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Britain must not sleepwalk into isolationism

September 2, 2013 8:53 PM
By Paddy Ashdown in The Observer
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

So what do we do now? The short-term answers are easy. The long-term ones pose real challenges for our country.

Parliament has spoken and - who can doubt it - reflected the current mood of the British people. Theirs is the sovereign voice and it must be respected - and it will be.

There are strange paradoxes here. It is possible to be both proud of a parliament that said no to the executive on a matter like military action. But sad; even - dare I say it - a little ashamed at the decision it took.

Of course there are reasons for this. The leftover poisons of the Iraq war; the toxic effect of public distrust in our politics. Mishandling by the government. President Obama's unwise attempt to rush to action. A Labour opposition that used its parliamentary duty to ask questions as an excuse to avoid making decisions. These are reasons why we are where we are. But they are not excuses.

They do not diminish the damage done to our country's standing - or the effect this will have on how we face the problem of conflict in a naughty world.

We have made it more difficult for Barack Obama to act. Maybe even now, he won't. Then Great Britain, which led in international law and engagement, will lead a retreat from these ideals towards a new mood of growing isolationism.

The bottom line is this. Parliament was asked to join an international coalition led by a US Democrat president, whose aim, a firm response to a flagrant breach of international law, was supported by most European nations and many Middle Eastern ones. And parliament said no.

The subtext is perhaps as disturbing as the headline. The parliamentary division figures show the darker figures lurking below Labour's clever strategising. The government lost because of 30 Tories (and I regret nine Liberal Democrats). Among the former, many if not most want Britain to leave Europe at any cost. So those who propose Britain's splendid isolation from our European neighbours have now crucially diminished our standing with our closest Atlantic friends. Alone at last - God help us!

There is a dangerous mood of isolationism running in our country. George Osborne is right. As a nation we must make a clear decision whether this is the path we want, or not. Maybe I am just a hoary old voice from the past. Maybe last Thursday is the start of a new Britain, as the Tory isolationist right, Labour's pacifist left and some further-flung voices claim. If it is to be so, then let it be so because we have chosen it. Not sleepwalked into it.

There are big questions here. Why then would we need the world's fourth most expensive defence forces? As parliament debated, a Ukip poster van cruised outside with the slogan "Keep out of Syria! Oppose Defence cuts!" Do they really not see the connection?

Inside, the ranks of superannuated generals and admirals followed each other in orderly procession to warn us that action couldn't mean taking risks. Churchill said if you bring a bunch of generals together, all you get is the sum of their fears. Quite so.

And what, in this brave new world, will Labour do? Having placed in question its proud tradition of internationalism in pursuit of a mix of genuine concern and political opportunism, will it now join the crowd rushing for the exit, or help lead the way back to saner ground? Labour's answer to this question is of profound importance, not just to them, but to the whole future of progressive politics in our country. Criticise the government as one may, we now know the convictions of David Cameron and Nick Clegg - the latter driven by a passionate internationalism. We cannot say the same for Ed Miliband.

Parliament proved last week it would be no one's poodle - good. But if it were now to lead a Gadarene rush towards isolationism, that would be very bad indeed.

Paddy Ashdown was leader of the Liberal Democrats, 1988-99