Dear Somerton and Frome Constituents,
In the run up to the debate on Syria - and in the days since - I received an enormous amount of correspondence expressing every possible shade of opinion. I spent a huge amount of time researching and thinking about this topic - and I'm very grateful to all those constituents who've got in touch to share their opinions in a constructive spirit - the vast majority of whom obviously realised what a difficult decision this was. I hope that my thoughts below offer some explanation as to why I supported the motion before the House.
Without the occupation and top-down rule of territory, Daesh’s claims to theological authority are quite literally baseless. The notion of a caliphate has very rapidly been transformed from a numinous aspiration to a geographical fact – and removing this land from their grip is an essential precondition of meeting the wider challenges they pose. Within their territory, systematic rape, torture and arbitrary killings take place – not as aberrant exceptions to a rule of law but in expression of their primitive jurisprudence. As I said in the House last Wednesday, it seems that the short and long-term foreign policy of Daesh has two distinct aims. The first is to consolidate its current holdings in the Levant which already cover an area larger than the UK. Where the threat posed by Al-Qaeda was diffuse, a network of autonomous cells which ostensibly worked towards the establishment of a caliphate (which was not expected to materialise in the lifetime of its leaders), the existence and territorial integrity of the actual (aspirant) caliphate of Daesh is a necessary precondition for it to function.
The second aim is contingent upon the first: the insinuation of Daesh’s version of soft power into Western societies and there encourage it to calcify into implacable extremism. The very idea of them possessing any soft power seems almost inexplicable. The idea of a group inimical to our very idea of culture possessing a cultural pull is a dreadful paradox – and this calcification of soft power is only explicable if we allow ourselves to acknowledge the superficial glamour of a polarised, black and white world view. As well as the concrete challenge we face, we must also combat them through discourse. The message that our institutions and ideas – nation-states, equality under the law, limitless freedom to pursue individual ambition without a ceiling imposed by faith or political allegiance – are open to all those who are willing to belong.
There can be no negotiation with Daesh. They occupy an extraordinarily anomalous position – a group seeking to establish a nation-state while being opposed to the very notion of nation-states, believing them to be a vehicle for the establishment of man-made laws which are a necessary retreat from and corruption of scripture-driven jurisprudence.
In his address in Mosul to mark his accession to the leadership of ISIL, al-Baghdati spoke of his determination to “trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature”. This yoking together of the concepts of “nationalism” and “democracy” are a tacit admission that the existence of one the one depends upon the other – and I would ask those who suggest negotiations with ISIL to detail the framework within which such negotiations can proceed. What authority would diplomats wield in negotiations with ISIL? They would be representatives of institutions which their interlocutors believe have no right to exist, negotiating on the basis of values they regard as heretical, offering measured solutions to a putative state which regards anything other than the complete realisation of its aims as contrary to the divinely propelled tide of history.
The extension of strikes from Iraq to Syria is a recognition that the border is currently completely notional. And given the fact that no civilians have died in the last sixteen months of UK sorties over Iraq, that our Brimstone missile system is notably more accurate than our allies’ equivalents, that seven attacks on Britain from Daesh have been foiled in the last year which could have been as devastating as the tragedy in Paris, and that thousands of moderate Muslims are currently being tortured and killed at the fanatics’ hands, I did support the motion before the House last week.
Many people who have contacted have gone so far as to suggest that the votes of parliamentarians from all sides were motivated by a thirst for war, an indifference to civilian casualties or even for their own political gain. These ideas are all completely wrong.
I voted as I did because I believed (along with Hilary Benn, Alan Johnson, Margaret Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, eleven Members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet, three quarters of Liberal Democrat MPs, sixty-seven Labour MPs as well as the vast majority on the government side) that it was the course of action best calculated to destroy the long-term threat of Daesh.
I received hundreds of messages from constituents, all written passionately and all of which I read. I spent a huge amount deal of time researching this topic, spoke to colleagues from all sides of the House, attended briefings from the Secretary of States of Foreign Affairs, Defence, International Development, the Home Secretary and the Head of the Armed Forces and thought deeply about what I heard – from all of them and all those constituents who got in touch. I also was in the Chamber for almost all of the ten hour debate.
I do hope that whatever differing views are held, we can conduct a dialogue in a spirit of mutual respect. I emphatically do not regard those who think differently as terrorist sympathisers – just as people who hold a different view about which course of action to follow but are animated by the same principles of tolerance and fairness. I can assure you that my motivations are equally sincere, thought out, and motivated by the need for fewer casualties and a lasting peace.
I must also say that there are perhaps no better encapsulations of my views than the speeches in the House of Margaret Beckett (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcrFa1vkzqk), Alan Johnson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODC5pdnyuJ8) and the extraordinarily moving speech of Hilary Benn (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2GTNK4VsXs).