The Accidental Prerogative: Why parliament now decides on waron 2 November 2014
By James Strong
This blog is based on an article available in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations (Early View)
One of the more significant and less remarked-upon legacies of the Blair era for British foreign policy has been the development of a new political convention that parliament will have the right to veto major overseas military deployments. Legally, the power to direct the armed forces rests with the Prime Minister as part of the historic Royal Prerogative. Politically, however, MPs now expect to be consulted before the power is actually used.
Tony Blair struggled to win domestic legitimacy for his decision that Britain should take part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was a deeply unpopular move, prompting large-scale rebellions in the Labour Party, negative opinion poll responses, hostile editorials and massive anti-war protests in the streets. By submitting the decision for approval by parliament, Blair achieved two goals. He forced Labour rebels to decide between their most electorally successful leader ever and Saddam Hussein, and he gained a crucial imprimatur from the people’s representatives that made up in part for the absence of popular or UN approval.
Giving Labour rebels a formal opportunity to overthrow his government probably saved Blair. Talk of emergency conferences and internal coups rapidly subsided once he made clear that parliament was to have a vote. Yet legally it was unnecessary. Only once before had parliament formally approved military action overseas, at the start of the Korean War in 1950. On that occasion Winston Churchill asked Prime Minister Clement Attlee for a vote to prove that vocal opponents of British involvement did not represent the majority view. He was proven right. Parliament discussed every conflict between Korea and Iraq. But it only ever held ‘adjournment’ votes, procedural devices with no policy implications.
When David Cameron faced the prospect of military action in Libya in 2011, he could safely have ignored Blair’s precedent. After all, unlike in 2003 the action was firmly supported by the UN Security Council. Its legal grounds were far less in doubt, and it had that critical mark of international legitimacy. At the same time, however, Cameron was keen to show his moral superiority to Blair in this regard. Knowing he would win easily, he also felt he had nothing to lose from allowing a parliamentary vote of his own. The problem, which went unnoticed at the time, was that Cameron had not just followed Blair’s precedent, he had confirmed that he believed it was a precedent. The situation in 2003 was extraordinary. Democratic leaders do not normally take their states to war in the face of such domestic opposition. Cameron faced a much calmer parliament and a much more indifferent public.
Having allowed a parliamentary vote in 2011 on an uncontentious decision, Cameron could hardly have refused one in 2013 on the much more vexed question of military action against the Assad regime. As many of those who spoke in the debate pointed out, the situation in August 2013 mirrored that in March 2003 more than March 2011. The Security Council was divided. The evidence for the Assad regime’s responsibility was uncertain. UN inspectors were yet to report their findings from on-the-ground investigations. There was no clear sense of what the consequences of outside intervention might be. Cameron’s stance differed from Blair’s in one crucial regard. He did not frame the question of intervention in Syria as a question of confidence in his government. This saved him, when the vote was lost, from having to resign. But it likely also reduced the cost for Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs of defying him. While Labour MPs voted politically against the government, even if they personally had spoken in favour of intervention during the debate, those on the government benches voted with their consciences, which for some meant opposing the government stance. The result was a defeat “without modern precedent”, the first of its kind since 1782.
There were further complicating factors at work in 2013. The Libya vote took place, for reasons of parliamentary scheduling, after the first air strikes. MPs extracted a promise from then-Foreign Secretary William Hague that they would not be put in a similar position again. Hence why parliament was recalled just days before the end of the summer recess to debate Syria: the first air strikes were planned for the intervening weekend. Having been forced to backtrack by Ed Miliband’s manoeuvring, Cameron then asked MPs not to endorse military action but to approve a gradual escalation of pressure towards military action. Several read in this a repeat of the rhetorical contortions that characterised Blair’s approach. When Cameron could not adequately answer the question of why he had bothered to recall parliament at all, many MPs grew distrustful of his motives.
Parliament’s approval of action against the Islamic State in Iraq in September 2014 demonstrates that MPs are not completely averse to the use of force as a foreign policy tool. At the same time, it highlights the negative consequences of exposing this sort of decision to partisan politicking. As I have argued elsewhere, it is strategically eccentric to attack Islamic State in one part of its territory (Iraq) while leaving it secure in another (Syria). But that was Miliband’s price. It allowed him to show his supporters that he was acting as a constraint on excessive intervention, while freeing him up to vote in favour of a policy he agreed was necessary. Miliband never intended to prevent intervention in Syria. But he felt compelled to take the political opportunities opened to him. Both he and Cameron handled the 2014 vote better, and both achieved many of their political objectives. But British foreign policy has become subject to potentially short-sighted domestic compromise and anti-strategic negotiation as a result.
A future parliament may yet decide to give up its new prerogative. As a conventional power it is nowhere enshrined in law. It exists for as long as politicians think it exists. Legally the prime minister continues to decide on the overseas use of force. Yet it seems unlikely the convention will be overturned any time soon. If parliament is agreed on a decision, there is little for a prime minister to lose by allowing it a vote. By being open to MPs’ involvement he stands to gain legitimacy, and a degree of political cover if the decision goes wrong. If parliament is hostile to a decision, it seems unlikely to give up its chance to overturn it.
It appears, then, that we have witnessed a major moment of unintentional constitutional change. If Cameron intended to give away this power, he would have legislated on it, as he did when he gave up the prerogative power to decide the timing of general elections. Yet, despite the fact he did not intend to create a new convention, he has been bound by it. His successors will find that precedent very difficult to ignore. While the parliamentary prerogative still lacks a formal basis, something about which MPs remain concerned, its informal basis is nevertheless fairly firm.
Image: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced here with the permission of Parliament