Sunday, 1 September 2013

Cameron's Syria debacle and the growing influence of social media

It was Harold Wilson who said "A week is a long time in politics", and its surely been a very long week indeed for David Cameron. On Thursday he recalled Parliament to vote on, and endorse his plan to support the USA in attacking Syria for the use of chemical weapons in Damascus. He was clearly confident of success and had obviously already promised Barak Obama that Britain would join the USA in a military strike. But as the debate in the House of Commons progressed it became clear that he might not win. I watched some of the debate on TV and also followed it on Twitter. By the time Clegg closed off the debate for the Government, it was obvious that, he, if not the government itself, was in trouble. He twice avoided answering a straight question on whether Britain would allow its bases to be used by the USA even if Britain did not participate in the military strike, to the obvious annoyance of MPs. The promise had clearly already been given. It was a poor performance which can't have helped his already diminished credibility as a politician. I don't think it was crucial in the outcome of the debate but it can't have helped. The Government lost the vote by 272 votes to 285 with 30 Tory MPs and 9 Lib Dem MPs voting against.

Cameron has obviously been severely damaged by this debacle, which is clearly of his own making, but the other party leaders came out of it with little credit. Despite this, Labour supporters tried to spin the whole thing as a victory for Ed Milliband, but Milliband apparently had to be pressed by his colleagues to argue for delay while the UN weapons inspectors delivered their report, and the UN Security Council debated military action. Clegg stuffed up, and failed to keep all his party onside. Furthermore, Cameron's obvious rage, and No. 10s attempt to blame Milliband with ludicrous accusations, have made Cameron look even smaller than he already did.

So what happened? The shadow of Tony Blair and the Iraq War was cast over the debate from the start, but I think the explanation lies in the fact that many Tory MPs had their inboxes full of emails from constituents urging them not to support action. They already have their eyes on the next election. So was this a victory for people power and parliamentary democracy as many have hoped it was? I think it was a combination of that, because some MPs were voting for what they believed rather than following the party line, the anger over Iraq, and the fact that Cameron and co. cocked up the whole affair, arrogantly rushing into war and assuming that they could take their party with them, and that Labour would simply acquiesce. However, we shouldn't assume that this vote is the harbinger of real change. For that to happen we will need democratic reform.

But I do also think politics is beginning to change, and the Westminster bubble is starting to burst. What's bringing about that change is that social media is opening up politics and informed debate. We have seen how it has made a huge difference in countries around the world like Egypt and Turkey, where large movements and demonstrations have been organised through Facebook and Twitter. Is it beginning to make a difference here in the UK, with millions more people being opened up to ideas and that they didn't have access to in the past, and the rapid dissemination of information?

Most importantly, we are no longer dependent on the capitalist media for news, and the influence of the press is waning. Twitter is often one step ahead of the press and 24 hour rolling news. Events are frequently reported there first, with eye witness reports and photos. Even Cameron announced his intentions for Syria on Twitter first, and referred to footage of the chemical attack in Syria on YouTube. Will these changes lead to a more open debate and a stronger democracy? Its too early to tell, but its well worth reading Paul Mason's excellent book 'Why its kicking off everywhere' if you haven't already, because it captures the influence of social media and the web on politics very well. 

Unless social media is suppressed, I believe it, and the wider web, can bring about change by offering a national and global platform for those whose opinions are often ignored by the media consensus, and by facilitating campaigns and organised protest. When Cameron tweets on Twitter, his tweets don't carry any more weight than anyone else's. You may not like Twitter, but its a global conversation that should not be underestimated.

No comments: