A difficult decision on Syria, but Tim Farron got it right

I should preface this post with the following preamble:

I was elected for eight years (as a local councillor) and I was lead member for social care, housing and health between 2010 and 2011.

I have had to review evidence presented on difficult and unavoidable decisions several times in my career in politics.  

I made those decisions on behalf of thousands of people (not all of whom voted for me but who I was charged with representing) based on my values and the evidence in front of me.

The decisions I took then were not about going to war but they impacted real people and their families and I was petitioned and questioned in public on those decisions many times: before, during and afterwards.

I don’t mind admitting I found these experiences very difficult.I took those decisions in good faith and with the best intentions. They were the right decisions I believd.  However, taking them left their mark on me.

‘I did not go into politics to do this’ I found myself saying to Council officers. Who does?

Sadly, the number of people willing to take difficult decisions themselves is very small – particularly when you remember that only 1% of of the UK population is even member of a political party.

For this reason I have utmost respect for elected politicians from all parties and often find myself defending politicians to friends and family.

Standing for election risks being elected and implementing policy.

The flip side is having to make decisions on other people’s policies and not being in total control of that process.

There is in my experience a huge gulf between electors and elected which is one of the reasons I embraced social media as I found it impossible to explain to people (most of whom don’t watch Newsnight or go to Council meetings) what was going on half the time.

I found being a member of a small party does not insulate you from having to make hard choices between less than perfect options – it actually leaves you more exposed to criticism.

Which brings me to this week’s events in Westminster.

I didn’t vote for Tim Farron to be Lib Dem leader but I agreed with the stance he took in Parliament this week on Syrian airstrikes.

His position might have surprised a few people but it’s absolutely consistent with our previous positions on military intervention from Bosnia to Iraq.

Under Charles Kennedy and a year before I joined the party the Lib Dems voted against going to war in Iraq – the only major party to do so.

It was not a popular position with many at the time, but there is general agreement now that it was the right thing to do.

However, the Lib Dems were not then and never have been, pacifists.

When the Lib Dems were led by Paddy Ashdown they supported military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo on humanitarian grounds in response to genocide.

Asked if the Lib Dems would support airstrikes in Syria on Have I Got News for You last week, Tim Farron replied: ‘if it’s legal and if it’s effective’.

Those two tests have been the basis of all Liberal Democrat positions thus far and intervention in Iraq in 2003 failed both of them.

Tim Farron said he could not support military action in Syria against Assad in 2013 because he was ‘not convinced it would be effective..nor would it prevent more suffering than it caused.’

It’s clear that he felt differently this time. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind’ said Keynes.

A key tenet of liberalism is making decisions on the basis of evidence, not received opinion or prejudice.

I trust Lib Dem MPs who voted with the government this week to have carefully reviewed the evidence including security briefings that those of us outside Parliament are not privy to and base their opinion on that.

But I also bear no ill will towards MPs who reviewed that same evidence on all sides (including my own) and voted against air strikes.

It was very clear from activity on social media leading up to and during the debate that the position that would attract the least ire from armchair commentators was to oppose air strikes.

Tim Farron would have known the opprobrium that would have been heaped on him and other Lib Dem MPs not least by many of his own supporters but he stuck to his guns because he believed it was the right thing to do.

For me, that’s what separates his leadership from pedestrian to front rank in this Parliament.

I listened to the debate and watched the Liberal Democrat leader intervene in previous ones to know he is the only party leader, indeed only MP to use his voice to consistently speak up for the most vulnerable of all – the voice that is too often lost – that of unaccompanied child refugees.

I am proud of him for doing this and there are signs that David Cameron is finally starting to listen.

There are no easy answers on foreign policy questions and no straightforward, painless routes back to power for us Liberal Democrats.

However, in these uncertain times what is needed is effective opposition of the Executive by our Parliamentarians to make sure no decisions go unchecked, unscrutinised.

The Lib Dems in Parliament are playing this vital role and in so doing reminding people why a liberal voice in British politics must and will continue to exist.


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