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UK Parliament’s Gaza Ceasefire Resolution

pmqs at the house of commons in london
Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks during Prime Minister's Questions, at the House of Commons in London, Britain, February 21, 2024

 There was pandemonium in the mother of parliaments at Westminster last Wednesday when the Scottish National Party (SNP) was prevented from having a vote on a call for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza.  

The Labour Party persuaded the speaker of the lower chamber, Sir Lindsey Hoyle, to allow it to squeeze in a spoiler amendment that killed the SNP motion, in scenes of extraordinary chaos and confusion that were primarily the fault of the speaker and his deputy, Dame Rosie Winterton, who was incoherent and lost control of the chamber. 

The speaker’s excuse was that his intention was to protect the security and safety of MPs by allowing a wide spectrum of opinions – although I have to say it is not clear to me how allowing the Labour Party an amendment protected their security.

He had been warned by his clerks that chaos would ensue. His position is now untenable not only for showing favouritism to his party but also for kowtowing to mob rule. More importantly, Scottish MPs have made it clear they no longer have confidence in him and he has to go in the interests of the Union.

The rules of procedure and precedent in the UK parliament are that opposition parties are allowed days on which they set the agenda for debate. As the official opposition, the Labour Party is allocated more days than other opposition parties, but last Wednesday was not a Labour Party opposition day and the speaker was advised by his experts on procedure that a change in procedure to steal the SNP’s thunder was unfair and a breach of precedent. Not only did he ignore sound advice, but also absented himself from the chamber during the debate and was forced to return after the debate descended into chaos and apologise for the mess he caused.

The nub of the SNP motion was “that this House calls… for the immediate release of all hostages taken by Hamas and an end to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people; and recognises that the only way to stop the slaughter of innocent civilians is to press for a ceasefire now.” 

The Labour Party was not happy with the SNP motion and presented a carefully crafted motion to amend the SNP immediately after the SNP moved its motion, which was bound to kill a vote on the SNP motion. 

The way parliament debates motions is simple enough. A motion is moved, and the question is proposed by the speaker and debated.  At the end of the debate, the question is put to a vote along the lines of “those in favour of the motion say aye, those against say no.” The speaker then announces whether the ayes or the noes won, depending on his or her impression of which sounds the loudest. It is only if the speaker’s decision is not clear or is challenged that there is a formal division.  

Crucially for present purposes, the same procedure is followed if there is a motion to amend, except that if the amendment is passed, the question put is on the motion as amended. One can therefore see at once why the SNP was furious since by allowing the Labour Party to interpose its own motion the SNP motion was bound to be superseded by a vote of its motion as amended.

The Labour Party amendment deleted the whole of the SNP motion except the words “that this House” which on any view was not an amendment but a substitution of the Labour Party motion for that of the SNP.  

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Labour Party stole the SNP’s opposition day. With profuse apologies to readers, it is important to set out the Labour Party’s amended motion for debate in full because in the end it was passed as a resolution of the UK parliament for a ceasefire in Gaza.

It reads “this House believes that an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences and therefore must not take place; notes the intolerable loss of Palestinian life, the majority being women and children; condemns the terrorism of Hamas who continue to hold hostages; supports Australia, Canada and New Zealand’s calls for Hamas to release and return all hostages and for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, which means an immediate stop to the fighting and a ceasefire that lasts and is observed by all sides, noting that Israel cannot be expected to cease fighting if Hamas continues with violence and that Israelis have the right to the assurance that the horror of 7 October 2023 cannot happen again; therefore supports diplomatic mediation efforts to achieve a lasting ceasefire; demands that rapid and unimpeded humanitarian relief is provided in Gaza; further demands an end to settlement expansion and violence; urges Israel to comply with the International Court of Justice’s provisional measures; calls for the UN Security Council to meet urgently; and urges all international partners to work together to establish a diplomatic process to deliver the peace of a two-state solution, with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state, including working with international partners to recognise a Palestinian state as a contribution to rather than outcome of that process, because statehood is the inalienable right of the Palestinian people and not in the gift of any neighbour.” 

The resolution of the UK parliament highlights in stark form the difficulties of trying to steer a middle way in conflicts not only in Israel Palestine but closer home in Cyprus and elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with identifying the valid concerns of both sides in any dispute, though it could have been shorter and more elegantly expressed. 

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