The closeness of the vote expressed just how deeply conflicted the British ruling class is, and not only over Syria but its whole imperialist strategy.
Once British imperialism had its empire. Following the loss of Empire as the result of two world wars, it became the USA's loyal lieutenant during the Cold War. This meant that despite being a second rate military power it could have a place at the top table, or as parts of the ruling class like to say: punch above its weight.
With the disappearance of the old bloc system British imperialism has been faced with the increasingly complex problem of how best to defend its own interests. Should it simply remain loyal to the USA? Move more towards Europe, or somehow try to maintain an independent course adapting itself to challenges as they arrived? This strategic choice has become increasingly problematic as the world has sunk deeper and deeper into evermore chaotic international relations. In 1991 it was a pretty easy decision for the British ruling class to go along with the USA in attacking Iraq. There were parts of the ruling class that warned about the dangers of the new world order. British imperialism however did not come out of this war too badly. Only 12 years later however the decision to back the US in the 2nd Gulf war was more problematic because parts of the ruling class feared the chaos that would follow and the danger of linking the national interest so closely to that of the US. Blair and the pro-US fraction that he represented drove through the decision however, using every devious trick in the book to get support. However, far from furthering the national interest it suffered a bitter humiliation as Iraq, and Afghanistan, sunk into chaos and British armed forces were exposed as being dependent upon the US. Blair, and thus the British ruling class, became linked with George W Bush and a visibly declining US imperialism. Supporting the US has become extremely costly.
On the other hand, not supporting US military action means accepting not being able to punch above one’s weight, and being a secondary power. Also where do you turn for alliances? There are those who say closer relations with Europe are the way forwards, but this increasingly means a complex game of alliances against the rising power of German imperialism. The Cameron team with the backing of much of the ruling class had been pursuing a policy of seeking to build relations with the growing powers such as India, Brazil, Turkey, as well as commercial relations with China.
However, all the relations that the British bourgeoisie build in Europe and beyond are increasingly unstable because of its increasing inability to use its close relations with the US to counter-weigh the actions of its rivals.
It is in this context that we have to understand the events around the vote on Syria. The divisions went across party lines and reflected the deeper division in the whole ruling class.
To go along meant being pulled further into the consequences of the US declining status ie desperate military action in Syria in order to try and display US military superiority but at the possible cost of being sucked into another war. Former military leaders openly stated their opposition to becoming involved: “A former head of the navy, Lord West, and a former head of the army, Lord Dannatt, reflected widespread criticism within the military and defence circles by pouring scorn on claims by ministers that military strikes did not mean the UK or the US were taking sides in the civil war. ‘As regards a limited strike, this was always an impossible notion,’ said Dannatt. ‘Any use of explosive ordnance by the west, for whatever purpose, would have committed us to participation in the Syrian civil war irrevocably’.” (The Guardian, 31.8.2013). The historical significance of not supporting the US was clearly stated by a former adviser to the Foreign and Defence secretaries, Crispin Blunt, who said “he hoped the vote would relieve Britain of its ‘imperial pretension’ and stop it trying to punch above its weight on the world stage” (ibid).
It was the loss of this role on the world stage that concerned those in favour of supporting the US’s action. This was made clear by Michael Clarke, the director general of the Royal United Services Institute (one of the British imperialism’s main think tanks): “...there is a danger it could become a tipping point where the UK falls into strategic irrelevance in US eyes. We can all be friendly, well respected, kith and kin, etc -like the Dutch- but just not be taken seriously as a strategically significant player in security matters” (ibid).
The events around the US’s announcement that it was going to strike Syria have thus placed the British ruling class on the rack.
The US however, also suffered through these events. Its international authority was further undermined by its inability to get the support of its partner in the ‘special relationship’. French imperialism may now be the US’s “oldest ally” but it is clear to everyone that John Kerry only said that to insult the British ruling class. For US imperialism having to rely on a country which only a few years ago it was pouring scorn on for not supporting the 2nd Gulf War, is not a sign of strength but historical weakness.
The US will not forgive British imperialism easily. Obama’s refusal to hold a meeting with Cameron at the G20 meeting in Russia was a very public snub, which very visibly demonstrated the price of not supporting them. The other major imperialist powers will also take note of this.
This decision not to back the US whilst being fundamentally a matter of how best to defend the national interest, also reflected a self-inflicted wound. The blatant manipulation of public opinion over the 2nd Gulf war, Blair’s talk about Weapons of Mass Destruction etc, and the trouble and tragedy that unfolded in Iraq afterwards, badly dented confidence in politicians. This meant that the public was highly sceptical of any claims made by the government. The vote against military action has certainly boosted the idea that parliament has some power, and thus strengthened democratic illusions. If the most powerful parts of the ruling class had wanted to support the US, they would have done so but it would have been at the cost of a further weakening of any confidence in the ruling class.
Cameron et al may have wanted to use the US insistence on action as a means to push the rest of the ruling class to support such action and thus the special relationship, but it is clear that important parts of the ruling class refused to go along with this. This is an event of historical importance because it expresses a further step in the decline of British imperialism. A decline that will exacerbate the divisions in the ruling class, and push it to take up more military actions where it can in order to make a display of its power, no matter how limited. There may be a resurgence of the pro-US fractions as this historical weakness becomes clearer, but the US will be extremely wary of the British ruling class. British imperialism is being pushed further onto the side lines.