Wednesday, 2 December 2015

UK Involvement in Syria and the Libdem Vote

Below is my letter, written last night, to all Liberal Democrat MPs.  I was going to hold off publication until after the vote that is seems that all of them are posting on social media, justifying mlitary intervention.  There is therefore no reason to delay publication.

Below is also published a reply by Alistair Carmichael, who very kindly took the trouble to address the issues I raised.

Dear Gentlemen,

Some of you will know me, some may have heard the name and others won't have a clue who I am.  Thus a brief introduction is in order.

I joined the party in 1989 and apart from a break in the late 1990s when I lived abroad, I have been a member ever since.

Since my first signing on, I have considered myself a liberal and a Liberal Democrat.  We are the party who thinks things through, who considers the evidence available but also listens to our principles and go where they lead and not where others lead us.  It is true that makes for a party that is sometimes akin to a cat rodeo; that we are not passive and can appear to be disrespectful of the leadership.  This goes with being a liberal: an absolute belief that power ultimately is there to serve the individual.  We are all individuals.

My first count was 1989, where in the European elections we came fourth to the new Green Party.  I have stuck with the party, through thick and thin, even through the darkest days of the Coalition.  With no hope of victory, I stood for the party in this year's Westminster election because it was the right thing to do.  I have disagreed with policy (especially the tuition fees Nick) but I have stuck together.  I took the time to thank Nick for his leadership after he resigned.  When you were campaigning for the leadership, you said that you would get the Liberal Democrats into government within two elections.  You did it in one.  Fair play.

This evening though, I am in the greatest of difficulty.  It is my understanding that our MPs, you, will support David Cameron when he intends to take the Commons vote on UK military involvement in Syria.  During my professional career I have often worked in the region.  My experience has led me to the conclusion there is no just war in the Middle East that Britain can actively take part in at this time.  

This morning I sent you all a link to my latest blog.  Of course, I can but ask you read it.  My experience of the region is that our biggest ally, the USA, is neither actively seeking peace nor democracy in the region.  Thus no matter what the persuasion brought to bear by the government at this time, it does not matter if the whole game is crooked.  Thus we should not be playing it.

Charles Kennedy led us against war in Iraq and he was proved correct.  This war in Syria is a continuation of that conflict so it is not possible what was correct then is now false.  It was also one of my proudest moment of being a Liberal Democrat.

Gentlemen, it is my hope that you shall uphold the memory of that time by voting against the UK's involvement in what is a crooked conflict.  

Let me reassure you: I am not a peacenik.  Yes, I am against nuclear weapons and their ownership by the UK (or any other government) but I would also happily use the money saved to improve our conventional forces.  Alistair, you once said that you would support a just war.  There is no problem with that: it is just I cannot see any justice in Cameron's approach.  He wanted to bomb Assad in 2013.  Now he wants to bomb for Assad in 2015.  Our PM reminds me of the three-headed knight from Monty Python's Holy Grail, who wants tea and biscuits but not until they have killed somebody first.  On that all the heads can agree.

We Liberal Democrats are better than that.  Even by your five tests Tim, there is not the grounds to be involved.  Please don't make this a party-political issue by hoping to woe disaffected right-wing Labour MPs into our fold.  Let Labour self destruct instead.  They will come to us in the end.

As for myself, if you do back the war then I genuinely don't know what I will do.  This is hard.  I love being a Liberal Democrat.  Don't worry, this is not a threat: I know the party doesn't need me and the crazy kids of the Liberal Democrats will continue to have fun, without me or not.  I am not important; I just have a lot of thinking to do.  It is something I seem to be rather good at.

I have thought this matter of Syria through gentlemen.  There are other ways: working with the UN for example.  Using Britain's undoubted diplomacy and intelligence assets.  Not bombing does in no way mean inaction.  We should be active in this.  Our actions though should be towards a lasting peace, and not the continuation of war.

Please do not support David Cameron in tomorrow's vote.

Your sincerely,

Martin Veart
Edinburgh North, East and Leith.

PS.  After the vote tomorrow, I will put this letter up on my blog.  It is what I do.  MV.


As one of those  amongst the addressees who, I think, probably knows you best I wanted to reply to your message.  I know how long you have been part of our party and I hope you will, therefore, understand the reasons why we have taken the decisions that we have.

Like you I was proud of the stand that Charles Kennedy took as our leader in opposing the war in Iraq.  I actually did not find that to be nearly as difficult decision as the one which we have reached today.   It was quite clear that there was no legal basis for our participation in it and it was equally difficult to see where the UK national interest lay in our participation in it. 

I was, however, also proud of Paddy Ashdown when he led our party in calling for intervention in the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.   Week after week he made the case, shouted down by Labour and Conservatives, and ultimately he was shown to have been correct.

This summer I was immensely proud of Tim Farron as he championed the cause of unprecedented numbers of refugees coming to Europe, many of them fleeing the fighting in Syria and Iraq, especially the brutality of ISIL/Da’esh.  I hope you will agree that our response this summer was a liberal one.  It demonstrated the compassion and concern that is at the heart of our politics.   Compassion alone, however, only takes you so far.  If you are not prepared to do the difficult decisions when offered the opportunity (NB opportunity – not a guarantee) to tackle the civil war from which these people have fled, then your compassion, in my view, is devalued.   That is at the heart of the decision that we have taken today.

You are right to point out that some of the causes of the civil war in Syria date back to our mistaken involvement in Iraq – but there is an awful lot more to it than that.  The Iraq war did not make a despot out of Assad.   Even, however, if you were correct in your assertion that the conflict in Syria is a continuation of that in Iraq that does not absolve us of acting if an opportunity presents itself, as I believe it has done.  Arguably it increases our obligation to do so.   We have pressed the government hard to get commitments that if the UK continues to be part of this process then we shall invest heavily in the post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction.

Let us not lose sight of the differences with Iraq :

Iraq had no basis in law – This action is supported by a UNSC resolution that CALLS ON nations who have the capacity to act to do so.

Iraq was an American-led enterprise with little regional support – the Vienna process has the active participation of 63 states and 2 international organisations.   Russia (themselves the targets of a recent ISIL/Da’esh attack and a long standing barrier to progress through the UN) allowed resolution 2249 to pass.   We seek to act at the request of our neighbour, France.   Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark have all already committed to answer that request positively,

There is a direct UK interest to act here.  We are already vulnerable to attack in this country as well as seeing the number of refugees coming here from Syria.

You are right that the government in 2013 wanted to see the removal of Assad.  The Commons, however, voted against the process that MIGHT have led to that.  As a result President Obama lost his resolve to act and the civil war in Syria has continued since then.  As a result of that war we have seen thousands of people killed and thousands more displaced internally and becoming refugees.   The Vienna Process has as one of its stated aims establishing within six months, “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”; a process for the drafting of a new constitution and free and fair elections within eighteen months.   The future of Assad, therefore, will be part of the political and diplomatic process on which we are embarked.

Finally, you ask that we should work with the UN and use our diplomatic and political influence.  As I have said already, the UN resolution calls on us to act and our diplomatic and political efforts are complimentary to this not exclusive of it. 

I note that you are intending putting your letter on your blog.  I would be quite happy if you wanted to put my reply up too.

Yours ever,


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