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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Some British Leaders Calling For Second Syria Vote

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, to be driven to the Houses of Parliament for a debate and vote on Syria, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. (Matt Dunham/AP)

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, to be driven to the Houses of Parliament for a debate and vote on Syria, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. (Matt Dunham/AP)

Some members of the British Parliament, as well as the influential mayor of London, are calling on Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a second vote on taking military action against Syria, nearly one week after Cameron became the first British prime minister in 150 years to lose a parliamentary vote on military action.

Cameron is ruling out a second vote, even though new evidence has emerged about the Syrian government’s use of chemical attack on civilians.

We speak with Ben Bradshaw, a member of the opposition Labour party in the British Parliament.

Bradshaw wrote in a blog post after the vote last week, “Last night the Commons voted against Britain taking military action – by accident. It may be an outcome supported by a majority of the public, but it was not what any of the main parties or their leaders wanted.”

Bradshaw abstained on voting on Cameron’s motion to use force if needed against Syria.




Well, some members of the British Parliament are asking for a second vote on Syria. You'll remember they were called back from summer break last week, Prime Minister Cameron making an impassioned case for a strike. But members of the opposition Labour Party in particular not persuaded. Cameron lost the vote, the first British prime minister in 150 years to lose a parliamentary vote on military action.

But did Labour leaders, as liberal columnist Dan Hodges wrote in the Daily Telegraph, wake up the next day and ask, oh god, what have we done? Joining us from the BBC in London is Ben Bradshaw, parliamentary member of the Labour Party. Mr. Bradshaw, is that an accurate characterization of how members of your party felt after that vote?

BEN BRADSHAW: Well, I wouldn't put it quite like Dan Hodges did, Robin, but I would say that the result that we got on Thursday night was not a result that any of the main political parties in Great Britain wanted or any of their leaders wanted. What we thought we were voting on was against immediate action, against no action, but to come back as and when a decision was the right time to make a decision then.

But I'm afraid the way that Prime Minister Cameron handled this whole matter was catastrophic, and we've ended up being in a place where, to be honest, I don't think any of us really wanted to be, which is why some of us, including me, are arguing that we should reconsider this and Prime Minister Cameron should swallow his pride, bring the matter back when the time is right to make a decision based on proper evidence, what's happened at the United Nations and any decision that Congress may by then have made.

YOUNG: Well to be clear, so you're saying that in your minds you were just voting on not striking then, in that moment. You did not think that was your final vote?

BRADSHAW: Yes, I think legislators across parties felt that they were being bounced by Prime Minister Cameron into making a decision on Thursday on military action when we hadn't seen the evidence. We hadn't, for example, seen America's intelligence document, which is very comprehensive. We hadn't given time for the weapons inspectors to come back and report, which at the time we were told they were going to do in literally a matter of days.

So I think people felt we were being felt to make a decision when we weren't ready. Prime Minister Cameron had not done what President Obama and Senator Kerry are doing so effectively, which is making the case, making the argument. So MPs here weren't ready to make that decision. Both the Labour amendment and the government's own motion made clear that we wouldn't be approving of military action now, but that if that were to happen, Parliament would have to return in a week or so's time to make that decision.

What really took us all by surprise was when the prime minister stood up in the House of Commons after losing the vote, and rather than saying yes, he would come back in a week or two's time to reconsider the matter, he simply put the whole issue of British action off the agenda. We were all taken aback by that, and that's why I think we need another vote.

YOUNG: Well, it was pretty impassioned in Parliament. Let's remind listeners. Under your system, the prime minister visits weekly and takes questions from Parliament, in this case it was about his proposal to strike Syria. And it's quite something. Are you saying that members were just unprepared to take the vote, and constituents, who were mentioned quite frequently, also not quite sure what was going on?

BRADSHAW: Yes indeed, and in fact I've written a blog saying exactly that, that Parliament arrived at a position that the majority of the British public might support, but we did so by accident. And the difficulty I have with Prime Minister Cameron's approach is that he rushed back from holiday, he didn't do the groundwork, he didn't even prepare the numbers on his own side.

He clearly didn't think he was going to lose the vote. We didn't think he was going to lose the vote because if he had thought that, then he should have, and would normally under own procedure, have accepted Labour's alternative amendment, which itself did not rule out Britain supporting action.

So we arrived at a position of Britain standing on the sidelines when other liberal democracies around the world may well take action to uphold decent norms - in the face of the use of chemical weapons. And Britain could well be on the sidelines. That's a position that many of us, including me, find very difficult indeed.

YOUNG: Well, but you - as you say, you accidentally but you nonetheless came to the same position that your constituents have. Polls show that 68 percent of Brits surveyed thought it was right for you to vote against military action. And as was mentioned in that spirited several hour debate, it's quite something to listen to, Iraq is a shadow over all of this.

There are many people in Britain who would applaud the fact that Britain might stand on the sideline because they feel now that maybe Britain should have in the invasion of Iraq. So are you at all concerned that maybe you did do the right thing and are now feeling rushed by maybe what's happening in the U.S. to reverse it?

BRADSHAW: No, I think President Obama has approached this in a very courageous and measured and sensible way. You're right, Iraq and Afghanistan did create a shadow over our debate, but we shouldn't learn the wrong lessons from those conflicts. And you mention opinion polling. You're right that currently the majority of the population here would be against Britain taking part in any military action. But a similar majority would support the United States doing so and believes that we should support the United States at least in rhetoric if not in deeds.

And don't forget the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain in 1939 was hugely popular in Britain. There were thousands, millions of people on the streets demonstrating in favor of appeasement. Look what happened a few months later.

YOUNG: Well, Secretary of State John Kerry has said that he has new evidence of the use of sarin. There will be a report from U.N. weapons inspectors. Are you saying that you just want another opportunity to consider, or are you saying, Ben Bradshaw, that you would vote for a strike, having abstained in the other vote, if you were given a chance?

BRADSHAW: It's not just me, but there are parliamentarians here across the political parties who are saying that we should have another go at this, not that we should prejudge the outcome. I'm not even confident that the Parliament, British Parliament, would vote in favor, even in different circumstances. But I do not believe the vote on Thursday was a real and true and accurate expression of the will of parliamentarians.

We didn't have the evidence. We didn't have the United Nations report. We didn't have the support of Congress, which I hope we'll get fairly soon, and I do not understand why the British prime minister is so insistent. It's almost as if he's too proud to admit that he cocked up on this and will not revisit the issue. I think it's not good for Britain's national interest. It's not good for Britain's standing in the world.

YOUNG: Well, Prime Minister Cameron's government said a second vote isn't going to happen, but the Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, said you can never say never.

BRADSHAW: Well, we're getting mixed messages. You're absolutely right, Robin. And that in itself is a bad thing.

YOUNG: Ben Bradshaw, a member of the Labour Party in the British Parliament. Thank you so much.

BRADSHAW: You're most welcome.


And while the debate on Syria continues in the U.K. and the U.S., countries in the region are dealing with a refugee crisis. The U.N. now reports that the number of Syrians who have fled the country have risen to two million. That story coming up later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We'll be back in one minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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