace talks, I want the Russians and Chinese to act, but, if none of that happens, then yes, I don’t see much alternative to intervention, and what kind of intervention is that going to be? Well, we’re not going to send 1 Direction out there are we.


George_East August 29, 2013 at 10:18 pm

In which case you are in favour because none of those thing will happen. The Russians have ruled out a UN motion, the weapons inspectors have said that they won’t apportion blame (and the Americans have said there is no smoking gun). Meaningless conditions do not change that basic fact. I see the whole thing essentially as western narcissism. I will blog more on it tomorrow if I get time.


Charlie_East_West August 30, 2013 at 5:40 am

No Western “humanitarian intervention” in the Congo, Rwanda or Sudan. So why is Syria different? I suggest that intervention is not just for “humanitarian” reasons in Syria.
Ray – Under your own terms and conditions for intervention, would you support intervention in Congo, and also possibly Columbia, Burma, Zimbabwe and North Korea?


George_East August 30, 2013 at 6:06 am

I’m not a fan of whataboutery. It’s an argument for never doing anything about anything. You’ve got to look at each case on its own merits. The problem for me with the Syria is that no one in the pro-intervention camp has yet been able to explain what they think the limited missile attack proposed will actually achieve.


Eddie Kaye August 30, 2013 at 9:46 am

My main concern is that more than Afghanistan and Iraq, the wider implications for stability in Syria itself, the wider region of the Middle East, and maybe the whole world are a massive unknown. Has intervention come invasion made Iraq or Afghanistan safer places? Has it advanced the Middle East process? Has it made the wider world a safer place? Probably not. I agree the world cannot ignore this, and that Assad is a brutal violent criminal – we don’t need much more evidence of this. What we do need in measuring a response is proof that the ‘good guys’ (if they exist) have any intention of making a better country for the Syrian people. Ultimately that should be the aim of any resolution – whether dimplomatic (which obviously I want to see exhausted first), or military (which for me would require evidence, and a clear roadmap of the process after Assad is gone).


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