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McDonnell in Hansard

31st August 2013

During Thursday’s debate, the LRC Chair John McDonnell, in classic form, gives a welcome view on the Syrian question:

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I want to thank the Conservative Back Benchers, a number of Liberal Democrat Members, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary for their intervention over the last 48 hours, which halted what looked like a headlong rush to war. It is widely acknowledged that the American President has set a timetable, most probably for an attack this weekend. He came under pressure last year from the Republicans and McCain to set red lines as parameters. It was inevitable that that would escalate the demand for military action at a later date. That might explain the American position, but it does not explain why a sovereign independent state called Great Britain should automatically fall into line in support of military action. If there is a lesson of the past 48 hours, it is that no Prime Minister and no Government should take this House or the British people for granted on matters of this nature.

The reality is that, yes, time has moved on since Iraq. People have made references to lessons from Iraq, and I want to refer to three. First, there is no automatic approval of, or even trust in, a prime ministerial judgment on an issue such as this involving the country in military action without overwhelming justification, evidence and thorough debate. The evidence before us from the JIC today says that there is “some evidence” to suggest regime culpability in the gas attack and that it is “highly likely” that the Syrian regime is responsible. I have to say that “highly likely” and “some evidence” are not good enough to risk further lives, to risk counter attack, to inflame the whole region, to risk dragging other states into this war and, at the same time, to increase the risk of terrorism on British streets.

The second lesson of Iraq is based upon the principles of humanitarian intervention. It must be objectively clear that there is no practical alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved. I do not believe that it has been demonstrated that all practical alternatives have been exhausted. In particular, discussions around the permanent stationing of UN weapons inspectors in Syria to prevent the use of these weapons have not been exhausted. That, linked to an insistence on the participation of all sides in a UN peace conference, has not been exhausted.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend not surprised that the British Government appear to have made no rational efforts to try to build a relationship with the new Government of Iran, which might be part of a road towards some kind of peace settlement?

John McDonnell: That leads to my third lesson from Iraq, and from Afghanistan. It is to ensure that any intervention does not cost lives and does not make matters worse; it is the “do no harm” principle. No matter how surgical the strike that is planned by the Americans or by us, lives will be lost and lives will be put at risk. A negotiated peace is the only long-term solution for Syria; that is what has been expressed by members of all parties in the House. Military intervention is more likely to undermine the potential for peace talks. Hawks within the Assad regime will be even more intransigent and defiant. The opposition—the so-called rebels—will have no incentive, because they will believe that the US and, yes, the UK and others will be on their side and that they can achieve a military victory. Military intervention would also alienate Iran and the Russians—the very people we look to now to bring Assad to the negotiating table.

If we have learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is this: military intervention does not just cost lives; it undermines the credibility of the international institutions that we look to to secure peace in the world and, in the long run, it undermines peace settlements across the globe. Therefore, I believe that we should focus on conflict prevention and conflict resolution and not support military aggression. That is why I will not support any motion that, in principle, supports military intervention in Syria, which can only do more harm than good.

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