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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk