Syria has for now turned into the war that never happened thanks to the gaffe that never was. Once John Kerry let slip that there was something Assad could do to head off a military strike – agree to international oversight of his chemical arsenal – the stalled march to war became a headlong retreat. Obama appears to have found a way out of the hole he had dug for himself, with a helping hand from Putin. Without it he would have been stuck, faced with a deeply sceptical American public whose doubts were being voiced with increasing stridency by Congress. In this the American legislature was given a lead by the British parliament, which on 29 August rejected two motions that might have paved the way for military action. When he lost the vote on the government motion, Cameron declared that public opinion was the decisive factor. He said that Parliament’s decision reflected the views of the British people, which was why it had to be respected. Ed Miliband said that the House of Commons had ‘spoken for the people of Britain’.

It might be tempting to think that the past few weeks mark a watershed in the democratic control of foreign policy. Current democratic leaders seem not to know how to win a vote on military intervention, and are equally unsure of how to bypass one. Public opinion isn’t simply sceptical. It is also readily accessible in ways that it wasn’t in the past. Opinion polling is relentless and immediate. On the day before the parliamentary vote, YouGov published a poll which showed that the British public opposed military strikes by a margin of two to one. Similar results have been reported regularly in the United States. MPs don’t have to feel the weight of their mailbags to discover the mood of their constituents. They get bombarded with emails and texts, hour by hour. It isn’t easy to stand up to that sort of pressure.

But it would be a mistake to rush to conclusions about a new age of executive responsiveness to public opinion. Just consider a few hypotheticals. What would have happened, for instance, if Miliband not Cameron had been prime minister last month? My guess is that we would now be bombing Syria: the man who effectively blocked the war could almost certainly have won a Commons vote to authorise it. Miliband would have found it hard to resist a plea from Obama for support, and his party would have found it hard to go against him. Some Labour MPs would inevitably have defected (six failed to support the Labour amendment on 29 August on the grounds that it didn’t rule out military action), but plenty of Tories would have backed a military strike, even one ordered by a Labour government. A notable feature of the actual vote on the government motion was that there wasn’t a single Labour defection to Cameron’s side, despite the fact that the party is clearly divided on the issue (it still contains some Blairites, though perhaps not as many as the parliamentary Conservative Party). Labour is a tribal party and far more reluctant than the Tories to do potentially mortal harm to its leaders. Miliband could have induced parliament to go against public opinion. And if the British parliament hadn’t voted no, Obama wouldn’t have felt the need to win the backing of Congress.

The irony is that it’s harder now for a Tory leader to win a war vote than a Labour one: reluctant Conservative backbenchers are less biddable on the issue. So why did Cameron call the vote at all, since he isn’t legally obliged to do so? He was following what has become the precedent, set first by Blair in the run-up to Iraq and then confirmed by Brown, who promised as PM that Parliament would from now on be consulted on all military action. Brown was as partisan and calculating a politician as any who have occupied Downing Street. He must have known that his promise was more likely to hamstring a future Tory government than a Labour one, given Labour’s ability to unite itself in opposition on almost any issue. A Conservative prime minister forced to ask the Commons for permission to use force is hostage to the malcontents in his own ranks.

The idea that the vote in Parliament was a reflection of the views of the British people is a smokescreen. The result happened to coincide with public opinion but wasn’t driven by it. If you tally up the totals in favour of the government motion and the Labour amendment, both of which authorised the possible use of force, more than five hundred MPs voted for the option of military action in some form. The thirty Tories who voted against the government were a rag-tag bunch motivated by a mix of personal conviction and private resentment. They weren’t more sensitive to the views of their constituents. They just said they were to make it sound better.

When Cameron failed to secure the parliamentary cover for war that he was looking for, he fell back on public opinion as cover for his failure. Though boxed in by the precedent that a vote in Parliament was expected, he still retained full prime ministerial discretion over the timing. In his enthusiasm for action he got the timing all wrong, a mistake his hero Blair never made. Blair ensured that when he asked Parliament to support him on Iraq, the preparation for war had advanced to such a stage that saying no would have looked like a retreat, regardless of public opinion. By the end of the Syria debate, many MPs were wondering where the urgency was, which spelled doom for Cameron. He screwed it up.

The resulting confusion has also made people remember a very old story about democracies, which is that they can’t do foreign affairs. Their political leaders tie themselves up in knots trying to square the public, while dictators, who don’t face such constraints, run rings round them. Putin the autocrat is said to be teaching democrats like Cameron and Obama a lesson in how to take decisions. But this old story is as misleading as the new one about YouGov stopping the war. One reason democracies get into a tangle is that public opinion on these questions is rarely settled. Ed Miliband has not reaped greater rewards for being in tune with the public, because the public is thoroughly unsure about what to do, and voters rarely reward politicians who offer an accurate reflection of their own uncertainties. The past few weeks haven’t been a great advert for democratic politics, and none of our leaders has come out of it well (the less said about Clegg the better). Yet the inadvertent result may be as good as could be hoped for in a miserable situation. Putin has shown his ruthless adeptness. The democracies have shown their inconsistency, which is nonetheless a form of flexibility. It is not edifying, but it can be effective.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences