One of the most radicalising experiences of my youth was the Falklands War. I was a student at the time, reading PPE at Oxford – the entrance exam to mainstream politics at the staff college of the British establishment – and remember being aghast at the politics and the emotional hinterland it revealed: the apparent lust for war and the way in which a government that was laying waste the livelihoods of millions of British citizens could reinvent itself by taking part in an apparently cost-free war. Of course there were wobbles along the way – the bombing of HMS Sheffield and the murderous sinking of the General Belgrano as it steamed away from the conflict zone – but the whole thing looked unreal – a victory that had been pre-ordained in the British media (who presumably were unaware of how close we came to military defeat) and the inevitable, toxic politics of the Falklands Factor as summed up in Thatcher’s notorious post-war speech at Cheltenham Racecourse. Watching the politics – or perhaps more accurately the anti-politics – of the Falklands Factor made me aware of the dysfunction of British politics, indeed of British identity, more than any other event I can recall.
At the height of that war, one Anthony Blair was being deprived of his deposit in a by-election in leafy Beaconsfield. Perhaps it was that experience that defined the Blair years; the idea that going to war was popular. Last night’s vote in the House of Commons against a Government motion backing military action in Syria might just have ended that illusion.
Two important things happened yesterday. First, Conservative backbenchers appeared prepared to vote against their Government on the basis of their postbags, but also on the basis of simple logic. In the House of Lords some of the most powerful interventions came from former generals, defence ministers and strategists; the logic of liberal intervention undermined.
Second, Labour – in the face of its appalling legacy on Iraq – reinvented itself as a party of international law and collective security. Ed Miliband emerged as the leader in touch with popular feeling, not – for once – by parroting nasty-party rhetoric on benefits or backing Tory spending plans or spouting dog-whistle narratives about hard-working families, but by making a stand that matched principle with an understanding that after Iraq and all that flowed from it, going to war on the basis of a partial narrative about rights and atrocities was no longer publicly acceptable. There is perhaps a lesson for Labour that it looks most convincing when it leaves the language and rationality of the Right behind. After yesterday, those on the Left who use Iraq to demonise Labour are going to have to find a new trope.
Cameron’s rhetoric – that of the Tories generally – dripped with liberal imperialism, the pursuit of an apparently just cause with which to justify military action. When Ed Miliband refused to play along, Tories – displaying once again the prejudices of their upbringing and class, in which empathy is defined as weakness – resorted to proto-Bullingdon bullying. But the facts speak for themselves; the debate has moved on, and the Tory backbenchers who voted against the Government appear to understand this in a way that Cameron – and especially his hapless Liberal Democrat allies – do not.
Cameron and the political establishment may still succeed in finessing their way into an illegal war in Syria. At no stage yesterday did Ed Miliband explicitly rule it out. But perhaps, with Thatcher no longer with us and the bitter experience of Iraq, we can now safely claim that the politics of the Falklands Factor are dead. And that can only be a cause for hope.