On the face of it, the vote on 26 September could hardly have been more decisive. As the sun set over Westminster, the government’s motion for air strikes against Islamic State (Isis) targets in Iraq was carried overhelmingly, by 524 votes to 43, giving a majority of 481. All the main political parties voted strongly in favour. All their leaders backed the motion and spoke up for it. As a parliamentary endorsement of UK military action it was almost as emphatic as the 557-13 vote over Libya in 2011. It has to be hoped that, when we can all look back in three years, the consequences of the Isis vote will seem more reassuring than those of the Libya vote seem today.
David Cameron, who miscalculated so humiliatingly in the Commons recall over Syria in August last year, this time won the kind of endorsement he was denied in 2013. Instead of sending an anti-intervention shockwave that stayed President Obama’s hand and had diplomatic repercussions across the Middle East, the selfsame members of the selfsame House of Commons this time voted overwhelmingly to go back into military action. Within hours of the result, RAF Tornados were expected to start bombing missions against Isis positions.
Yet the decisive Commons majority was in important respects misleading. Its size masked the conditionalities and nuances which characterised much of the full day’s debate and most of the important speeches, not least Mr Cameron’s own. This was not a Commons awash with bellicose bombers. It was a Commons whose members seemed mostly to be very cautious warriors, anxious to do their bit and to do the right thing but reluctant to do too much. The debate was, for the most part, thoughtful and reasoned. In the end, perhaps this was the vote of a nation, Britain, that is gradually, sometimes painfully, but increasingly emphatically, adjusting to its post-2003 limitations, while at the same time trying not to lose sight of genuine international and humanitarian responsibilities.
The house that voted yes over attacking Isis was in truth a rather similarly conflicted house to the one that produced the no over attacking Syria last year. The difference between the two was partly the difference between the hideously tangled complexity of the Syrian situation and the seemingly — emphasis on seemingly — more black-and-white problem presented by Isis. But a crucial difference this time was also party management. Last year, Mr Cameron was cocky and careless — and paid the price. This time the political ground was very thoroughly prepared between the parties. Parliament was only recalled once Labour was on board.
The deal between the two front benches was reflected in the motion for which MPs voted. It is important that the government accepts and honours how limited that motion is. Predicated on an Iraqi request for air support, with UK ground troops explicitly excluded, the proposed action confined to Iraqi territory and a further vote promised on any action in Syria, the government’s mandate is clear, potentially long-lasting but narrow. The danger of mission creep — raised by Dennis Skinner in the first intervention in the prime minister’s speech at the start of the day — permeated the whole debate. Mr Cameron himself would like authorisation to extend to Syria. His former attorney general Dominic Grieve was one of several MPs who argued that legal authority already exists for such an expansion. But the motion passed rules it out. That should be the end of the matter without a new motion. Given his previous difficulties over Syria, Mr Cameron cannot assume that he would win a majority on Syria soon. With a general election looming, he would be reckless to try.
The vote was another reminder that parliamentary authorisation of UK military action in all but emergency circumstances has become a reality since 2003. This is a huge change, effectively bringing what were once prerogative powers exercised by the prime minister under tight democratic sanction. Robin Cook, much cited in yesterday’s debate, has secured his legacy. The effectiveness of the policy that parliament has authorised will now be put to the test. Few policies of this kind survive undented once they are put into practice. That is why the policy must be kept under review and why Britain should not be afraid to rethink in the light of experience.