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Parliamentary war powers: The pros and cons
As Theresa May contemplates bypassing parliament to launch military action in Syria, it is worth reflecting on the pros and cons of involving MPs in military deployment decisions.
First, the pros:
Forcing governments to justify their decisions in public encourages them to make better decisions in private. It creates an incentive for ministers to anticipate criticism from a wide range of viewpoints, and at least to try and develop plausible responses. While it is not the only way of winning a policy argument by any means, the easiest way of winning parliamentary support for a decision is to make a good decision. At the very least, taking a broad set of arguments into account at the pre-decision phase reduces the risk of groupthink among the core decision-making group.
Winning a vote in the House of Commons confers political legitimacy on the decision to use force. It is difficult to argue that action taken by an elected government and endorsed by MPs lacks political support. This can be especially useful if public support is lacking, as for example over Iraq in 2003.
Securing opposition support for military action allows governments to project an image of domestic resolve to both allies and enemies abroad. That enables it to make more credible commitments to its friends and threats to its foes. It reduces the likelihood that a future change in government will lead to a change of policy. It also reduces the likelihood of a future change in government, by neutralizing the particular decision to use force as an electoral issue.
Acting in line with a reasonably well-established convention will always be less controversial than setting a new course. Precedent matters in the British constitutional order, and violating precedent can provoke a negative reaction. It is possible, of course. But not necessarily advisable.
Now, the cons:
Parliament is a political rather than a deliberative or strategic decision-making body. The outcome of votes typically says more about party politics than it does about what MPs consider best for Britain. The Syria vote in 2013 epitomised this. Two thirds of MPs supported either the government’s proposed policy, or the opposition’s amendment. Despite the fact that they were substantively identical, neither option secured a majority.
MPs bring some specialist knowledge and a lot of emotional baggage to decisions about military action. The combination can generate more heat than light. Much of the 2013 Syria debate turned on the question of whether invading Iraq in 2003 was a good idea. While there were some similarities in how the Blair and Cameron governments communicated their proposals, there was little else that justified such a close comparison. Johnny Mercer MP is not entirely right to argue that MPs are hamstrung by Iraq – they did, after all, approve military action in Libya in 2011, and against Da’esh in 2014 and 2015 – but he is right that Iraq looms disproportionately large in many memories. This actually appears most visibly in discussions over ‘mission creep’. MPs are far more worried about mission creep in the Middle East than they are elsewhere. They worried endlessly about it in debating Syria, and expressed few concerns when British troops deployed on the ground in the Baltic States or Mali.
Parliament cannot bind itself. Each parliament approaches the issues before it with fresh eyes. MPs, furthermore, have only recently gained a limited role in the ratification of international treaties. They did not sign off on NATO, for example. So not only might MPs feel free to ignore international commitments that they did not directly make, the very idea of making binding commitments is anathema. While most MPs probably would support the use of force in response to an attack on a NATO member, there are no guarantees – especially given how party politics can interfere with decision-making. By definition, involving MPs in military deployment decisions makes Britain a less reliable ally and a less threatening enemy.
Winning parliamentary support for the use of force does not necessarily bind MPs to the decision in the long term. If things go wrong they will likely blame the government for misleading them, as they did over Iraq, or for executing their decision badly, as they did over Libya.
So what happens now?
Theresa May appears to believe she cannot win a vote on military action in Syria, but that she can afford to pay the political costs of bypassing one. This was the fourth scenario I described in my recent British Journal of Politics and International Relations piece. I argued that what happens in this scenario depends on what sort of action the government takes.
If May sticks to non-combat activities, she should be fine. Most people accept that the War Powers Convention, to the extent it exists, extends only to combat operations.
If she launches a one-off strike, then argues that she had to act quickly due to the situation on the ground, she will likely face criticism – after all, everyone knows the real driver is President Trump – but there is little point voting against an operation that has already concluded, and it seems unlikely that the issue will be sufficiently salient to trigger a no-confidence vote.
If she orders a broader campaign against the Assad regime, she could be in trouble. MPs will almost certainly demand a vote when they reconvene – Labour could force one, perhaps using the same ‘humble address’ procedure that forced publication of the Brexit impact assessments. May would struggle to gain a majority. Some Conservative MPs would likely rebel, and the DUP is not bound to support her under their confidence-and-supply agreement.
That would be a problem. The government could yet be forced to withdraw British forces from ongoing operations. Indeed, that was exactly what happened to Lord North’s government in 1782 – the only time prior to 2013 that MPs directly blocked military action – when General Henry Conway’s humble address forced the government to abandon any hope of continuing the North American War. North’s government fell. That will probably not be May’s fate. But it is possible, and it is a risk she must be willing to take if she wants to bypass parliament and use force in Syria.
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