This post originally appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice
In some ways, the decision on whether to back the Government’s proposals to bomb Syria is one of the hardest the party has ever had to take. I’ll be honest, I don’t think that the case has been properly made in either long term strategy for Syria or in protecting the innocent civilians, many of whom are women and children. That is not to say that I can’t be persuaded. This is no Iraq where for months beforehand I just instinctively felt that it was the wrong thing to do. It’s a very complex set of circumstances and it’s very much a case of making a judgement call on the least worst option.
This piece is not about the rights and wrongs of the situation, though. It’s how we reach our position and how we conduct ourselves before, during and after. There have been things that have impressed me in the past few days, and things that have set off a few alarm bells. Tim Farron has not, I think, put a foot wrong. His reasoned approach with his five tests give credibility and authority and, unlike any other party, has given the government serious questions to answer. He has also been seriously engaging with people on Twitter and offline too.
From what I can see, the Liberal Democrat members seem to be pretty evenly split on whether to support airstrikes. There are sincerely held and well-argued points of view on both sides. So how do we get to a decision we can all live with? There are a couple of things that I think would help and a few things creeping in occasionally that certainly don’t.
Stick to the facts of the situation
The first thing we need to do is stick to the facts. As I said, Tim Farron’s five tests are sensible and credible and recognise that the horrendousness of Daesh can’t just be resolved by chucking a few bombs in Syria. They don’t just exist in Syria. They are a well-funded global network and part of the solution means cutting off the money that goes to them from countries with whom this country has some relationship. Saudi Arabia issuing a fatwa against them might be progress, but it’s action, not words that matter.
It is really important that we try and make the government close the gaping holes in its case. That’s what we’re for. Someone has to do it while Labour is devouring itself. Who, for example, are those 70,000 fighters on the ground? Are their leaders going to be capable of forming a stable post conflict Syria? What happens with Assad and how is the reconstruction effort going to be managed? Is Cameron’s billion going to be given to private western companies to go and “fix things” or is there going to be real input from local communities to create something sustainable that meets their needs?
Our decision should be solely about the facts and the situation on the ground in Syria, not about any other war or set of circumstances. We need to try and stick clear of emotive arguments that doubt the motivations of the other side. You can reach either side of the argument from a liberal perspective. I’m just aware that discussion on social media and elsewhere is at times polarising and heading in unhelpful and disrespectful directions. There is also some disquiet among some Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords that emotive rhetoric is being used by some in place of reasoned argument and that concerns about action are not being treated with the respect they deserve.
Tim Farron has done pretty well so far in his leadership in bringing the party together behind him. On this one, though, whatever decision he makes will disappoint the members who wanted him to tale a different view. I have no doubt that he will deal with this with sensitivity and will set an example that we should all follow.
I feel that, whatever way we go, we will need a detailed explanation of why the five tests have or have not been met and that even if our MPs decide to vote for action, we have to reserve the right to speak up if things do not proceed along the principles set out in those tests. I guess we also have to be aware that the MPs will have had briefings that we haven’t. As much as we want them to listen to us as members, we also need to listen to them, too and trust that they have made their decision for the right reasons.