The Houses of Parliament are silhouetted against a setting sun as members of Parliament take part in a debate about possible British military action against Syria. Image: Getty
Parliament was half empty for most of the Syria debate on 29 August. There was no shortage of MPs who wanted to speak but there were fewer who wanted to listen. Perhaps MPs are not seriously expected to stay in the Commons for a debate on matters of war and peace about which they have already made up their minds. The gravitas of the event was nonetheless undermined.
If this was parliament working at its best, why was the direction of British foreign policy not forced by the debate’s outcome towards a path indicated by either the government or the opposition going into the vote? The motions of both were defeated. Even though the result appears to have been in line with the majority view in the country, that should not mask the reality that it was arrived at by accident.
Despite the ambiguity of the Syria vote’s implications for British foreign policy, it has been presented as a great democratic moment. This sentiment was suggested not only by MPs who opposed the government motion but by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who explained the outcome in terms of his respect for the will of the House of Commons.
The paradox is that, in seeking to break with a past tainted by Iraq, the Syria vote entrenches the legacy of that war. The contemplation of this vote as a celebration of British democracy is intimately associated with its function as an attempt finally to deal with the body politic’s post-traumatic stress disorder over Iraq, a task that successive state inquiries have failed to achieve. As the headline in Le Monde put it, “Les Communes votent contre Tony Blair”.
If the Syria vote was intended finally to punish the Blair government over Iraq, it did so by apparently entrenching a constitutional convention – that parliament must approve decisions to use armed force – which goes beyond this objective. This constraint represents distrust in the executive branch, regardless of who is in power.
Is this nonetheless to be celebrated as a great democratic moment? Yes, if one understands this as the latest evolution of a democratic tradition in British political history dating back to the civil war, the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights of 1689: the taming by parliament and the courts of royal prerogative powers – that remnant of monarchical authority that allows the executive to act without parliamentary authority.
Yet that view is problematic. A more accurate contextualisation of the Syria vote in constitutional history reveals how far it represents a major break with British constitutional tradition.
Parliament did not vote on a substantive motion to enter either the First or Second World War nor, indeed, any war other before Iraq. Prior to Iraq, there was a tradition of parliament voting to approve government policy after the decision to commit to war had been made, in which the Commons was, in effect, invited to support the troops, now they were on their way.
Such debates on substantive motions took place, for example, on 5 July 1950, after Clement Attlee had already committed Britain to support the multinational force in the Korean war on 28 June 1950, and on 21 January 1991, after John Major had announced to the Commons the initiation of the bombing of Iraq in the Gulf war on 17 January 1991.
There was also a tradition of discussion on motions to adjourn before conflict, such as in the Falklands war of 1982 and Afghanistan in 2001; but those, at most, represented an endorsement, not constitutionally required approval, of government policy to initiate hostilities. In the post-cold war world, many uses of force have been announced simply by a statement to the Commons by the prime minister (Kosovo in 1999) or secretary of state (Sierra Leone in 2000).
Thus in February 2003, a month before British forces crossed their lines of departure into Iraq, the attorney general could assert: “The decision to use military force is and remains a decision within the royal prerogative and as such does not, as a matter of law or constitutionality, require the prior approval of parliament.”
Yet the Blair government did break with convention by asking parliament to vote on a substantive motion to approve the initiation of military action in Iraq on 18 March 2003. Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary between June 2001 and May 2006, stated in a speech to the Fabian Society in 2006: “This was key to establishing the domestic legitimacy of the specific decisions on Iraq. But the process has also established a precedent for the future, making it very likely that any similar decisions about military action would be taken with a parliamentary vote.”
There is some irony that Iraq should be the first precedent for a constitutional model that seeks to confer legitimacy on the decision to go to war, given the general perception today of the illegitimacy of the basis on which Britain entered the war in 2003. Ironic but not coincidental: the use of parliament as a proxy for legitimacy was required precisely because of the deficit in legitimacy experienced by the executive in the run-up to Iraq; a deficit justified by subsequent events.
Even the nature of the Iraq Commons motion on 18 March 2003 signals, in retrospect, the evolution of a constitutional model premised on an assumption of trust in the executive to a model premised on distrust. The motion runs to 390 words and reads like a contract, in comparison to the pithy style typical of earlier motions – for example, Attlee’s on military action in Korea (34 words) or Major’s in the Gulf (36 words) – which merely set out the broad policy aim. The difference is significant, the contractual idiom being precisely a formalisation of communication that is representative of an absence of the trust that would otherwise make a contractual relationship unnecessary.
The chronology of the US experience provides a revealing parallel, given that the US War Powers Resolution 1973, which buttressed the requirement for the president to seek congressional approval for the use of force, followed from the collapse of confidence in the executive branch in Vietnam.
War is par excellence the domain in which decisive individual judgement is at a premium. The British army teaches “mission command”: to accommodate the inherent unpredictability of battle, the commander directs subordinates on what to achieve, not how to achieve it.
This makes sense. Virtually every operation I was involved in during my time in the British army evolved differently from the plan at the outset. The enemy is a live force whose plan one is actively trying to unhinge. The enemy rarely accepts the part that one has scripted for him.
Mission command is a mentality founded on mutual trust and confidence. Despite the flexibility given to subordinates to achieve the leader’s intent, the leader remains responsible for the action. Until Iraq, British constitutional practice was no different.
Yet is parliamentary approval a problem in this respect; are the claims that it will diminish operational efficiency exaggerated? Special forces operations are likely not to be affected; it seems intuitive that hostagerescue- type decisions would not require parliamentary debate.
What about larger-scale “emergency” actions? Would retrospective approval be sought? This occurred in the 2011 military action against Libya, in which parliament voted to approve it only three days after bombing had started.
What if parliament had voted No? British foreign policy would have been thrown into chaos. In reality, the executive will not act first and ask later unless it is confident of parliamentary approval, so perhaps this is a red herring. On the other hand, in circumstances in which the case for and against is not clear-cut and the military action is risky (as most are), anticipating parliamentary support may be very hard. The long-term trend may be a more risk-averse executive in emergency situations.
If there emerge real difficulties with this model, however, it will not be in the initial decision but in the degree of flexibility the executive is given once combat has started. War in the abstract is significantly different from war as it evolves in reality and new decisions need to be made. In this Syrian case, for instance, had approval been given, what if chemical weapons were used again? Would a second round of strikes require fresh parliamentary approval?
This dilemma speaks to the concerns of MPs in the Syria debate surrounding whether 13-19 SEPTEMBER 2013 | NEW STATESMAN | 25 or not they would be giving a “blank cheque” for military action if they supported the government, despite assurances that the proposed action was strictly limited.
Any response to concerns of this kind by the executive requires further qualifications and assurances as to what the action will or will not be. It therefore leads precisely down the road of a quasi-contractual relationship with parliament, which attempts to deal with democratic concerns by laying out more and more detailed “terms”.
In other words, if the Syria debate is anything to go by, MPs now want not just the blurb but the whole script – as if one can script war. This puts the executive in an impossible position, because any “terms” are premised on predictions about the evolution of conflict that the unpredictability of the use of force would caution against making. How can that lend itself to re-establishing trust in the executive?
The Syria vote was perhaps a necessary democratic moment but it represented the culmination of a ten-year break with a longestablished and more trusting constitutional tradition in matters of war. Our new constitutional presumption of suspicion in executive judgement represents as much a failure as a triumph for British democracy.
Emile Simpson is the author of “War from the Ground Up” (Hurst, £20). He served in the British army as an officer in the Gurkhas from 2006-2012