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Case Study: Syria Vote in the UK Parliament (2013)

On 29th August 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron went to the House of Commons of the UK Parliament to call for the UK to join military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

This followed the use of chemical weapons on 21st August allegedly by the President outside Damascus. The government lost the vote.

The Labour Party, Leader Ed Miliband said that the UK needed to learn the lessons of military intervention in Iraq.

It was proof, if needed, that the controversy over the decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003 and the resulting internal conflicts continues to shape political thinking in the UK. He added that he thought members of parliament had spoken for the people of Britain.

The Parliamentary Motion

The motion put to parliament as spoken by the Prime Minister said:

That this House:

Deplores the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013 by the Assad regime, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries of Syrian civilians;

Recalls the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law;

Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons;

Notes the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis;

Notes that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime under customary law and a crime against humanity, and that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for taking action;

Notes the wide international support for such a response, including the statement from the Arab League on 27 August which calls on the international community, represented in the United Nations Security Council, to “overcome internal disagreements and take action against those who committed this crime, for which the Syrian regime is responsible”;

Believes, in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations, that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action;

Therefore welcomes the work of the United Nations investigating team currently in Damascus, and, whilst noting that the team’s mandate is to confirm whether chemical weapons were used and not to apportion blame, agrees that the United Nations Secretary General should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission;

Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken, and notes that before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place; and 

Notes that this Resolution relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.

(taken from Hansard)

The Result

The government was defeated in the vote by 285 to 272, meaning that some MPs voted against their political party and Prime Minister. Thirty Conservative and nine Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government’s motion.

Receiving the result Mr. Cameron said: “I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. 

International Reaction

The US said it would “continue to consult” with the UK, “one of our closest allies and friends”. 

France said the UK’s vote does not change its resolve on the need to act in Syria.

Russia – which has close ties with the Assad government – welcomed Britain’s rejection of a military strike.