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Opinion

A Westminster farce

22 Feb 2024 9 minute read
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle making a statement in the House of Commons. Photo House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA Wire

Ben Wildsmith

I’m not generally so tragic as to watch several hours of Parliamentary procedure on the telly but I’m supposed to be finishing a book, so I was particularly open to diversionary activities yesterday.

The SNP motion demanding a ceasefire in Gaza seemed to create a point of decision for MPs who might have been balancing the demands of constituents with the strictures of party loyalty.

It was an opportunity for MPs to send a clear moral message, one way or the other, about a conflict that is preoccupying the world.

What unfolded in the chamber served, instead, to suggest that the UK is in no position to project ethical concerns within its borders, still less abroad.

Intense pressure

As the debate approached, the Labour leadership was coming under intense pressure from MPs to commit to an immediate ceasefire. Many of them have protestors stationed outside their offices and homes every day and know that they face anger from previously loyal voters over this issue.

The word ‘immediate’ is crucial as the standing Labour position privileged the term ‘lasting’. Whilst a lasting ceasefire is undoubtedly a noble aspiration, insisting upon it suggested that stopping the bombing was subordinate to the conditions Israel demanded.

In the week before the vote, Australia, New Zealand and Canada put out a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and, reportedly, the Labour leadership then felt more comfortable in calling for the same.

Yesterday was the SNP’s ‘Opposition Day’ in Parliament. There are 20 of these per Parliamentary session, in which motions can be put forward by the opposition. The SNP has used two of its three days to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. Labour is allocated 17 Opposition Days.

Here is the text of the SNP motion:

I beg to move,

That this House calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and Israel; notes with shock and distress that the death toll has now risen beyond 28,000, the vast majority of whom were women and children; further notes that there are currently 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah, 610,000 of whom are children; also notes that they have nowhere else to go; condemns any military assault on what is now the largest refugee camp in the world; further calls for the immediate release of all hostages taken by Hamas and an end to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people; and recognises that the only way to stop the slaughter of innocent civilians is to press for a ceasefire now.

Our motion calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, from all combatants. I wish to put on record, once again, our unequivocal condemnation of the Hamas attack of 7 October, and to repeat our call both for the immediate release of all the hostages and for seeing those involved in those atrocities called to account for their actions.

The war in Gaza is one of the great defining moments of our time, yet, until today, this House has not been given the opportunity to debate both the unfolding human catastrophe and the wider implications for regional and global stability. Nor have we had the opportunity to debate the urgent and pressing need for an immediate ceasefire, as an essential first step in finding a lasting and just peace.

No one would deny that Israel has the right to defend itself—every country has that right. What no country has the right to do, however, is lay siege to a civilian population, carpet-bomb densely inhabited areas, drive people from their homes, erase an entire civilian infrastructure, and impose a collective punishment involving the cutting off of water, electricity, food, and medicine from civilians.

And no country, regardless of who it is, can, in the name of self-defence, kill civilians at such a pace, and on such a scale, that in just 16 weeks almost 30,000 are known to have died, with a further 80,000 injured. We cannot allow the core principle of self-defence to be so ruthlessly exploited and manipulated in order to legitimise the slaughter of innocent civilians. If we do that, what hope is there for the future of the international rules-based order, an order created to protect people from atrocities, not to be used as a smokescreen to hide the execution of them?

If we accept what Israel is doing in Gaza as the new norm—as the new accepted standard of self-defence—we undermine that core principle, which is meant to protect and defend us. Therefore we cannot accept that what is happening now is self-defence, because of the precedent that it will set.

I have no doubt that that thought contributed to the United States issuing its clearest warning yet to Netanyahu that it would not support his proposed ground offensive in Rafah. This is why the UN Security Council is currently debating a ceasefire as we speak today, and even the US has recognised that a ceasefire must happen for a peaceful political solution.

Of course, that does not go nearly far enough, but it does show that things are moving, opinions are changing and the guarantees that Israel has come to rely on are gradually withdrawing.

Rebellion

You’ll note that the motion explicitly condemns the Hamas attacks, demands a ceasefire on all sides, and calls for the immediate release of all Israeli hostages. For Labour MPs, it would be difficult to explain voting against this motion and obeying the party whip, so a large rebellion was expected.

To head off the rebellion, Labour drafted an amendment calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and omitting reference to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.

Its leadership hoped that this would be enough to persuade potential rebels away from the SNP motion, whilst keeping the party firmly within the Anglo-American consensus as regards suggestions of Israel committing war crimes.

It also provided several caveats that required prior Israeli consent before the ceasefire became an active demand.

Before the debate, however, it became clear that the government intended to table its own, still weaker, amendment. The tradition is that government amendments have precedence over those from the opposition so the choice for MPs looked to be between the SNP motion and the government’s amendment, with Labour’s offering not brought forward.

Under those circumstances, it was inevitable that a large proportion of the PLP would defy the whip and vote for the SNP’s notion.

Here is where things became murky. The Speaker, Labour’s Sir Lindsay Hoyle announced that, breaking with precedent, both Labour’s and the Government’s motions would be attached to the order paper.

Crucially, he stipulated that the Labour amendment would be voted upon first. This would allow Labour MPs to back their own watered-down amendment and still be able to claim they had backed an immediate ceasefire. The Speaker’s decision was reportedly against the advice of his clerks.

Upon announcing this, the Speaker left the chamber which promptly descended into acrimonious chaos.

The SNP were apoplectic that their Opposition Day had been hijacked by Labour, who insisted that a more nuanced alternative was necessary as MPs were subject to physical threats from outside parliament.

Newsnight’s Nicholas Watt tweeted that senior Labour figures had briefed him that Keir Starmer had threatened to remove the Speaker after the election if Labour’s amendment was not included in the day’s business and voted upon before the SNP motion.

In the end, the SNP and Government motions were pulled as MPs stormed out of the chamber. The Deputy Speaker, Dame Rosie Winterton, waved through the Labour motion without a vote, despite roars of objection.

Spoiling campaigns

So, where does this leave us. Firstly, the Conservative Party is no longer meaningfully governing the country. It was absolutely clear that yesterday’s contending opposition policies defined the UK’s attitude towards the Gaza conflict. The official Government is reduced to mounting spoiling campaigns that it cannot back up with public support or even reliable votes from its own party. It is the rotting corpse of a government.

Secondly, Sir Keir Starmer appears to be capable of limitless flexibility when it comes to matters of policy, but none at all as regards the conscience of individual MPs. Labour had its own Opposition Days to put forward a ceasefire motion and failed so to do. Only when it became clear that its MPs intended to back the SNP did its position shift, and only then after the path was cleared by Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Any notion of the party providing leadership internationally must be vanishingly slight.

Thirdly, as Liz Saville-Roberts rose to point out, the day’s events illuminated the impotence of smaller parties within the Parliamentary system. Under our preposterous first-past-the-post voting arrangements, specific space has to be carved out for alternative viewpoints and yesterday saw this space colonised by Labour with no regard to the democratic implications.

Goodwill

Finally, an unwritten constitution demands the honourable goodwill of participants. This was shattered during the votes on Brexit, before being further weakened by Boris Johnson’s disregard for process and legality.

Yesterday, as the machine was put to the service of a grave international crisis, it choked and sputtered into silence. As 1.7 million people huddled in Rafah, wondering what the world would do for them in the coming days, our Parliament offered venal party interest, systemic dysfunction, and a void in leadership.

Israeli commentators opined before the vote that the UK had no moral standing to offer its guidance.

It is becoming harder by the day to disagree.


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Richard Davies
Richard Davies
1 month ago

There are some that describe the uk parliament as “the mother of all parliaments.”

I think it would be better described as “the evil stepmother of all parliaments” based on the behaviour seen in the chambers on a regular basis!

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

For us civilians, just so we know, who, when and where are we in season exactly and the ratio of a life against another…

Slavery of a whole newish kind, Mare di Morte as they say in Lampedusa…

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 month ago

I’ve no idea why some people actually thing the UK is a democracy. It’s constitution and electoral method imposes a democratic dictatorship on Wales and Scotland. What transpired with regards to the SNP motion was a disgrace. Not only was it an insult to those who have suffered in the conflict but it shows how debased UK politics has become.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
1 month ago

Clearly the UK parliament has lost its moral compass big time, assuming it ever had one. No one with any humanity could support what is being inflicted on the people of Gaza and the Palestinians as a whole anymore than they could support those who inflicted such horror on the Israelis on the 7th October. Surely a demand for a ceasefire is the least that can be supported. Unfortunately Starmer has a conflict of interest on this issue.

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