There was a revealing moment on the Today programme this morning when Lord Dannatt was asked whether he accepted that the response from the British public to any further military involvement in Iraq would be uproar. His reply came quite gently, but the former Chief of the General Staff made quite clear that what should be uppermost in politicians’ minds as they considered the options for further helping the Yazidi people and other religious minorities being seriously persecuted in the country was not opinion polls in this country, but the risk of a genocide.
One of the most unedifying things about the decision that Parliament took almost a year ago on action against President Assad was that MPs seemed to be giving serious consideration to tweets and letters they’d received from constituents. By and large social media is a force for good in politics, bringing MPs closer to their electorate, but it was not encouraging that tweets or opinion polls should settle a matter of war so complex that many of those who hadn’t tweeted or written had not fully considered it. We elect our MPs to be better informed than us, to understand the complexities of foreign policy or of the banking system and the energy market so that we can usefully deploy our labour elsewhere. Of course they should listen carefully to their voters, but they are elected to sometimes say ‘no, on this you have elected me to tell you that you’re wrong’. In the end, the Spectator supported the decision not to intervene – our leading article from last August explains why. But it is perfectly possible to make the right decision for the wrong reasons.
This year some MPs are arguing that British involvement should go further to protect the Yazidis and others from genocide. If this does come to a debate in the House of Commons, perhaps parliamentarians who do want to mull their own reputations should look not just at their twitter feeds but at the future implications of having decided to step back from another Rwanda or Srebrenica just because an opinion poll made them a bit nervous.