Ian Swanson: SNP stance key to Syria air strikes

Survivors negotiate the rubble-strewn streets of Aleppo in Syria. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Survivors negotiate the rubble-strewn streets of Aleppo in Syria. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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PARIS bombed and traumatised, Brussels in lockdown, other European cities fearing they could be next – the Isis terror has never been closer. Atrocities have been committed in plenty other places in recent months, of course. But when the horror is on your doorstep you inevitably pay more attention.

French president Francois Hollande said his country was “at war”. And tomorrow David Cameron will set out the case for Britain joining in the bombing of Isis in Syria. MPs are likely to be asked to vote on the issue next week.

Scottish MPs played a crucial role in the defeat of the Prime Minister’s last attempt to begin bombing in Syria two years ago.

Back then, the Commons voted by 285 to 272 against giving Mr Cameron the go-ahead to prepare for attack. The then Labour leader Ed Miliband led the opposition but MPs from all parties and from across the UK voiced concern and cast their votes accordingly. But if it had not been for the votes of the Scottish MPs, the result would have gone in the Government’s favour.

The defeat was an embarrassment to Mr Cameron and he has not tried again, until now. This time, the picture looks a little different.

The Prime Minister says it is his “firm conviction” that Britain should launch air strikes – but will only put it to a vote when he is confident he can win.

Despite the opposition of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and others, including some Tory backbenchers, it seems he is likely to get the support of a majority across the chamber. Up to 70 Labour MPs are expected to back the Government.

The SNP’s position is assumed to be against bombing, but there were mixed messages from the First Minister and her predecessor when Nicola Sturgeon said she was “prepared to listen” to Mr Cameron’s case for war, while Alex Salmond insisted a United Nations resolution was essential.

The SNP’s new status as the UK’s third biggest party in parliament has given added importance to its stances on issues such as this which might not have carried much weight before.

The party is proud of its opposition to the Iraq war and will not lightly back military action which could end in a similar disaster.

Liberal Democrats, who also opposed the Iraq war, are hesitant too, even in their diminished role. Leader Tim Farron has said any military action must be effective in eliminating Isis, not be counterproductive, offer humanitarian protection and be accompanied by robust plans for what happens afterwards.

But it is the doubts about exactly what bombing will achieve which make many MPs oppose UK military action. America has been carrying out air strikes for some time now, but arguably it has done little to destroy the terrorist threat.

Labour’s John McDonnell has argued a bombing campaign will play into the hands of Isis, which will view UK and US involvement as a “crusader invasion”. Isis has to be defeated on the ground by the regional powers in the Middle East, he says, because that would offer the most effective long-term security.

Opinion polls may show a majority of UK voters in favour of tougher action against Isis. But such a serious matter as launching military action overseas – with the increased risk it brings of terrorist attacks here – must surely be decided on more than that.

The 2013 vote against bombing Syria saw Scots MPs exercising a decisive influence. The responsibilities this time are just as great.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com