LONDON — Democratically elected representatives of the British people were tasked Wednesday night with the most difficult choice a politician can face: whether to authorize war.
Last time the Mother of Parliaments considered the question of airstrikes in Syria, in 2013—the stunning rejection of a bombing plan hatched by President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron sent shockwaves around the world. “Three Cheers for the U.K. Parliament,” trumpeted The New Yorker.
Wednesday’s 10-hour debate was a shitshow.
Cameron eventually secured the support he needed to authorize the Royal Air Force to enter Syria’s crowded airspace, but not before the unedifying spectacle of senior politicians shouting at each other, accusing their opponents of treachery and intimidation, and suggestions that the prime minister had fiddled with the intelligence.
When the vote was finally taken after 10 p.m. in London, Cameron had secured a majority of 397 to 223.
A day that was supposed to be about cross-party consensus started badly for Cameron when it emerged that he had described opponents to the military action as “a bunch of terrorist sympathizers” during a private meeting with members of his Conservative Party.
Those words were leaked to the press, and consensus was replaced with rage inside the House of Commons.
Alex Salmond, the former first minister of Scotland, was one of more than a dozen to interrupt Cameron as he made the case for war in order to demand an apology for what he had said. Salmond, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Scottish National Party, said the men and women who were backing an amendment that would block airstrikes in Syria were doing so with honorable intentions and did not deserve to be on the receiving end of the prime minister’s “deeply insulting remarks.”
“You are facing an amendment signed by 110 members of this House from six different political parties,” he said. “I’ve examined that list very carefully, and I cannot identify a single terrorist sympathizer among that list.”
Members jeered and shouted for the prime minister to apologize. He had no intention of backing down.
He continued to argue that Britain would play a vital strategic role in Syria, where it has been asked by the French and the Americans to join airstrikes. Britain is already bombing ISIS targets over the border in Iraq—where it has been formally invited by Baghdad—but not on Syrian territory, where the city of Raqqa has become the capital of the so-called Islamic State.
Cameron argued that there was a compelling moral case to strike against ISIS despite the thousands of anti-war protesters who were chanting just outside the building in Parliament Square. “These women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters...are hijacking the peaceful religion of Islam for their warped ends,” Cameron said. They are “plotting to kill us and to radicalize our children right now.”
Critics of the plan argued that there was no strategy in place to defeat ISIS without the prospect of ground forces to finish the job. Cameron told Parliament that there are 70,000 moderate Sunni opposition fighters in Syria, but he claimed he was not at liberty to explain where that unlikely figure comes from for security reasons.
Dr. Julian Lewis, a member of Cameron’s own Conservative Party, led the charge against the credibility of the figure. The chairman of the Defense Committee went so far as to compare this “sexed-up” intelligence with the faulty security briefings given in the run-up to the Iraq War. “Bogus battalions now replace dodgy dossiers,” he said.
This “friendly fire” was symptomatic of furious disputes that were breaking out all over the chamber between party colleagues.
The Labour Party, which forms the official opposition, has been in total disarray over what to do about ISIS. The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn—the former chairman of the Stop the War campaign—voted against airstrikes, while his deputy and his shadow foreign secretary rebelled against his wishes and voted with Cameron.
Hard-left campaigners within the Labour Party, excited by Corbyn’s election as leader, believed they could force moderate Labour members of Parliament to follow their leader. When it transpired that Corbyn was powerless to convince his colleagues, bubbling tensions burst to the surface. His supporters lashed out online, in angry phone calls, and even in a demonstration outside the home of a prominent moderate, Stella Creasy, late Tuesday.
During the debate, she called out the hard-left trolls on Twitter. “Seriously, do one sunshine- If catch anyone hassling my staff won’t hesitate to get police involved! #noshittakingmp,” she wrote.
John Woodcock, another Labour moderate, was shouted down by left-wing colleagues when he got up to speak in Parliament. “I will do everything I can to stop my party becoming essentially the cheerleader, the vanguard for a sort of angry, intolerant pacificism,” he said. “I think that some of the people on the front bench now, and the people heckling behind me, need to think very carefully about the way in which they have conducted themselves over recent weeks.”
Left-winger Clive Lewis described the ensuing row with Woodcock as “a mutually robust conversation.”
The culmination of Labour’s split came right at the end of the debate. Corbyn’s face was twisted into a scowl as Hilary Benn, his shadow foreign secretary, gave an incandescent speech in favor of military action which brought MPs from all sides of the house to their feet in a vanishingly rare parliamentary ovation. “We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road,” he said.
In between the angry exchanges, there were a few moments of clarity. Nadhim Zahawi, the Iraqi-born Conservative MP for Stratford Upon Avon, made an emotional plea for Britain to take the fight to ISIS in Syria.
He said he had just received an email from a woman in Raqqa, and he read it aloud from his phone. “Daesh are the death that is stretching from the East. When you see them, it is as if you are seeing the angel of death. They are in Raqqa right now. How can I carry on exposing my child to severed heads and hanging bodies on a daily basis?”
Sir Alan Duncan, a former minister for international development, acknowledged that there was no clear pathway through the tangled loyalties of the region to rid Raqqa and Syria of ISIS. “If you’re not confused,” he said, “you don’t understand.”