The strange spectacle of the Tory right opposing a Nato war

The shadow defence secretary was given a rough ride by his backbenchers, angry at supine leadership
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FOR THE end of jingoism, give thanks. It was one emotion almost eerily absent during yesterday's six-hour debate in the House of Commons on Kosovo. The gruesome armchair bellicosity that pervaded the Falklands debates in 1982, and to a lesser extent those on the Gulf war a decade later, would have seemed altogether out of place. And rightly so. This is a dangerous adventure, its outcome uncertain and its risks all too visible.

It, and the two other parliamentary occasions on which Kosovo was discussed this week, were nevertheless instructive in other ways. If you doubt the changes wrought by the end of the Cold War, consider some of the political oddities: Lord Healey and Tony Benn, those old adversaries, united against the Labour leadership. A centre-left government unashamedly sanctioning military action, with a Tory right adamantly opposed - so much so that on Wednesday night the shadow Defence Secretary was given a markedly rough ride by some Conservative backbenchers, angry that the front bench had been too supine in its support of Tony Blair.

There are, roughly speaking, three strands of opinion within Westminster and they do not have that much to do with party loyalties.

There are those, first, who simply support the Government. Secondly there are those, like Tony Benn - who turned out one of his most powerful performances in the commons yesterday - Lord Healey, and much of the Tory right wing, who are against any action at all. And, thirdly there are those who believe that it cannot succeed without the use of ground troops.

Those in support, however reluctantly, are certainly the largest group. One of the mysteries about the Government's reluctance to stage formal set-piece votes on its military engagements is that it would be sure of a large majority. The fact that there would be a significantly dissenting minority is no more than proof of the contrast between a mature democracy and the quasi-dictatorship against which it is now engaged.

It would be a mistake to deride the anti-war forces in parliament. There are grave and rational doubts - including even some in the interstices of Whitehall - about the consequences of Nato's move into uncharted territory. The signals emerging from Belgrade are confusing; but it may even be that Milosevic regards the bombing as being helpful to him in shoring up his domestic support.

The regime in Montenegro, a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but openly opposed to Milosevic, will be put under severe stress if Nato continues to attack military installations, perhaps with attendant civilian casualties, inside its territory. And the danger of further destabilising secessions, including in Bosnia, becomes correspondingly greater if the inevitable consequence of a successful Nato operation is, as some officials now acknowledge it may yet be, the independent Kosovo that, formally, the allies have hitherto opposed.

Ministers were careful yesterday to stress that halting the slaughter in Kosovo, with a credible reduction of Serbian forces there, was the objective of the current campaign. This follows careful consultations with its law officers over the limits of what the Government can justify under international law.

But there is little doubt that, unless Milosevic backs down, the more his capacity to rub out the KLA is reduced by the bombing and the likelier it is that the KLA will be able to achieve independence. Mr Cook was entirely correct yesterday to point out that Milosevic has been the "recruiting sergeant" who has swelled the ranks of the Kosovo Liberation Army from a few hundred to more than 20,000 in the past year. He has only to return to the negotiating table to secure an autonomous Kosovo within Serbia.

But this cannot disguise the fact that a wholly independent Kosovo is not what the allies originally wanted. Finally, and much the most important in relation to domestic public opinion, must be the risk to the lives of British pilots, not to mention those servicemen who are stationed across the border in Macedonia.

Underlying much of the anxiety, however, is a nebulous but pervasive feeling that is much less easy to justify: that this is not our problem, that Serbia, for all the nightly and vivid television pictures from Kosovo, is a far-off country of which we know little, and that, rather as the British Government remained neutral during the Spanish Civil War in the Thirties, so it should now let the conflict take its course. Never mind that that non-intervention in Spain meant the replacement, after one of the most brutal and bloody civil conflicts in European history, of a democratically elected government by a Fascist dictatorship that lasted for a generation. Since there is (allegedly) no direct British interest in the outcome of Milosevic's pan-Serbian ambitions, so the argument goes, Britain should stay well out of it.

To these isolationist arguments, Robin Cook yesterday began in his Commons speech to set out a credible alternative view. As he pointed out, it goes beyond the fact that this distinctly European carnage is relayed nightly on British television screens - or, the fact he did not mention yesterday - that Western Europe has been the preferred eventual destination for many of the refugees whose homes are now burning in Kosovo.

Last October, as he pointed out, it was Nato that guaranteed the cease- fire signed by Milosevic. The Serbian President having broken the ceasefire, it was now Nato's credibility that was at stake: a newly enlarged Nato, moreover, which includes Hungary and therefore has a common border with Serbia. "How," he asked, "can we be committed to securing peace and maintaining the stability of our borders while one of our immediate neighbours is conducting a violent military operation?"

There is some evidence that before the Rambouillet talks there were voices within the US administration urging bombing then and there, and that the British resisted, insisting first on making every effort to secure a peace settlement. Having secured Kosovar assent to such a settlement, the allies had no choice, if its diplomacy were to retain any credibility, to move to halt the slaughter in Kosovo. To complain that the action would not succeed without ground troops is to miss the point.

President Clinton does not have the power to persuade the US Congress to order up ground troops to the Balkans, and the Europeans could not do it on their own. Nor is the argument applicable that because we did not intervene in Chechnya we should now fail to intervene in the Balkans. That would have been an impossible project. This is merely a difficult and dangerous one.

This exercise has now become a test of a new and more humane old order. It has to succeed. The House of Commons was right last night to treat the debate soberly. But it was also right to give Mr Cook the backing he asked for.