Thursday, 29 August 2013

Syria, just saying 'no'. And the surgical breakthrough that makes that possible.

A full transplant of the spine: it sounds like an extraordinary, virtually unbelievable breakthrough. And it certainly is.

However, I’m not talking about a medical innovation, but a moral and political one. Here’s the mechanism as I see it.

The patient is a moderate and self-effacing man holding a relatively prominent position, namely leader of the British Labour Party and therefore of the official Opposition to a particularly appalling government. Indeed, so easy is it to oppose this government, with its failure to hit its own economic targets despite actions that have impoverished the population, that no-one can understand how he can fail to score easy points against it.

The patient, instead of opposing the government, offers ‘reluctant support’ to its desire to back another leader afflicted with chronic weakness syndrome, but on the other side of the Atlantic. Obama, the American equivalent of our patient, wants to lob a number of cruise missiles at Syria for having used chemical weapons against its own population.

He wants to do that without having put forward a single compelling argument showing that the missiles would deter Syrian President Assad using further chemical weapons against civilians or, even if it did, why he wouldn’t go on massacring them in huge numbers by conventional means.

Voices within the Labour Party have been offering the leader, Ed Miliband, counsel on how to tackle his particular problem of strength insufficiency syndrome. Perhaps I should say, since the condition is clearly psychological rather than physical, they’ve offered him counselling.

Ed: was he a suitable case for spinal treatment?
Now I don’t have any evidence for this, but my mental picture is of party big hitters taking Ed to one side and saying to him.

‘Ed, my son, what’s this with all the ‘reluctant support’? Don’t you realise that the country is two to one against even firing missiles at Syria? And against any more serious military action by even bigger margins?’

‘But... but... the government needs our support in these terrible circumstances,’ Ed might have replied.

‘Ah, I see the problem,’ he would have been told, ‘you haven’t completely got your head round this idea of ‘opposition’. The government might well like our support, but our role is to oppose it and, as quickly as possible, to replace it. For the avoidance of any doubt whatever, when we way ‘oppose’ that means saying ‘no’ rather than ‘reluctant yes’ when they come up with some harebrained scheme or other.’

‘Say ‘no’?’ replies Ed, as though savouring a novel idea.


‘I thought you said no?’

They sigh collectively. ‘Yes,’ they repeat, ‘it would be a good idea if you said ‘no’.’

And so he does. With gusto, because he can apparently be trained, and once he’s had a bit of an injection of backbone, he discovers it’s actually quite fun.

Then, lo and behold, what happens? The government starts to back down. It starts calling him names, accusing him of playing politics with all the self-righteousness of people who’d never dream of doing such a thing themselves, and giving ground on timetables and parliamentary votes. Basically, all the things a proper opposition would really rather like to be able to achieve from time to time.

With the result that it’s just possible Britain won’t be following the US into this latest military madness. That would be the first time the country refused to join in a crazy adventure dreamed up in Washington since Harold Wilson refused to commit British troops to Vietnam.

And Wilson was Prime Minister. If Miliband can pull off something similar from the Opposition benches, that really would be an achievement.

Amazing what a transfusion of spine can do. Because, to be fair, that’s what Ed really seems to have had, a transfusion rather than a transplant. But that’s as much of a breakthrough as the medical equivalent would have been.

It’s come not before time but it’s all the more welcome for it.

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