Going to war used to be decided by the PM in cabinet acting on the Royal Prerogative. Photo: Getty
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Is a Commons vote a better way of taking Britain to war than the Royal Prerogative was?

The most crucial of all decisions – to go to war – must not be left in the constitutional and procedural shadowy shambles it currently is.

Hope, as we all idealistically might, that the era of armed conflict is over, we all know that it is not. It is a certainty that British troops, planes and ships will be involved in warfare somewhere in the world in the years to come. It’s Iraq and Syria, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Afghanistan, for now, but who can tell where it will be in ten years – or even one? Is it not ironic to think that had we attacked Assad exactly 12 months ago just now, we would inadvertently have been helping the very people who are now wreaking havoc in Iraq?

Yet the process by which we decide whether or not to commit troops is wholly unclear.

It used to be the Prime Minister in cabinet acting under what was known as the Royal Prerogative. He kept parliament informed – of course he did. And of course he remained answerable to parliament. Any kind of disastrous error in war-making would result in a motion of no confidence and a general election. But with two notable exceptions, all wars of all sizes for the last 250 years have been waged without any substantive vote in parliament at all.

Parliament did not vote on Afghanistan, nor the massive increase in our troops there in 2006; we did not vote on the First Gulf War, on the Falklands, on the First and Second World Wars. We did not vote on Korea or Suez, and the vote on Libya was only three days after hostilities had commenced.

The only war on which there has been a substantive motion and supportive vote in parliament (there were in the end not one but three votes) was Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. That precedent does not exactly lead us to the conclusion that those in parliament are the best people to decide on these matters.

The only other vote prior to military deployment was 12 months ago just now, when in a procedural shambles, the Commons was deemed to have voted against military action against President Assad. That may well have been the right outcome, but was it really the right way to have achieved it?

And are backbench members of the House of Commons really qualified to vote on any armed intervention which may become necessary in Syria and Iraq, in Estonia or Lithuania, or in so many other flashpoints around the world? If we were to insist on it, would we not be politicising war? Would the right wars actually happen, for example in the last few months before a general election? Would we not have to share secret intelligence and legal advice with all MPs if they are to come to the right conclusions? Would we not hamper Nato and the UN in their decision-making processes? And if some of these consequences and more were to be the result of our determined democratisation of warfare, would we not risk severely hampering our ability as a nation to be a force for good in the world?

We have just published a book, Who Takes Britain to War?, trying to come to some kind of conclusion, or at least to inspire an intelligent debate on all of this (see details below). In the book, Mark Lomas QC comes to the conclusion that we should do all we can to preserve the use of the Royal Prerogative. James Gray MP agrees, but fears that the Iraq and Syria votes mean that that particular genie is well out of the bottle. There are many who would argue that there must always be a vote in [arliament, ignoring a large array of problems and downsides if that were to become a binding convention.

The book proposes a new solution – namely that the principles of the Just War which underlie most modern law of warfare such as the Geneva Conventions, should be written into UK statute. Such a law would lay down the parameters under which military action should be allowed; it would stipulate how war should be conducted; and it would delimit conditions under which it should be ended. The Prime Minister and executive would thereafter be able to act freely, if answerable to parliament in precisely the same way as they are at the moment.

Rather than a Royal Prerogative, they would be acting under what might be called a "Parliamentary Prerogative".

There is a broad spectrum of views on all of this. We would all, however, agree on one thing: that this most crucial of all decisions – to go to war – must not be left in the constitutional and procedural shadowy shambles it currently is. The nation must know clearly and precisely how it is that the government commits our military to action.

James Gray MP and Mark Lomas QC have written the book Who Takes Britain to War?, which will be published on 9 September 2014 by The History Press, £9.99. Preorder it here. The author James Gray tweets @JamesGrayMP.

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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