Last Sunday afternoon I went for a walk with Sarah and Wilfred on Hampstead Heath. The December dark was closing in and – as it happens on a still night in winter – noises were amplified in the gloom. I stopped for a few moments and listened as the noise of traffic, sirens and horns came close, even though I was in the middle of the Heath a mile or so from any major road.
On 1st July next year we will remember the first day of the Battle of the Somme when, a hundred years before, people standing where I stood on Hampstead Heath heard the opening bombardment of the Royal Artillery not three miles away but three hundred. That terrible war, so immediate to every family in Britain, could now be heard as well. For the residents of the south Kent coast the sounds of battle had been a constant since the winter of 1914/15, as shells dropped on positions not far from the beaches on the other side of the English Channel.
Every war becomes more pressing as it nears home. So it was with Hitler and his invasion of France and attempted defeat of the RAF over the South Downs. Now we face a similar moment with ISIS – or Daesh as we must now call them – rampaging through the streets of Paris and hiding in the suburbs of Brussels. Suddenly, just as the Sudetenland meant something to Sussex, now Syria has become a state close to home.
It should not surprise us that this should be the case: the world is smaller now and people travel with greater ease than ever before. A large and appalling conflict on Europe’s frontier affects us as much, if not more, than a war on our continent once did. Daesh are exporting their horrifying methods of war to western Europe, just as the refugees they and Bashar al-Assad have created arrive (and die) on our shores.
This is not a conflict we can ignore. Not to take action is as much a positive choice as a vote to take action, and that decision has consequences of its own. We have an opportunity to join with our allies to defeat Daesh where they are strongest – to reduce and help eliminate their ability to terrorise Syrians and terrorise Europeans. We will help protect our own people and contribute to the wider effort to bring peace to that benighted country. We are a strong nation with a professional and well-equipped military: these are the kind of missions that only the British and a couple of others can do.
All of those are good reasons to take action against Daesh in Syria. But there is a motive still stronger. There is no good me sitting in the House of Commons feeling smug about the values that make our nation strong if we are not willing to put those values into action. When fascists – so aptly named by Hillary Benn in his remarkable speech – are intent on pushing gay men off buildings to their deaths, enslaving and raping women, beheading men and forcing children to become murderers on the borders of our continent, it is our duty to step in. We cannot be the world’s policeman but nor can we ignore barbarism such as this so close to home.
Just as in 1916 and in 1940, this war is now close to home. We have seen it in Paris just as a century ago people heard another conflict on Hampstead Heath. We must act – not just because it is close to home but because we must defend the same values that those who fell a hundred years ago fought to preserve.