Hours of ‘say’, not ‘do’, in the Commons over Afghanistan – led by a PM who looked hardly bothered

·5-min read

From the Dordogne valley they came, from the hills of Tuscany and the sunbeds of Crete. From Cornish cottages, from the very length and breadth of Lake Windermere.

There was nothing to be done, they knew that, so it was Very Important that something was said.

There isn’t really very much to say either. Donald Trump had reduced the American military presence in Afghanistan to almost nothing in return for a temporary peace, and had promised the Taliban to reduce it to absolutely nothing.

Joe Biden has decided to keep that promise, rather than re-escalate the conflict. Not because he had to keep it, but because he personally wanted to, against the advice of his advisers and his allies. So that was that.

All that remains to be had is a row about the number of refugees that the UK will take in, which we already know will not be a very high number, because we have a government that knows it is very popular through being performatively cruel to immigrants and it won’t change now.

The most telling comment of the day was not even made in the House of Commons, but from Priti Patel, on Sky News. The UK, she said, “can’t accommodate 20,000 refugees all in one go.” The UK, for what it’s worth, is estimated to have up to a million fewer people living in it than 18 months ago. It has huge shortages of workers in large numbers of industries, many of them key. It absolutely can accommodate 20,000 people “all in one go”.

It’s absolutely desperate for a far higher number than that, but when you have a home secretary that has to be told not to put high-powered wave machines in the Channel to keep back migrant dinghies, because said machines are likely to capsize said dinghies and drown the people inside them, what does one expect?

So it was a long morning and afternoon to Say, not to Do, though the prime minister scarcely bothered even with the talking part. He spent barely half an hour in the chamber, during all of which he resembled nothing more than a pink overstuffed sausage in a half-baked toad in the hole, the occasion having risen around him.

Nothing he said is worth the keystrokes. “The collapse has been faster than even the Taliban themselves predicted,” he said. “But what is not true to say is that the UK government was unprepared or did not foresee this.”

It took us by surprise but also we were ready for it. So there you are.

It’s execrable, naturally, course it is. But who cares? The whole overriding point of the last week is that nobody cares what the west says or does anymore, which is not very much at all, and certainly not Britain. And who can disagree when Britain’s own prime minister doesn’t actually care himself, or if, secretly, he does, he certainly can’t be bothered to do the necessary preparation to show it.

It’s not to say that there weren’t many fine words. There were. Most of them, naturally, came from the backbenches and from MPs who have served in some form or another in Afghanistan. Tom Tugendhat’s contribution is already being discussed as one of the great House of Commons speeches of the last 20 years. He has seen, in Afghanistan, both horrendous and wonderful things – dead children in their parents’ arms, and little girls going to school.

Most wise people have spent the last week trying to see a very complex situation from the many sides involved. To avoid simple conclusions. But it’s notable that people who’ve been there, be they soldiers, aid workers, journalists, whomever else, don’t see so much complexity. They see a simple dereliction of duty.

“What we have done, in these last few days,” Tugendhat said, “is we’ve demonstrated that it’s not armies that win wars. Armies can get tactical victories and operational victories that can hold a line. They can just about make room for peace, make room for people like us, parliamentarians, to talk, to compromise, to listen. It’s nations that make war. Nations endure. Nations mobilise and muster. Nations determine, and have patience. Here we have demonstrated, sadly, that we, the west – the United Kingdom – does not have patience.”

It’s a funny old business, this kind of politics. A speech is a performance, and politicians can always be counted upon to seek to weight their words with as much of their own personal gravity as they can summon, of which some have more than others. Tugendhat is no different. He is, on occasion, a performatively grandiose man. But on this particular occasion, the intermittent cracks in his voice as he recalled having “watched good men go into the earth” revealed the clear fact that what Tugendhat was trying to do, above all else, was hold it together.

He also had the courage to give President Biden the kicking he deserved, over his absurd and entirely wrong claim that “Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves”.

Tugendhat fought in Afghanistan alongside Americans and Afghans, and had the following to say: “To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with – to claim that they ran. It is shameful. Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have.” They’re only words, they won’t change anything, but at least, one hopes, the president might see them.

Speeches do matter, in politics, of course they do. Some speeches really do change the world. Martin Luther King Jr and Abraham Lincoln have delivered them. But they are always speeches that are a call to arms, that galvanise a people for action. This was not such an occasion. It was no more than an eight-hour contest to provide the most eloquent lament for a catastrophic failure.

Tugendhat won the contest, by miles, though it will be scant consolation to him, and even less to the many desperate people that should never have been left behind.

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