The debate on Syria is important in so many ways.
I have a view, a strong personal view on what the UK and our allies ought to be doing in addressing Daesh, but as somebody whose work requires him to be – uncharacteristically – politically neutral in a party sense I’ll keep that opinion where it belongs: in my local pub, with my friends, at my hearth at home.
As a neutral, the nature of the debate itself that is happening, as I type, is unusual.
Most fundamentally, it’s happening in the House of Commons, which is where it should be. That chamber should be the crucible of our national debate, a combination of the Roman Senate and the gladiatorial arena when fact, argument and debate are pitted against each other. But it’s not just the romance of the Commons being itself at its best, for all that I’m in favour of that. It’s that our democracy is above all else a representative democratic tradition. Protests, letter-writing, petitioning all have their place in our national discourse but they are not there to replace Parliament. This, my friends, is democracy as it should be.
The debate’s also quite substantially based on considered thought, with MPs having given proper and sensible attention to both issues and the views of their constituents. It has been serious, measured, passionate and probing.
The long overdue decision to have a free vote on the Labour benches isn’t just an act of political necessity, for all that Mr Corbyn may well be pilloried by the ultra-left for daring to compromise with the political reality of needing to keep together a shadow cabinet, especially one drawn from a Parliamentary Labour Party with a democratic mandate at least as valid as his. It has also led to a debate in which genuine thought, reflection and serious consideration is being given to one of the great issues of politics: the decision to commit our forces to action. The nuanced, statesmanlike contributions of Alan Johnson, Margaret Beckett, Julian Lewis, Hilary Benn were Parliament at its best. In this, for all it is worrying for democrats of all political views to have an Official Opposition so weakly unable – at present – to provide a credible alternative government, it is to be welcomed.
What is less welcome is the deeply unpleasant abuse being directed at MPs on both sides of the debate by constituents – particularly local activists – who disagree with the position they will take at 10 when the lobbies are cleared. They would do well to remember the words of Edmund Burke:
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.