The Syria vote was a triumph of parliamentary sovereignty

Votes such as last night's are no longer mere rubber stamps but a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government.

There are several significant angles to last night's Commons vote on Syria. Foreign policy experts look at Britain’s role in the world and our relationship with the United States; domestic politicos look through the prism of party politics, asking who came out better between Miliband and Cameron. Meanwhile, Syria continues to suffer and we can only now hope that inaction is the lesser of two evils.

But amid the fallout, easily obscured by the more obvious issues of the day, is a seismic shift in the British constitution, an evolution that has crept up quietly but which serves to empower Parliament and constrain the executive. 

While the Prime Minister officially retains the Royal Prerogative to declare war, it is clear that this power is now tempered by the convention that Parliament must vote on the matter beforehand.

Previous votes on Iraq and Libya, while contentious, saw the government of the day validated by the Commons. Before this it had been understood that the executive had a right and duty to declare war as it saw fit. The real test of this innovation was whether a government convinced of the need for military action would respect a vote that opposed it.

The fact that Cameron had to promise the House that it would have a second vote, the fact he has now changed course so dramatically – while retaining the right to declare war - shows that votes like this are not simply rubber stamps but have become a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government.

Ironically, by calling an unprecedented vote on Iraq, Tony Blair, the most presidential of prime ministers, set in place an innovation that created a precedent largely devolving 'war powers' from the executive to the legislature.

Frustrating for many, our uncodified constitution is nevertheless pragmatic and far from conventions being ignored (as many fear has increasingly happened) a new one that curtails government power has clearly entrenched itself.

In the Lords, former generals, admirals, defence secretaries and ambassadors urged caution, while the debate in the Commons was marked by many MPs speaking of their constituents’ concerns. Some cheap politicking (from both benches) aside, the standard of debate was high and the tone respectful.

Whether one agrees with the outcome or not, the vote was a reassertion of Parliamentary sovereignty – a message to the executive, but also to the United States, that in the United Kingdom it is with Parliament, not the Prime Minister, that ultimate power resides. Indeed, many MPs spoke of this as a retreat from British presidentialism and a return to the PM being primus inter pares.

It is now unthinkable that Cameron would disregard Parliament’s wishes. Likewise, his deference to the Commons and his claim to have listened further entrenches the precedent that any future Prime Minister would have to call a similar vote on military action.

In my view, reserve powers of Royal Prerogative should remain with the Executive in case a Prime Minster must act immediately before explaining himself or herself to the House. But it is now clear that any premeditated military action will rightly require the approval of Parliament.

The British constitution is something that has grown organically over the last thousand years. It has survived because it has evolved; its imperfections have been mitigated by its flexibility. This latest stage in its evolution has something to say of our present and of our past. It speaks to a country disillusioned with foreign interventions, war-weary and cautious of unknown consequences. But fundamentally it also reasserts an ancient British principle: Parliament is sovereign.

James Hallwood is associate director of The Constitution Society @jhallwood

"A message to the executive, but also to the United States, that in the United Kingdom it is with Parliament, not the Prime Minister, that ultimate power resides". Photograph: Getty Images.

James Hallwood is associate director of The Constitution Society @jhallwood

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser