While Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Sunday to take “whatever steps are necessary” to confront Islamic State after the beheading of a British hostage, decisions on British military action are unlikely before the Scottish independence referendum.
With polls showing the Sept. 18 vote is too tight to call, the possibility that Britain may break up after three centuries is dominating British politics in the final days of campaigning.
Cameron, who led an emergency meeting of ministers and security officials Sunday, is under pressure from some members of his Conservative Party and former military chiefs to join U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State after the group murdered aid worker David Haines, a Scot, and threatened to kill another Briton. In a sign of the immediate priority being given to Scotland, he was scheduled to return to the country Monday for the second time in a week to urge voters to reject independence.
“A British national being decapitated on video will stiffen the resolve of a lot of people in favor of action, but any decision is off until the week after next because Scotland is such a big distraction,” Raffaello Pantucci, director of the international security program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London, said in a phone interview.
Cameron, 47, described Islamic State Sunday as the “embodiment of evil” as he made the case for an expanded role for Britain.
“We cannot ignore this threat to our security and that to our allies,” he said in a televised statement. “We can’t just walk on by if we are to keep this country safe; we have to confront this menace.”
The video purporting to show the beheading of Haines was posted on Twitter by the Site Intel Group, a Bethesda, Maryland- based provider of news and information about jihadists. It’s similar to videos that showed the executions of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Joel Sotloff, and the killer appears to be the same man, the Site group said.
The United States resumed air strikes in Iraq in August, and has said it intends to bomb Islamic State positions in Syria. So far, Britain has used military assets to assist with humanitarian aid, reconnaissance and the delivery of arms and ammunition to forces fighting the Islamist extremist group, which has declared a caliphate in large areas it has seized in Iraq and Syria.
Cameron has said nothing is ruled out, except deploying British troops on the ground.
Cameron repeated the need Sunday to seek allies in the Middle East. Monday, his spokesman said that “the need to get the approach to tackling ISIL right,” not the Scottish referendum, is driving the British government.
“That above all is about getting the regional diplomatic and political strategy in place,” Jean-Christophe Gray told reporters in London. “The government will not change its approach one iota in response to the acts of barbarity that are perpetrated by ISIL.”
An early call for more aggressive action would risk alienating voters in Scotland before the referendum. Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond expressed his concern yesterday about taking unilateral steps.
“There’s an urgent requirement to get back under collective action through the United Nations,” Salmond, who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq because it was not approved by the UN, said in a BBC television interview.
Cameron has pledged to consult lawmakers on any decision. A recall of Parliament now would force lawmakers to abandon the referendum campaign in Scotland in the critical final days.
Also hanging over any decision is the shadow of a parliamentary defeat on authorizing action against Syria. In August 2013, Cameron was forced to abandon plans for strikes against the Syrian government over the use chemical weapons after Tory rebels and the Labour opposition united to defeat him.
When Cameron recalled Parliament, the vote initially seemed straightforward. He failed to foresee the doubts about action both on his own Conservative side and the possibility that Labour would vote against it, a decision announced on the morning of the debate.
With Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond at talks in Paris Monday to forge a coalition against Islamic State, and the U.N. General Assembly set to open in New York, pressure on Cameron to sanction air strikes is building. The former head of the British army, Richard Dannatt, said Sunday the killing of Haines should not deter the government from action against the group.
“If we don’t confront and destroy these Islamic State jihadist fighters, their influence will grow, their confidence will grow, and the problem will get bigger,” he told Sky News.
Former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, speaking yesterday on BBC Radio 4, said that while the case for the British joining airstrikes would have to be put to Parliament, lawmakers were “sympathetic and supportive.”
– With assistance from Thomas Penny in London.