Parliament: MPs find the awkward gap between outrage and reality

The Sketch

SOME MPS have more authority than others when asking questions, either conferred by some demographic curiosity of their constituency (Simon Hughes' Private Notice Question on Sierra Leone was received yesterday by the Foreign Secretary as he represents large numbers of Sierra Leonians) or earned through past experience.

When the Balkans come up, for example, Martin Bell will usually be heard. On Monday, Paddy Ashdown was actually halfway down the steps in a crouching prelude to leaving the chamber when the Speaker called Mr Bell. Mr Ashdown swivelled on the spot and returned.

This may have been the solidarity of a fellow veteran. Mr Ashdown himself has some status in this matter, having once delivered an angry interview as Serb mortar shells exploded with unnerving proximity in the background.

Mr Bell outranks him in this field: he has the distinction of having been shot while covering the disintegration of Yugoslavia. This isn't something that would mark him out as a novelty in Serbia or Kosovo, but it undoubtedly gives him a certain cachet in the Chamber. A whiff of cordite and front-line engagement attends his contributions and preserves him from charges of armchair belligerence which might be levelled at less battle-tested members. Yesterday he brought Mr Cook back to Kosovo with a question about the prospects of the verification mission there. He implied the outlook was bleak in the absence of a credible threat of force.

Mr Cook repeated the rather slender consolation he had offered MPs the day before - it took the West months to learn about the horrors of Srebrenica, he said, but on this occasion we had "clear, accurate information within 24 hours". If something can be done with such information this will all be to the good, but it looks as if the sole virtue of this arrangement is that we get our horror fresh. Instead of wasting weeks in which we know nothing of the atrocity we can start feeling impotently enraged right away, before the blood has dried.

The awkward gap between boiling outrage and any realistic prospect of doing something to soothe it turned out to be the theme of the afternoon. Mr Cook finds himself in the unhappy situation of having precisely reversed the position of Kipling's harlot - he has responsibility without power, is expected to do something about the delinquencies of various distant countries, but has no effective means of enforcing his will. And on the evidence of Foreign Office questions, diplomacy without gunboats must be a heartbreaking affair - a thankless grind in which illusory accord is almost inevitably followed by vicious conflict. The language itself buckles under the strain. In common parlance, for instance, an agreement would indicate that two parties have either resolved or decided to split their differences, that affairs have moved on. In international diplomacy, however, it more usually describes a compulsory fantasy of concord, signed under duress and as limited in its powers of restraint as a wet tissue.

The Holbrooke Agreement, the Wye Agreement and the Simla Agreement were all mentioned, every one the precursor to some shameless breach of promise. Agreements, in short, aren't a way of making peace with your neighbour, they're a way of making temporary peace with world opinion. And when they have served their purpose and been broken there isn't much that world opinion can do but gasp with indignation.

Flagrancy is the word of choice, a quality attributed by various MPs to President Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, the Israeli government and those supplying arms to Sierra Leone's rebels. Flagrant usually means "shockingly conspicuous" but in this context it might be better defined as "entirely predictable".

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