In the era of Netflix and BBC iPlayer, does it really matter if the House of Commons debates bombing Syria before or after Syria has been bombed?
Three days after the bombing of Syria took place, Theresa May came to the despatch box to explain why she thought the bombing was a good idea. Then Jeremy Corbyn explained why it was a bad idea.
In hushed tones, Theresa May read out a statement, making the case for the “precision” and “targeted” attacks on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities that had already happened, precisely as she would have done had parliament been recalled last week for the purpose.
Jeremy Corbyn made some glib remarks about Theresa May following “the whim of the US president”, followed by some whataboutery on Saudi Arabia being no worse than Syria. Precisely as he would have done last week, or indeed at any point in the last eight years.
If you’d sooner have your bombing debate before your bombing, well, it’s all online, the script’s the same. Just watch it in whatever order you like.
One of the great glossed over truths of Westminster life is that practically every word ever uttered in a debate in the House of Commons is a waste of time.
A debate is only a debate if its participants listen to the arguments and the evidence and make their minds up. A debate is only a debate if those taking part of it are willing to change their minds, and that is a reality that hasn’t occurred in the House of Commons for at least a hundred years.
It was long after four o’ clock by the time Theresa May rode in to one of the most febrile atmospheres seen in the commons in some time. MPs from all sides, though chiefly Labour, were coming to the end of an hour long session of tearing in to the home secretary Amber Rudd, over the Windrush scandal.
Minutes before the Prime Minister’s arrival, Rudd had sought to blame the Home Office’s dehumanising treatment of some members of the Windrush generation on the previous home secretary, who somewhat inconveniently, is now the prime minister.
But the room was immediately hushed by Theresa May’s statement on the events of Saturday morning. A serious woman for serious times, she spoke as if reading a solemn poem at a funeral. She informed the house that intelligence suggested that the gassing of women and children in Douma last Saturday had been delivered by barrel bombs. Barrel bombs dropped by Syrian state helicopters of the type that had been seen above Douma last Saturday.
She explicitly denied reports that Saturday morning’s raids had targeted empty buildings, but were targeted at Syrian chemical weapons facilities, and would degrade Assad’s capabilities to launch chemical attacks in the future.
And then there was Jeremy Corbyn. He repeated claims made over the weekend that the actions had been done “on the whim of the US president”, which prompted Theresa May to shake her head in utterly withering fashion.
He called for Theresa May to “put pressure on Russia and Syria” to allow international inspectors into Douma to investigate what happened there. It had already been explained to him that it is Russia and Syria, and no one else, that is currently preventing that from happening.
He called again for Theresa May to “take the diplomatic lead in negotiating a peace settlement”. Attempts at a peace settlement have been made in Geneva and have failed seven times.
The Syrian situation is intensely complex. It is feared no middle ground can be found. The situation in Westminster is not so complex, but it is essentially the same. Whether the arguments come before or after the action makes scant difference.
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