Saturday, August 31, 2013

Cameron's humiliating defeat over Syria attack

British PM David Cameron
from Roger Silverman in London

It was one of those moments that mark a turning point in history: the defeat this week of David Cameron’s parliamentary motion paving the way for Britain’s participation in the planned US military intervention in the Syrian civil war. It came after years of endless futile foreign wars and economic crisis, during which all but the super-rich had suffered crippling drops in living standards and Britain’s once-famous health service and welfare state had been all but destroyed. Food banks, riots and suicides are becoming commonplace features of British life.

Ten years ago, the whole of central London was ringing to the chants of demonstrators marching against the impending war against Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration in British history. A series of catastrophic adventurist foreign wars was launched notwithstanding, with consequences every bit as devastating as the marchers had warned. At a cost of something like £50 billion and the deaths of around 700 British soldiers, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have each in turn been reduced to chaos, anarchy and civil war.  

The financial crash of 2008 and the election in 2010 of the most right-wing government for eighty years further compounded a general feeling of helpless despair. True, there were a couple of huge trade union demonstrations and some national strikes by Britain’s remaining public sector workers; but overall resistance has been dampened by a feeling of fatalistic gloom. If two million people on the streets could be ignored, what was the point of protesting?

But today the public mood is stretched almost to breaking point. Just as in Turkey it took no more than the threat to build a supermarket over one of the few public parks in Istanbul, and in Brazil the mere announcement of a rise in bus fares in one city, to bring millions of people on to the streets for days on end, so too in Britain patience is running out. No one had predicted even the possibility that a government decision to go to war yet again could run aground. There were no mass demonstrations; just a mounting underlying sense of mute outrage, strong enough to impel even some quite unlikely forces to oppose military action this time: forces that included Britain’s new populist far-right party UKIP, and 39 MPs from the governing Tory and Liberal Democrat parties, who defied the party whips to oppose the government. The mood was powerful enough even to stiffen the normally wobbly backbone of the dithering Labour leader Ed Miliband, who had originally intended to support military action (though, naturally, with the usual token reservations). The government motion had been expected to be just a formality; no media commentator had seriously even considered the possibility that it could be defeated.

The outcome is an utter humiliation for Cameron: the prime minister of a former empire who declares war and then has to mumble apologetically: "OK, I get it. The war's off then". This spectacle will give heart to millions of people who up to now have been demoralised by years of unremitting attacks. An uprising like those in Turkey and Brazil may not yet be imminent in Britain; but the spell has been broken. It is proved at last: even this government can be forced to retreat.

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