Syria: UK Military Action — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:31 pm on 2nd December 2015.

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Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 5:31 pm, 2nd December 2015

My Lords, I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House since the year 2000 and there is not much that I regret about being here—but one thing still weighs heavily on me. It is that I did not speak in the Syria debate in September 2013. To me, that debate was a defining moment, just like the one before us today. “Use chemical weapons against your people”, was the clear statement made by the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, “and we will drastically reduce your capability”. Well, Assad did use them, and we blinked.

The then leader of my party, having assured the Prime Minister that he had Labour’s full support, abruptly changed his position and the Government were defeated. Seeing his closest ally bottle out, Obama lost his nerve and the moment passed. Assad had won.

What were the consequences? Assad carried on as normal. With Putin’s support, he went through the charade of dismantling some of his chemical weapons but continued using those that remained and then graduated to barrel bombing. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed and many more injured. Thus was created the worst European refugee problem since the Second World War.

We in this Parliament could have stopped it or slowed it down but we turned our backs—all for the quiet life. The world saw our weakness and indecisiveness. It saw that we were paper tigers—none more than President Putin. He smelled blood in the water. Were we surprised that, just a few months later, Russia invaded Crimea? Putin knew that we would talk big and do nothing. He and others like him had our measure. Each time we back away in pursuit of the elusive quiet life, we store up a much worse fate in future.

Today, we face a similar dilemma. Doing nothing is an option, but it is a bad option. You cannot sit down with ISIL, have a cup of tea, a cucumber sandwich and a bit of a chat and reach an accommodation. ISIL members are not men of reason looking for a peaceful solution; they are vile terrorists in a quasi-state who will stop at nothing—no depravity is too great. We indeed crave that quiet life, but they will not grant it to us.

I look at my party’s leadership and I despair. Since when has Labour become a party of pacifists? Since when do we run away when confronted by danger? I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, talking about the royal prerogative and I asked myself about NATO. Under the terms of the NATO agreement, we all have to come to each other’s defence if one is attacked. If there were an attack on Poland, say, do we join them immediately or do we have a debate in the House of Commons to work out how we are going to respond? I do not like this precedent of Parliament deciding these issues.

I believe that the Prime Minister is right, and I am sad to say that I believe that my leader is wrong. If I had a vote, I would support the Government.