Where is the anger over Syria? When the timing and context are wrong

 

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Timing, as the cliché goes, is everything in politics. And it is also everything in journalism. A shocking event, political mishap or choice intervention are all amplified by context and relevance. In the past week alone, a leaked letter from Danny Alexander to Nick Clegg, blocking stiffer penalties for knife crime, was sent the day after teacher Ann Maguire was stabbed to death; Gerry Adams' supporters complained that he had been arrested only weeks before elections in Northern Ireland; and just at the point when Nigel Farage seemed unstoppable, he sidestepped the chance to stand in the Newark by-election.

When the Commons voted last summer against action in Syria, on a motion prompted by clear evidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians, MPs – mainly on the Labour side – congratulated themselves for averting a full-blown war in the Middle East. It was unfortunate timing, to say the least, that the division bell rang out just as BBC1's 10 o'clock news broadcast fresh footage of an Aleppo school playground coming under a napalm-like attack. Those who wanted action, including ministers, were horrified that they could not carry the House, and were even more sickened as the events in Aleppo emerged. Syria's opposition was aghast at Britain, and then at the United States, for turning away at the critical hour. The timing was all right – the diplomatic iron was hot. But there was no strike and Assad was let off.

What a difference nine months makes. Last Wednesday, The Daily Telegraph published what seems to be incontrovertible evidence, verified by an independent scientific expert, that three separate attacks carried out on civilians in Syria last month used chlorine- and ammonia-loaded weapons that could have been dropped only by regime aircraft. There were pictures of a child, aged about two, writhing in agony, oxygen mask over his face, chlorine in his lungs, as he was treated by doctors after one attack in Talmenes on 21 April. That same day, David Cameron took his weekly Prime Minister's Questions from MPs and not a single member raised the Telegraph report or even a wider question about Syria. Are MPs ashamed at their failure to act last August (and that vote was not even about taking military action, only paving the way). Do they not care or, worse, do they not notice? Is a Syrian toddler poisoned by chlorine not shocking enough for MPs to respond? Or, to put it more crudely, is it just bad timing?

Ukraine has become the urgent foreign affairs issue and Syria seems to have receded in MPs' minds. It is so last August. Of course, it is right that focus is maintained on Ukraine. At the moment, there is little the international community can do about Syria because the forthcoming presidential election has put everything on hold. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are investigating the April attacks. Meanwhile, despite a UN resolution, Assad is blocking humanitarian aid. Yet, diplomatically, this is a time, enforced by the Damascus election, to "pause and reflect". The British government is doing what it can, I am assured – working behind the scenes at the UN, like many African nations, to persuade countries in the Security Council to adopt the tougher stance of London and Washington. The UK is looking at hosting another set-piece event, involving all parties, following up on the "London 11" talks last December. William Hague made a statement to the Commons on Thursday on the refugee crisis that continues to unfold in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. I am sure that the Government is doing all it can to keep up the pressure, behind the scenes. But in Parliament, the public manifestation of our democracy, where is the outrage? Where is the anger from MPs?

The no-snaps election

There should be a law against use of the word "selfie". There isn't, of course, but there is a law against taking pictures in polling stations – to protect the sanctity of what goes on between an individual and his or her ballot paper. The Electoral Commission – who, like the rest of the world, has selfies on the brain – has written to all returning officers involved in this month's local and European elections reminding them that it is illegal – punishable by a £5,000 fine or up to six months in jail – to take photos in polling booths. Yet I am with the Electoral Reform Society who says this law should be overturned to encourage people to vote. When turnout in these elections is so low – particularly among young people – I cannot think of a better way to stimulate interest. Twitter would be awash with "boothies", as they would inevitably be called. In the Netherlands, it is legal to take a picture of yourself in a polling booth. And, guess what, turnout in the land of tulips is 10 percentage points higher than here.

Power of the petition

I wrote last year about the democratic shift from participation in traditional elections to the millions signing online petitions. The key to their popularity is obvious: they are easy to sign, hand influence and power to individuals, and can yield quick results. Since change.org was launched in the UK two years ago, it has built up five million users and each week there are an average of five petition victories. Earlier this month, I wrote about Tesco's ridiculous new policy of labelling most products – from tonic water to wafer-thin ham – with "may contain nuts" warnings. Parents of children with nut allergies set up a petition calling on Tesco to change its policy. It gained nearly 20,000 signatures and, last week, Tesco complied.

Big isn't always best

As someone who spends hours on my allotment, I have long believed men and women have different approaches to growing veg. All the major horticultural competitions for the biggest leeks, pumpkins and runners seem to be dominated by men. My suspicions were confirmed on last week's episode of BBC2's The Big Allotment Challenge in which teams were told to produce the best carrots. Ed and Alex, one of only two all-male teams, put a lot of effort into their 21-inch whoppers, while the women, less obsessed by size, produced short, stumpy carrots which won Best in Show.

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