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David Cameron was dealt an unexpected blow when the House of Commons rejected military intervention in Syria by a vote of 285 to 272. This is a historic vote because it may have finally resolved the age-old debate over Parliament’s role in deciding when Britain goes to war.
Legally speaking, the Sovereign alone has the power to declare war or peace, and Parliament has no formal role in the matter. For example, when World War II began, Neville Chamberlain simply informed the Commons that a state of war existed between the UK and Germany. MPs had a chance to comment on his statement, but they were not given a chance to vote on whether or not to go to war.
Over a decade later, Clement Attlee told the Commons that the UK would support US action in Korea. However, the Commons was given the opportunity to endorse the Government’s decision a few days later, and it did so without a division (though the Labour MP S. O. Davies tried to amend the Government’s motion to call for the withdrawal of British forces). But the Commons was basically being asked to support a decision that had already been made, and even if Davies’ amendment had succeeded, it would not necessarily have ended Britain’s participation in the war.
The House of Commons would not get to vote on another substantive motion regarding an armed conflict for several decades. MPs discussed the Falklands War the day after it began, but that was part of an adjournment debate (i.e. there was no motion regarding the conflict itself). Similar procedures would be followed for the conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
By the turn of the century, many MPs were increasingly unhappy with the idea that the Government could send Britain to war without Parliament’s explicit consent. When war with Iraq loomed again in the late 90s, a coterie of left-wing MPs introduced the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill, which pretty much would have done what it said on the label. The bill was never debated because the Queen’s Consent was not signified (Queen’s Consent is required for bills that affect the Queen’s prerogative and/or interest and is distinct from Royal Assent). On a side note, it’s been claimed that the Queen’s Consent was deliberately withheld on the advice of the Government, but it seems that the bill’s sponsor refused to request it on principle.
It wasn’t until the Second Iraq War that Parliament finally got to vote on military action before it began. But the legal situation remained unchanged, and it remained unclear to what extent the vote on Iraq constituted a precedent. During Gordon Brown’s premiership, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 originally contained provisions that would have required parliamentary authorization of military action, but they were dropped during the bill’s journey through Parliament.
Today’s vote has probably set the Second Iraq War precedent in stone. From now on, it is going to be almost impossible for the British Government to engage in hostilities without seeking Parliament’s approval first. It is also a vivid reminder that Parliament is not necessarily the Government’s poodle, and MPs are not just lobby fodder. Though the wisdom of their decision is debatable, in the long run, parliamentary democracy is stronger because they had the chance to make it.
Image courtesy: Syria Stories via Facebook