We can’t script the outcomes of war

In seeking to break with a past tainted by Iraq, the Syria vote entrenches the legacy of that war. So what next?

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 
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

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.