After yesterday’s Parliamentary vote for the first time for many years the United Kingdom will be opting out of joint military action with the United States. There are two separate issues here – whether we should launch air strikes, covered in the previous blog and secondly, who should be responsible for the decision. Many worry about the consequences for the Special Relationship and whether Assad’s regime has been bolstered. It is largely because, following historic precedent, the Government took the lead on foreign affairs rather than Parliament, leading to an impression of support for the United States from Britain. For reasons of the need for flexibility in changing circumstances, our Government makes use of the Royal Prerogative in foreign affairs. Things are not as simple as they were though; constitutionally we are in a new area. In 2003 Mr Blair set a new precedent by bringing an executive decision to go to war to the legislature. Endorsement by the Commons provided a fig leaf for war on trumped-up claims. Ironically, the new convention of consulting Parliament was established by a Prime Minister who spent most of his tenure in Number 10 arrogantly ignoring longstanding conventions. Now this new convention has meant that the legislature has frustrated the executive on an executive decision over Syria.
Last night an interesting exchange took place between two Conservative MPs. Douglas Carswell MP, who may be said to represent the Whiggish tendency in the modern Conservative Party, was agonising as to what he thought the consequences of military intervention might be. He was interrupted by an intervention from his parliamentary colleague, Benard Jenkin MP, who made the Tory point that the uncertain deliberations in the Commons were evidence of why deciding whether to execute a war should be a decision for the executive.
The blogger has many doubts as to whether intervention is wise. The British public is extremely sceptical. Parliament opposed the timetable for action before the weapons inspectors had reported back. The Prime Minister reacted by taking military intervention off the agenda entirely. As stated elsewhere on this site, much of the doubt about action was because of the way Tony Blair had taken the country to war in 2003. It is indeed possible many MPs voted the way they did to put right the mistake they made in 2003 – they took the opportunity to vote against action in 2013, because they wished they had voted no in 2003.
Be that as it may, there is surely a strong argument that the executive must make the decision on military action. It is not the same thing as accepting military action was right, to say that exercise of the Royal Prerogative is a better way to decide whether to go to war. The Government made an executive decision to send more planes to Cyprus, without consulting Parliament – so it still regards the Royal Prerogative as a live concept.
It is difficult for MPs to make an informed decision without full access to intelligence and without being part of an ongoing discussion with our international allies. It is the Government that has a relationship with foreign governments, not Parliament. To an extent, as per Mr Carswell’s concerned vacillating in the debate, MPs were deciding in the dark, without all the facts before them. Consequences that MPs have not foreseen are now coming into play. The United States will go ahead without us. The Special Relationship is weakened. The Prime Minister has been politically damaged. Assad and his regime feels bolstered, at least for now. Britain will no longer be at the table to discuss what the international community should do.
Of course the executive will make mistakes and its plans on Syria might have been such an example, but the Royal Prerogative is exercised by a prime minister who is a member of the legislature and heads a government that cannot survive without the support of the Commons - That in itself must be an important factor weighing on any government’s decision processes. It means the executive remains accountable even if Parliament does not have a vote on the decision.
The vote in the Commons did not stop Tony Blair, due to the tribal party loyalty of the Commons (which has its place in passing legislation, when a government must deliver a programme) coming into play. Combined with this, the internal politics of the Conservative Party meant it supported Blair. All this gave the decision a greater air of legitimacy, despite many now regarding Iraq as one of our greatest foreign policy errors.
In the same way party politics cam into play yesterday, whereby a pressurised Labour Leader was desperately looking for an immediate victory. A Parliamentary Conservative Party that feels neglected by its leader produced thirty rebels. Does parliamentary politics really give greater legitimacy to executive decisions?
It seems rather that for good or ill the Royal Prerogative as exercised by elected politicians must be the mechanism for decisions of peace and war. Blair had to face the voters in 2005 and they could have turned him out of office. David Cameron would have had to face the voters if he had made a mistake on Syria. Instead we now see a situation where Britain has potentially damaged its relationship with its closest ally having initially been a driving force for air strikes, at a time when the Oval Office’s current occupant has little emotional connection with Europe and sees America’s future in the Asia-Pacific. Meanwhile, Assad has recently launched another brutal attack and Britain may have inadvertently put itself on the sidelines of international affairs.
I am not arguing that we should have attacked Syria, but that the Prime Minister was best placed to be responsible for that decision. The fact that it is now not clear who is responsible for the decision means that the Prime Minister built up expectations with our allies only now to disappoint them, with all the consequences for our interests and credibility abroad that will bring
The armed forces serve the Queen, not Parliament. That is not just because historically when Parliament had an army in the 1600s it committed abuses, it is also because in terms of exigent national emergencies, quick decisions, flexibility and access to intelligence the executive is best placed to decide. Our constitution evolved that way because that worked best. This involvement of Parliament in decisions of war and peace is yet another constitutional innovation from the Blair years that is proving to have unforeseen consequences.