Poor old David Cameron. He’s had a tough few days. On Syria he started out well, talking tough and denouncing human rights abuses, above all the regime’s appalling chemical weapons attack on its own people.
Roundly, unequivocally and rightly he condemned Bashar al-Assad’s inhuman and despicable behaviour.
But then he insisted we should retaliate. Why? Why Britain? What gives us the right as a single nation, or even as an alliance with America and France, to appoint ourselves judge, jury and executioner?
Moreover, whom should we bomb, and how?
We’ve had so-called smart bombs and sophisticated missiles for three decades yet, whenever they are employed, the innocent are inevitably maimed or killed. There’s no such thing as a clinical strike. War obliterates homes, destroys families indiscriminately and blights the lives of young and old alike. We rush to military action at our peril.
Accordingly, while I’m not a pacifist, I believe in avoiding war at almost any cost. So I take a different view from some commentators of last week’s Commons vote. Yes, I want Assad and his government punished, humiliated, overthrown, but that reaction stems mostly from anger. It’s a desire for retribution.
Yet vengeance is not mine to deliver. Nor is it the preserve of a single country or a small group acting as policemen for the world. They have no such authority. If justice is to be served on Assad, it should be done by his own people or, failing that, by the international community.
The United Nations should act. But the UN is something of a misnomer. It’s a depressingly divided body, one axis forming to block the diplomatic (or bellicose) efforts of another: meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis grows exponentially. Nonetheless the UN is the only body with the legitimate authority to take action against a rogue country.
So what happened in the Commons last week? Was it a humiliating defeat for the PM? Did Parliament show him that he can’t throw his weight around and simply demand its unquestioning support? Maybe. He was hasty in pushing for a vote: perhaps that haste was, indeed, punished.
I think two things happened in the Mother of Parliaments last week. First, Cameron’s advisers underestimated the fear that still remains in Britain of creating another Iraq or Afghanistan, of getting in deeper than we can manage and being unable to extricate ourselves.
Moreover, memories of the Iraq invasion are long: in 2003 Tony Blair drove a vote through, brooking no refusal and insisting with his spin doctors that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In the event, he had no such thing. He was a wicked dictator, and Iraq is better off without him. But the reason given for invading Iraq was false and our action thus without justification.
A decade later, Parliament was last week unsurprisingly nervous of committing itself unilaterally to military action, fearing for both our forces and the long-term consequences.
More important, perhaps, Parliament refused to be browbeaten by a dominant executive. MPs of all parties declined to be herded by their whips into the lobbies. Mindful of the fact that they represent constituencies, politicians did their job and voted according to their understanding, their consciences, and their world view. That’s what we elect and pay them to do.
Because it’s such a vexed and complex question, the vote was inevitably close. Opinion polls around the country are similarly tight. The people’s representatives voted largely in line with the views of the electorate, resolving only narrowly that Britain should not go to war with Syria. That’s how a true democracy should work.
Last week, our parliamentary democracy was tested. Whether or not you agree with its decision, and whether you share or are infuriated by my view, the system proved fit for purpose.
There may have been egg on Mr Cameron’s face, but the vote was a triumph for democracy.
Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. Views expressed here are personal