Alan Johnson – 2015 Speech on Syrian Air Strikes

Below is the text of the speech made by Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary, in the House of Commons on 2 December 2015.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). During my time in Parliament, it has become a convention that this House authorises military action, whereas previously it was for a Prime Minister to do so under the guise of royal prerogative. Sometimes they would involve the House of Commons; most often they did not. This new convention places a responsibility on Members of Parliament to weigh up the arguments and vote according to their conscience, rather than a parliamentary Whip.

I am not sure if other parties are whipped on this vote or not, but I am pretty sure that nobody in any part of this House would seek to justify their vote tonight by pleading that although they disagreed or agreed with the proposition, the Whip forced them to vote the way they did. On votes such as this, the Whip is irrelevant, except to Front Benchers, perhaps. Although I am grateful to the shadow Cabinet for the free vote my party has been afforded, I do not think it will make the slightest difference to the way we make our decision.

I intend to vote for the motion this evening for one basic reason: I believe that ISIL/Daesh poses a real and present danger to British citizens, and that its dedicated external operations unit is based not in Iraq, where the RAF is already fully engaged, but in Syria. This external operations unit is already responsible for killing 30 British holidaymakers on a beach in Sousse, and a British rock fan who perished along with 129 others in the Paris atrocity a few weeks ago.

It is true that this unit could have moved out of Raqqa, but that is not what the intelligence services believe. The fact is that just as al-Qaeda needed the safe haven it created for itself in Afghanistan to plan 9/11 and other atrocities, so ISIL/Daesh needs its self-declared caliphate to finance, train, organise and recruit to its wicked cause. Yes, there may be cells elsewhere, but there is little doubt that the nerve centre is in Raqqa. Just over 14 months ago, this House sanctioned military action in Iraq against ISIL/Daesh by 524 votes to 43. Nobody expected that action to bring about a swift end to the threat from ISIL; indeed, the Prime Minister, responding to an intervention, said that

“this mission will take not just months, but years”—[Official Report, 26 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 1257.]

Many right hon. and hon. Members felt at that time that it was illogical to allow the effectiveness of our action to be diminished by a border that ISIL/Daesh did not recognise. We were inhibited by the absence of a specific UN resolution, so there was some justification for this House confining its response to one part of ISIL-held territory in September 2014. There can surely be no such justification in December 2015—no such justification after Paris, given the request for help from our nearest continental neighbour and close ally in response to the murderous attack that took place on 13 November; and no such justification after UN Security Council resolution 2249.

Paragraph 5 of the resolution, which was unanimously agreed,

“Calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures…to eradicate the safe haven they”—


“have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”.

George Kerevan:

I put to the right hon. Gentleman the point that I would have put to the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett): a similar call from France was met by Germany, which sent reconnaissance aircraft but refused to bomb.

Alan Johnson:

Germany is constrained by its history. The point I am making is that we in this Parliament, having authorised military action by the RAF in Iraq, can no longer justify not responding to recent events by extending our operations to Syria. If we ignore the part of resolution 2249 that I have just read out, we will be left supporting only the pieties contained in the other paragraphs; we will unequivocally condemn, express deepest sympathy, and reaffirm that those responsible must be held to account. In other words, this country will be expressing indignation while doing nothing to implement the action unanimously agreed in a motion that we, in our role as chair of the Security Council, helped formulate.

Furthermore, there is no argument against our involvement in attacking ISIL/Daesh in Syria that cannot be made against our action in Iraq, where we have helped to prevent ISIL’s expansion and to reclaim 30% of the territory it occupied. As the Prime Minister set out in his response to the Foreign Affairs Committee, that means that RAF Tornadoes, with the special pods that are so sophisticated that they gather 60% of the coalition’s tactical reconnaissance information in Iraq, can be used to similar effect in Syria, so long as another country then comes in to complete the strike. That is a ridiculous situation for this country to be in.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab):

Is not the different between Iraq and Syria the fact that we have on the ground in Iraq a long-established ally, the Kurdish peshmerga, who want to work with us? We do not have that in Syria; we have there what the Prime Minister is now describing as a patchwork.

Alan Johnson:

My hon. Friend, as always, makes an important point. I have just re-read the Hansard report of our debate in September 2014, and this point was not raised by anyone. The question of what comes next, which is a very important consideration—concerns have been expressed on both sides of the House—must not stop us responding to what happened in Paris and to the UN resolution’s request for all countries with the capability to act now. The resolution did not say to delay; it said to act now.

I do not think that anybody in this House believes that defeating the motion tonight will somehow remove us from the line of fire—that ISIL/Daesh and its allies will consider us no longer a legitimate target for its barbaric activities. The 102 people murdered in Ankara were attending a peace rally. The seven plots foiled by our security services so far this year were all planned before this motion was even conceived. Our decision tonight will not alter ISIL/Daesh’s contempt for this country and our way of life by one iota, but it could affect its ability to plan and execute attacks. If our decision does not destroy ISIL/Daesh’s capability in Syria, it will force its external operations unit to move and, in so doing, make it more exposed and less effective.

The motion presents a package of measures that will be taken forward by the international community to bring about the transformation in Syria that we all want to see, and it promised regular updates on that aspect. Furthermore, I believe that the motion meets the criteria that many Members will have set for endorsing military action now that the convention applies: is it a just cause? Is the proposed action a last resort? Is it proportionate? Does it have a reasonable prospect of success? Does it have broad regional support? Does it have a clear legal base? I think that it meets all those criteria.

I find this decision as difficult to make as anyone. Frankly, I wish I had the self-righteous certitude of the finger-jabbing representatives of our new and kinder type of politics, who will no doubt soon be contacting those of us who support the motion tonight. I believe that ISIL/Daesh must be confronted and destroyed if we are properly to defend our country and our way of life, and I believe that this motion provides the best way to achieve that objective.