The failure of Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his coalition government on Thursday night to pass a motion that would have authorized military action against Syria in principle by 285 to 272 votes marked a big moment in the history of parliamentary democracy; and it came from the world’s oldest functioning lawmaking body.
Thursday’s decision by the House of Commons in London is significant for a number of different reasons: First of all, the no vote stands as a reminder to every democratic state out there of the inviolable essence of popular sovereignty, as this is expressed through elected representatives.
In addition, the decision is a reminder of the obligation and the power of the elected representatives to express popular will.
Finally, the no vote by the House of Commons to Cameron’s war plans provides a useful lesson about the value of separating powers, in other words, of the founding principle of democratic governance.
The wise and brave decision by the British deputies who refused to allow themselves to be misled – like they were a few years back by then Prime Minister Tony Blair when the country rushed to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence linking Saddam Hussein to weapons of mass destruction – will not just impact on Cameron’s next moves. It will also affect developments across the Atlantic in the United States, where lawmakers are urging the White House to not ignore the will of the Congress.
After all, American President Barack Obama, who appeared reluctant at first, and then trapped in a way, only stands to gain politically and diplomatically by staying out of Syria.
To put it briefly, the decision of the House of Commons will affect every one of the Western nations that were bracing for military intervention in Syria.
Moreover, the decision marks the awakening of lawmaking bodies at a time when Europe’s assemblies, both the national houses as well as the European Parliament, are used to succumbing to the voluntarism of national governments – even to unelected leaders as happened in Greece and Italy between 2011 and 2012 under the specter of an economic meltdown.
Regardless of what eventually happens in Syria, Britain’s historic 285-272 House of Commons vote will provide a much-needed boost to the democratic spirit and parliamentary institutions beyond the contours of Westminster Palace.