The Vote Against War in the U.K.: No, David Cameron Hasn't Been Humiliated

The unfortunate personalization of British politics

On Thursday, Britain's parliament refused to grant Prime Minister David Cameron permission to intervene in Syria. The matter was decided by a 13 vote margin. "Syria War Vote Doesn't Go David Cameron's Way," CBS headlined its article.

In a better world, that's how the British press would've reported it too.

Here's what happened instead:

See here too:

And here:

The actual inner thoughts and feelings of David Cameron are beyond my knowledge. But if he is humiliated, Anglosphere political culture is more at fault than he is.

The way an event like this ought to be understood is as follows. One political leader reflected on intervention in Syria and concluded that it was a good idea. Other political leaders looked at the same evidence and disagreed. To be more precise, 272 members of parliament agreed with Cameron's preference, while 285 members disagreed. Policy disagreements and parliamentary votes to resolve them are a normal part of politics. Folks who are outvoted should not feel humiliated. But for mistaken premises, no one would feel that being supported by 272 parliamentarians rather than 285 parliamentarians should have any bearing on one's pride, dignity, or self-respect. Even being turned out of office in favor of the next guy is a normal part of democratic politics, not a personal judgment. For the love of Windsor, Winston Churchill was turned out of office.

The British press seem to be operating on the assumption that past approval of conflicts pushed by prime ministers somehow mean that it was David Cameron's due to decide where British forces should intervene, and that overruling his preference is shocking, personal repudiation, rather than the expression of substantive disagreement or a reflection of the fact that the British public is against intervention.

Democracies would do well to dispense with this personalization of leadership.

The prime minister is just a guy who represents the public, makes judgment calls, and is constrained by other politicians with similar job descriptions as he has.

What ought to be considered humiliating is a political leader so arrogant and hubristic that he ignores the will of the people and legislative opposition to take a nation to war. But no one ever says that leaders like that are humiliating themselves. Here's what Cameron said after he lost the vote: "The British parliament does not want to see military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly."

That sounds like a leader with a healthy attitude toward the institutions that properly constrain his ability to act. I say good job, David Cameron, for consulting Parliament, and for abiding by its decision, as maturity and the rule of law requires. A subset of Americans wish our president would embrace the same approach.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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