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.