Last night’s parliamentary defeat for the government over the proposed military intervention in Syria was both dramatic and potentially hugely significant. There will be (indeed there has already been) a great deal written about it by many, many people – from the impact it might have on the people of Syria to the possibly massive political ramifications in the UK. I don’t propose to add to those – I was hugely surprised by the events of last night, and fully expected, right until the moment that the result of the vote was announced, the government to win and for military action to be given the green light. That shows how much I know… and means I’ll await events rather than pretend that I know what’s going to happen next.
There is, however, one aspect that I want to say a few words about – and one aspect of the debate in the House of Commons that really impressed me. That’s the way that a large number of MPs, on all sides of the House, were unwilling to accept the idea that there was a simple solution to a highly complex problem: that there was one ‘obvious’ way to deal with it. It is a highly seductive way to look at things – but it very rarely turns out to be true. The simple solution suggested here – effectively ‘surgical strikes’, limited in scope and in impact – didn’t convince me, and didn’t convince the MPs. Speech after speech asked questions to which there seemed to be no answers forthcoming: most directly, ‘how do you know this will actually work?’
There’s no question that the Assad regime is nightmarish. The atrocities that we’ve seen the results of should sicken everyone. They certainly sicken me – and I would love to be able to find a way to stop them. That, however, does not mean that I would do ‘anything’ that is suggested – however bad things are, they can get worse, and they very often do when a seemingly simple solution is suggested.
From a political perspective simple solutions are very attractive – they can be ‘sold’ to the public, they can make good headlines in the newspapers – but when you look closer, they rarely provide the answers that are needed. In my specialist field, we’ve seen this again and again in recent months. The idea that you can ‘solve’ the complex challenge of pornography on the internet with a ‘simple’ filter system (about which I’ve blogged many times, starting with these 10 questions) is attractive but pretty much unworkable and has highly damaging side effects. The ideas that you can ‘solve’ the problem of abusive tweeting with a ‘simple’ report abuse button (see here) or deal with trolling comments on blogs with a ‘simple’ real names policy (see here) are similarly seductive – and similarly counterproductive. These are complex problems – and in reality they need more complex, more nuanced, more thoughtful solutions.
The MPs in last night’s debate seemed to understand that – and not like it. They were being asked to support something essentially on trust – with minimalist legal evidence and even flimsier intelligence support – and they wanted to know more. Enough of them could see that the ‘simple’ solution being suggested was not as simple as it seemed – and wanted to know more, to think more, and to be given more time. Most of all, they wanted to have more evidence that it would work – that it would make the situation better for the people of Syria. Personally, I don’t think we know that it would. It might – but it might well not.
I was challenged last night on Twitter by a few people to offer an alternative – and I couldn’t provide one, certainly not in 140 characters. I want to see more diplomacy, I want to see more imagination, I want to see more humanitarian support, I want to see more engagement with the people not only of Syria but Iran – but do I know that this will work? Of course I don’t. I can’t offer a simple solution. I highly suspect there isn’t one. This will be messy, this will be bloody, this will be hideous – it already is. ‘Standing by and doing nothing’ is horrible – but military intervention is horrible too. There’s no easy way out – and we should stop pretending, particularly to ourselves, that there is.