Originally published in Standpoint Magazine
There is a convention in British journalism that whenever the House of Commons holds a long debate on a matter of war, it is said to have “risen to the occasion”. MPs are then ordinarily reported to have shown the depth, breadth and “considerable experience” of the House. But the day-long debate in December over whether British planes should join the multinational coalition against Islamic State in Syria showed no such thing. It showed a deracinated, easily distracted and strikingly fearful chamber — in other words a chamber that perfectly reflected the nation at large.
Not the least of the bad signs was how self-absorbed the House had become. Rather than debating the serious issue of international terrorism or putting British pilots in harm’s way over Syria, opposition parties repeatedly complained about a reported remark of the Prime Minister’s on the eve of the debate when he was said to have described those opposed to Britain joining air strikes against IS in Syria as “terrorist sympathisers”. Given that the Labour party is now led by two men who have spent decades supporting, honouring and hosting terrorist groups ranging from the IRA to Hamas and Hezbollah this description was not such an outrageous fiction as Labour MPs among others portrayed it to be. Nevertheless, each took it in turns to express their hurt over the nomenclature.
But even this did not exemplify the self-absorption of the House so much as its preening wordplay over what to call the enemy. Not three weeks after IS’s men had slaughtered 130 people and wounded many more in Paris, the House of Commons seemed less concerned over how to avenge our friends in France (or our own citizens slaughtered by IS months earlier on a beach in Tunisia) than they were about avoiding offence. This was personified in the form of a new and otherwise obscure Conservative MP called Rehman Chishti. In response to the rise of IS this young member has been trying to make his name by petitioning politicians, the media and especially the BBC, to call IS “Daesh”. The fact that “Daesh” simply means IS in Arabic makes it a fatuous demand. The claim that IS dislike being called Daesh because it sounds like something rude in Arabic makes it pathetic. Perhaps Chishti and Co think we can “bait” IS into submission?
So up he popped during the Prime Minister’s opening statement and was credited by Mr Cameron with persuading him that it is indeed “time to join our key ally France, the Arab League, and other members of the international community in using as frequently as possible the terminology Daesh rather than ISIL”. Equally importantly the government instructed all of its members to refer to the group by this new formulation — a formulation which had the advantage of giving everyone an instant patina of knowledge. Many needed it.
During the debate the Scottish National Party leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson (representing a grouping whose foreign policy thinking has rarely stretched beyond Berwick-upon-Tweed), struggled to demonstrate much insight, but right on cue gave way again to Chishti. He honoured Chishti’s campaign, and noted across the floor what an important intervention it was. From thenceforth almost everybody talked of “Daesh” or “ISIL-Daesh”. Some tried a vaguely Arabic accent, as though pretending they could speak Arabic. Others, aspiring to the same impression, satisfied everyone with a glottal stop. All were aware that were they to err they might not only provoke the jack-in-the-box Chishti but the ire of the whole House. Paris had burned and in response Westminster quibbled.