THE Commons vote in 2013 on whether Britain should take part in military action against Syria was a moment of intense national shame. It was also, if only we’d known, an indicator of the dark path down which our politics was headed.

The evidence that Bashar Assad had used illegal chemical weapons against his own people was overwhelming. An assessment by the Joint Intelligence Committee, responsible for coordinating Britain’s intelligence services, concluded he had used the nerve agents on 14 separate occasions. It warned that failure to take action would likely lead to further chemical attacks on innocent civilians. Barack Obama was ready to mount air strikes to enforce international law and show the Assad regime it could not act with impunity.

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David Cameron was uncharacteristically emotional as he made the case that the UK should play its part. “I think we can be as certain as possible that a regime that has used chemical weapons on 14 occasions and is most likely responsible for this large-scale attack will conclude, if nothing is done, that it can use these weapons again and again on a larger scale. People talk about escalation; to me, the biggest danger of escalation is if the world community – not just Britain, but America and others – stands back and does nothing. I think Assad will draw very clear conclusions from that.”

Indeed, Mr Cameron’s words then carry even greater weight today: “One can never forget the sight of children’s bodies stored in ice, and young men and women gasping for air and suffering the most agonising deaths – all inflicted by weapons that have been outlawed for nearly a century.”

The proof was beyond reasonable doubt; the consequences of inaction were clearly laid out. And yet Britain turned its face away. Labour leader Ed Miliband joined with isolationist Tories to defeat the Government. Without the support of the US’s closest ally, and facing a hostile Congress, Mr Obama felt unable to intervene. The Syrian people were on their own against a monster.

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Mr Miliband had squirmed and squiggled his way to a position where he was neither for nor against taking military action. He insisted more time was needed to gather evidence, but this was pure cant. After Iraq, the Labour leader, like many in his party, was allergic to the idea of military intervention in pretty much any circumstances. He had won the leadership in part because he had been against the Iraq war, which his main rival, his brother David, had supported. He chose modish party politics over the great Labour tradition of solidarity with the world’s weakest.

Ed Miliband of course begat Jeremy Corbyn. Today Labour is the kind of contemptible party that won’t criticise Vladimir Putin for a terrorist attack on Britain’s streets, and that, in its response to President Assad’s latest chemical attack, could only call for “anyone found responsible” to be brought to justice. Corbyn is a conspiracy theorist atop a party ridden with them. His Labour is congenitally unable to explicitly support the West or Western values, for the simple fact it does not like either.

That 2013 debate also showed us where the Tories were heading. Mr Cameron was only beaten because 30 Conservative MPs voted with Mr Miliband – and those included most of the hardcore Brexiters who would soon successfully fight to drag Britain out of the EU, and therefore out of a front-rank global position. The growing strength of these headbangers was one of the reasons Mr Cameron decided to hold a Brexit referendum in the first place. Hence, the extremes of right and left proved yet again that they are, to borrow George Galloway’s unimprovable phrase, two cheeks of the same arse.

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And in the US, the refusal of a Republican-controlled Congress to sanction Mr Obama’s air strikes was a clear sign of the growing isolationist instinct that has now found its purest expression in Donald Trump – a man who has blithely ripped up international agreements and tossed aside old alliances, and turned the US into a dog-eat-dog presence on the world stage. Ironically, in this malign use of American muscle, Mr Trump has only weakened that great nation’s future prospects and undermined, perhaps fatally, its natural claim to global leadership.

A question we’re left confronting is this: does the West actually exist in any meaningful sense any more? And also this: beyond a geographical designation, what does the word even represent? The answer to the latter used to be straightforward enough: liberal democracy, habeas corpus, freedom of expression and association, tolerance, self-criticism, the protection of minorities. We saw these enlightened values as the universal property of humankind, even if too many souls were currently denied them by autocrats. But we were working on it – that’s what we were for.

No longer, it seems. There is little point in the world’s wretched looking to the West for hope. The US is eating itself; the UK is a basket case; xenophobic nationalism is on the rise in Austria, Hungary and Poland. And with the West at bay, mired in its grotesque, myopic self-obsession, others have stepped in to fill the gap. Others always do.

If you speak to a Syrian they will tell you that Russian accents are now common in Damascus. One described Syria to me as”effectively now a Russian vassal state – they have taken over.” We stayed out, they went in – Vladimir Putin acts whenever and wherever he scents weakness. In other benighted parts of the world, China is seen as the great saviour – it invests, it loans, it is on the up and a good ally to have. It makes no demand for improved human rights or other liberal commitments as payment for its friendship.

It’s all too easy to sit back and watch events unfold, shaking our heads piously at the mistakes of others. Getting involved in far-flung places is messy, creates fresh problems and leads to unintended consequences. But our absence doesn’t leave a hole – others simply step in and divert outcomes towards the satisfaction of their own interests. It feels and looks like we’ve given up, as if the responsibility of trying to do the right thing was just too much bother. And I can’t help but think that while Syrian children suffer now, our own children will, one way or another, suffer later.