Military Action in a Democracy

Recent events in the UK, USA and potentially France regarding military action have raised interesting questions about how militaries operate within democracies.  Last week we saw the surprising defeat of David Cameron’s attempts to gain parliamentary legitimacy for military strikes against the Syrian government – his already watered-down bill being rejected by a majority of 13 votes.  Both Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have said that military action against Syria is now off the agenda, and that we shan’t be joining the USA in any potential strikes.  Interestingly, the votes weren’t even about the actual strikes, merely the timescale, but the defeat seems to have been interpreted as an altogether rejection of the plans.  Opinions on this particular issue aside, I’m convinced that this result was a victory for the democratic system.  Polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is against any military action, which the parliamentary vote reflected.  We’ve since had President Obama announce that Congress will have a vote on the issue*

What’s remarkable is that, to the best of my knowledge, leaders have nearly always been able to go to war without much opposition from parliament.  Before the First World War Britain was admittedly gripped by jingoistic fervour and the idea that wars had little consequence for us, therefore resulting in conflicts in South Africa and the Crimea going ahead without resistance.  But even after the First World War, we entered the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War without parliament stopping them.  While it’s important to make the distinction which many seem to be forgetting that David Cameron never intended to go to war over Syria, just launch strikes, parliament effectively blocking military action in such a way still seems unprecedented.  This really is a testament to just how war-weary a nation we’ve become.  I read a brilliant quote recently but unfortunately can’t remember the source, which went something like “Such processes must be alien to the Syrian military system“, which sums up precisely why I feel so privileged to live in a democracy.

The British Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents all have the power to authorise initial military action without parliamentary approval, although, unless events unfolded very favourably indeed, it would be tantamount to political suicide for any of these leaders to bypass the wishes of parliament.  So the interesting question is raised: should parliament have the legal power to authorise military action planned by the government?  There’s a strong democratic argument in favour, in that power is with the elected representatives, not one solitary leader, and that forcing debates through parliament encourages all sides of an issue to be heard and considered.  Then again, if parliament was necessary for military action to be used, we’d be helpless within a crisis without passing emergency legislation.  Take the situation in the USA, where any military action taken would occur at least three weeks after the chemical attacks of Gouta.  That’s not a problem here, where it is wise to gather as much evidence as possible before taking action, but it would be a clear problem in other scenarios.  All things considered, I think the best system might be for the elected leader to continue having the power to make decisions regarding war and peace, but parliament should have the power to block such action before it is taken – and the opportunity to do so.  Effectively, the system we have now except more ground into law.

Somewhat relevant is one of my favourite political theories: the Democratic Peace Theory.  In short, this cites statistical evidence of the fact that democracies are far less likely to wage war with one another than authoritarian states.  This could be due to the accountability of democratic militaries, or the democratic culture of achieving aims through negotiation, or the current link between democracy and globalised trade.  It’s one of the main reasons that Western policymakers are so keen to promote democracy abroad, as the theory suggests that once worldwide democracy is achieved, limited world peace might even be a possibility.  You can look at how peaceful Europe has become since becoming a democratic entity as partial evidence of this.  Anyhow, I’ve interpreted recent parliamentary procedures as more evidence of the theory working.

*Because, you know, when faced with an impossible, complex decision, who better than Congress to solve it?

August 2013: Course of the Syrian Civil War

I’ve been planning since June this year to write a piece summarising developments in and the overall course of the Syrian Civil War.   However, as the conflict seems ever more hopeless and it becomes clearer that I have no authority at all to comment on it, I’ve been putting off writing anything.  Now though, as this shameful failure of international cooperation has returned dramatically to the news, I feel compelled to write something.

Because other journalists and bloggers have discussed the pros and cons of Western military intervention in Syria, I shan’t go into too much detail here but instead will link to these articles at the end.  To summarise: last Wednesday, 21st July, evidence emerged of a horrific massacre in the East of Damascus in which hundreds of civilians were killed, seemingly by chemical weapons.  This led to a flurry of accusations: the Syrian government and rebels blamed each other, of course, while international powers took predictable stances – The USA, UK, France, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf States have accused the government of carrying out the massacre, while Russia and Iran have suggested the rebels might be responsible.  I clearly couldn’t comment, but the government being behind the chemical attack initially seems more likely; while the rebels had the motive of causing a backlash against the government while UN chemical weapon investigators had just entered the country, they very probably lacked the capability to do so.  They occurred during the context of a government offensive into rebel-held areas, which you can make of what you will.  That the rebels were behind it can’t be ruled out either.

The weapons inspectors have since Monday been investigating the site of the attacks – the rebels, it should be noted, agreed far sooner than the government.  US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the government of:

“Refus[ing] to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide”

Since the attacks, there has been a clamour from among certain Western governments to act.  The USA has moved warships into the Mediterranean, while Kerry’s speech appeared to be setting the stage for military intervention of some form.  UK Prime Minister David Cameron appears to share the USA’s view that military action should be taken.  The most likely option will be remote missile strikes against Syrian military targets, as a ‘punishment’ of sorts for the use of chemical weapons, aimed at deterring the Assad regime of using them any further as well as sending a signal to the tyrants of the future that their use will not be tolerated.  Looking at it this way, I hesitantly agree with this strategy – although it seems strange that chemical weapons, as horrific as they are, appear worse to the international community than the shooting of children on streets, bombardment of civilian districts, the imprisoning, torturing and executing of anyone suspected of supporting the opposing side; the list of crimes go on and on.  That said, I’m glad a ‘red line’ can be drawn somewhere.

There certainly isn’t an appetite for military intervention.  The ghost of Iraq is still present in the UK and USA, and while a full military invasion is thankfully not on the table even something as seemingly non-committal as missile strikes are very unpopular, with the UK population twice as likely to oppose them.  There’s a similar hesitancy within parliament.  Parliament has been recalled early from recess for the fourth time this government.  While Cameron has the final word on deploying the British armed forces, it would be seen as very politically dangerous to do so without parliament’s consent.  Labour has said it will not support military action until the UN inspectors have published their report, and it seems the Liberal Democrats could be hesitant also.  Events have been moving and it’s all quite confusing, but I think there will be two votes: one tomorrow on a motion calling for a ‘strong humanitarian response’, and one next week once the report is available on the possibility of military action.  This could have the effect of slowing down momentum for a response but I agree with Labour that we should wait for the UN report before making any decisions.

It’s also worth noting that military action would probably be illegal without UN Security Council backing – almost certain to be blocked by Russia and China.  This is just another example of how flawed and outdated an institution it is, in need of heavy reform.

By Futuretrillionaire [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s the situation regarding any potential military not-quite-intervention.  On the ground in Syria, the government appears to have been consolidating its position.  While still besieged and embattled – someone earlier on the BBC made the ridiculous argument that Syria today might be in a stronger military position than Iraq in 2003, seeming to forget that the government can’t even control its own claimed territory, let alone go to war with the most powerful alliance in the history of the world – it has been making gains.  Most significantly, Hezbollah entered the fray earlier this year and helped the Syrian army capture the town of al-Qusayr and nearby villages along the Lebanese border, assuring a strategic route for the government between Damascus and its strongholds along the coast.

Small exchanges of territory have since occured, largely in the government’s favour although this week the rebels captured the town of Khanasir to the south of Aleppo which has effectively cut off government forces in and around Aleppo from the rest of the country.  In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, the rebels roughly control the east while the government controls the west.  Losing Aleppo would be a major blow to the Assad regime and perhaps even put the war onto even footing.  Meanwhile, a disturbing ‘civil war within a civil war’ seems to be occurring, as moderate and radical elements of the rebellion turn against each another.  This began when a Free Syrian Army leader was assassinated by rebels linked to al-Qaeda.  Radical Islamist elements – including the expanding al-Nusra Front – appear now to be leading the rebellion and control significant territories to the north and east of the country.  It’s these divisions which have made the West back away from plans to arm the rebels, an option I have also become more wary of.  There have also been clashes between these rebels and Kurdish militias, which has been responsible for a mass exodus of refugees into Iraq.

Gosh, this has been depressing to write.  Again, I really am not qualified to talk about the deteriorating situation in Syria, but I think it’s important we in the West understand what is going on before we make any decisions to involve ourselves.  For the average person, there’s really not a lot we can do to help ease Syria’s suffering.  I’d suggest lobbying MPs and the government but it’s not lack of will holding them back, rather a lack of credible options and divisions within the UN Security Council.  The Red Cross have set up a Syria Appeal for donations to help provide supplies for the growing number of refugees, which seems to be all we can do to improve the situation, unfortunately.

Links:

The Legacy of Colonialism

David Cameron must be getting pretty sick of all these disputes popping up across the world about various Overseas Territories.  Recent sabre-rattling by Argentina over the Falkland Islands has only just fizzled out and now we’re seeing tensions grow between the UK and Spain once again over Gibraltar.  These stories appear in the news frequently, and each time they do I’m reminded of just how messy colonialism is.  Between roughly the 16th century and the early 20th, our country (morphing from the Kingdom of England into Great Britain into the UK) took control of approximately a quarter of the world, soaking up territories in North America, Africa, Asia as well as bits and pieces dotted about elsewhere.  However after two world wars this Empire proved unmanageable for several reasons and was gradually dismantled.  This process was mostly completed by the mid 1960s.  So how are we still facing so many issues 50 years later?

Colonialism clearly penetrates so deeply that it cannot easily be plucked free from the countries it affects.  You might expect this of the victim countries – a huge number of problems* in Africa and Asia today can be directly attributed to British colonialism – but who’d have thought we here, in the ‘master country’, would continue to be plagued by it?  Turns out letting go of our colonial possessions isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Granted, our problems are far less significant, but the point I’m trying to make is that colonialism is too messy an endeavour to possibly clean up in half a century.  It will be many more centuries, I expect, before we’re passed its repercussions.

To be clear, I’m not criticising the British government for holding onto the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.  The people of Gibraltar have consistently shown that they would rather live under relaxed British rule than become part of Spain, while 99.8% of Falkland Islanders voted earlier this year to stay British.  As long as the people of any Overseas Territory wish to stay part of the UK, they ought to be.  It’s the imperial actions which created the problems in the first place I object to.  What’s done is done; seeking a reversal of these actions is often impossible.

Basically, continuing conflicts such as these should serve as a reminder to us and to future generations that colonialism is not only wrong but simply not worth the effort.  As time goes on and we forget about the horrors of war, imperialism and nationalism, there’s a very great risk the same mistakes might be made again.  We mustn’t let this happen.

*Okay, I acknowledge that many positive things also came from British colonialism, such as developed infrastructure, wider availability of vaccines, trade links, etc.  More bad than good, I would argue, but that’s a debate for another day.  Either way, these nations are undeniably still shaped by the legacy of colonialism.

 

My Issues with Westminster Politics

I’ve noticed that, other than to discuss opinion polling (a post on which is overdue), I don’t tend to speak about British politics very much on this blog.  This isn’t because it doesn’t interest me, nor because I don’t follow it.  I just don’t tend to have much to say, for some reason or another.  I think this may partly be due to the fact that, regarding Westminster at any rate, I tend to feel a general antipathy towards the entire system.  I dislike our monarchical system, I blame the electoral system for a large number of problems our country faces – or, at least, for limiting our solutions – and I don’t feel inspired by any of the major parties:

The Conservative Party
My views tend to veer to the left so, clearly, the UK’s main right-wing party does nothing for me.  I oppose our current Conservative-led government’s obsessive drive to enforce austerity upon us, thereby punishing the weakest of our society for a crisis they didn’t cause.  While recognising the private sector has its place I oppose the relentless agenda of privatisation they’re enforcing upon us.  Ridiculous assaults on people in need of benefits with policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ are disgraceful.  While I am thankful for David Cameron’s somewhat moderate leadership, trying to reign in the Eurosceptic backbenches and pushing through gay marriage, I still think he is a poor prime minister.

UKIP
Same as the Conservatives, but worse.  As someone who is pro-Europe, pro-immigration, pro-renewable energy but not particularly fond of pubs, I don’t think I have a single thing in common with this party.

Labour
I really want to like Labour.  In theory the mainstream party of social democracy, my amateur opinion is that it abandoned this title long ago.  New Labour did some great things – most of which were before I became politically aware – my favourite of which is introducing the minimum wage, but it seemed to bow to the concept of privatised, unadulterated individualism which Thatcher imposed upon the country.   More shockingly, I’ve read a few criticisms from Labour supporters at the flimsiness of Labour’s policies which, after a whole 13 years of being implemented, are easily being torn away in a fraction of the time by our current coalition government.  If Labour were to promise some real, left-wing progressive policies – nationalisation of the railways,  ambitious cuts to carbon emissions, the scrapping of Trident and a proper, growth-focused alternative to austerity, to name a few – I might change my mind.  As it is, we have a shadow cabinet which has stated it will more or less continue the coalition’s austerity drive and is currently tearing itself apart over the role of unions in the party.  I’m not well informed enough about this issue to make a detailed comment but, without the unions, what would be the point of Labour?  They’d simply be a less scary version of the Conservatives.

Liberal Democrats
I think people have been too harsh to the Liberal Democrats at times.  As a junior partner in a coalition, with less than 1/5 of the seats the Conservative party have (they should have three times as many but, you know, our electoral system…) they really can’t be expected to live up to all of their promises.  That said, Liberal Democrat policies have taken such a beating in this government – tuition fees, changing the electoral system, reforming the House of Lords, etc – that I’m amazed any of their MPs see the coalition as still being worthwhile.  I suspect they’re staying in only in the hope that their abysmal poll performance improves.  The last three years has been proof that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is in reality a vote for either Labour or Conservative, depending whichever performs better.  That said, of the four they would still probably be my preferred option, if only because they are the only party seeking to reform the electoral system and end this straitjacket upon British politics.

It’s not the only reason, but an electoral system which only lets our vote count for two almost identical parties is why I largely feel disillusioned with Westminster politics and why I have far more confidence in the Scottish system.  I’m sure I can’t be the only person being pushed by this charade towards viewing Scottish independence as a positive thing.

Nevertheless, I will try to pay greater attention to developments in both UK and Scottish politics, and I’ll make an effort to blog about them a little more.  I doubt that will do much for my lack of faith but it might make it more justified.  If you disagree with any of this, please let me know why!

Tuition Fees (And Why I Love the Scottish Government)

I just want to make a brief post in which I gush at how grateful I am towards the policies of the current Scottish National Party administration within the Scottish government which allow students studying for their first degree to be excempt from paying tuition fees.  Yesterday I received a letter from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland in which they promised to pay the roughly £1,800 yearly fee to study at Edinburgh University.  I have to apply again each year, but over the course of four years this will have saved me £7,200.  And the fee of £1,800 is incredibly modest! (I can’t help wondering how much a student from south would have to pay).

Compare this to the system in England and Wales: yearly tuition fees which can be up to £9,000 a year, after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition as Westminster introduced them a couple of years ago.  Over a standard three-year course (it’s generally four years in Scotland) this would leave many students up to £27,000 in debt.  It’s abhorrent, and I deeply pity everyone subject to this hopefully temporary measure.  I can understand why the Scottish government has decided to make tuition fees apply to students from England and Wales – otherwise Scottish students would likely lose out as our universities would become understandably swamped – but I certainly wish there were another way.  It’s as if the young people of England and Wales are being punished for having the misfortune to have simply been born where they were. 

University is expensive.  As I’ll be moving to Edinburgh I will also have to worry about the costs of accommodation and also just the costs of living independently without a stable income.  I’m in the fortunate position of having some money available to me for university and I will never take this for granted, but I know so many other students will find it a financial struggle.  Abolishing tuition fees for a first degree massively reduces this struggle, therefore working to break down the class barrier and, within a generation, improving the skills of the population as a whole.

Related articles:

2013 UK Local Elections Analysis

A day or so late with this, but here are the results of Thursday’s local elections:
[PNS = Predicted National Share]

2013 local elections

The news has been reporting these elections as the final breakthrough of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) into British politics; BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson described it as “The day UKIP emerged as a real political force in the land.”  And when you look at the results, there is no denying how well the party has performed.  If every party had stood candidates in every council ward and the votes spread across the country evenly, UKIP is projected to have won 23% of the total vote.  That’s about the same the Liberal Democrats won in the 2010 General Election.  There is no denying Nigel Farage’s claims that UKIP “is here to stay.”  However, lets get these results into perspective.

There is always a party which wins a spectacularly large amount of votes during midterm elections for a government – often referred to as the “protest vote”.  This would normally be the Liberal Democrats, who in 2009 [the last time these seats were up for election] won 28% of the vote.  This went down by 5 percentage points for the following year’s general election, indicating that voting for council seats and voting for the next government are two very different things.  With the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Conservatives, and Labour still generally quite unpopular, UKIP have begun to vacuum up these disillusioned votes.

Secondly, there seats are generally recognised to be in very right-wing areas.  This is generally to the benefit of the Conservatives, but now have begun aiding UKIP.  Labour traditionally perform poorly in these seats, so the fact they are leading in the votes, even with only 29%, should not be played down.  These UKIP results, considering this and the protest factor, should be seen as the party’s maximum potential under its current level of popularity.  It’s looking very likely that UKIP will elect its first MPs in 2015, but how many?  Even if it does manage to attain a respectable percentage of the vote, it’s going to suffer from the same problem which has blighted the Liberals for decades: our First Past the Post electoral system.  Even for the local elections, despite UKIP achieving 9 percentage points more of the vote than the Liberal Democrats, they won 200 fewer seats.

Reactions to this result within the Conservative Party have ranged from Cameron’s calm resolve of winning back voters to blind panic and demands to hold an EU referendum before the next election.  My fear is that politicians of all parties will begin tripping over themselves to declare harsher and harsher immigration policies i an attempt to stem to flow of voters to UKIP – not something I would like to see.  However Labour, at least, has little to fear from UKIP.  I read a statistic earlier suggesting that Labour didn’t lose a single seat to UKIP, whereas the Conservatives must have lost at least a few good dozen.  Indeed, with Labour retaining David Miliband’s South Shields seat in the by-election and replacing the incumbent mayors in Doncaster and North Tyneside with Labour candidates, this has been a good week for Ed Miliband.  At first glance UKIP would appear to be the true winners of these elections, but upon further inspection I would argue that this title goes to Labour.

(I am a little bit sad the Greens didn’t perform very well, but at least they managed to win a few more seats).

Changes to the Minimum Wage (2013)

Good news, everyone!  The UK government has announced that the minimum wage shall increase!  For over 21s it shall increased from £6.19 to £6.31, and for 18-20s from £4.98 to £5.03.  The minimum wage was introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998, and has virtually put a stop to any exploitative employment which may have been seen previously, by ensuring all workers earn a decent rate.  It has been criticised for being too low, so, surely, this is good news?

Well, no.

These increases (1.9% for adults) are well below the current national inflation rate of 2.8%.  Sure, wages are increasing, but the cost of living is rising faster.  If we assume that poor, working people are not the government’s greatest priority (it’s been obvious for quite some time), this doesn’t even make economic sense.  The economy is not going to get moving unless we increase the spending power of the population as a whole, but the government seems set on boosting the wealth of businesses and the upper middle-class, over the misguided belief that making it easier for the wealthy to become even more wealthy will cause some of their wealth to ‘trickle down’.  These ideas were first majorly implemented by Prime Minister Thatcher and… well… The figures really speak for themselves.

Wealth has been getting progressively more concentrated since Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected in 1979.  Labour, to their shame, did little to reverse this concentration, and the current Conservative-led government is clearly, day by day, continuing these disastrous policies.  Look at that chart.  Very soon, if not already, we’re going to be back to Victorian levels of inequality – unless someone does something about it.  Cameron and Clegg certainly don’t seem particularly bothered.