Article - Military Action and the role of Parliament

As I write this article, sitting in the House of Commons after returning from meetings with the Communist Party hierarchy in Beijing, I do not yet know what my readers might well know by the time they are reading this – namely, what action, if any, the UK will have taken in Syria following the deployment of chemical weapons in that unhappy country.

It is strange how different things look when seen from different points of view. In Beijing, these events seemed to form part of a general, geo-political scene. Questions such as the proper methods of maintaining a rules-based order and the legitimacy or illegitimacy of intervention by one nation in the affairs of another were at the core of the discussion. By contrast, on returning to the UK I find that the primary issue appears to be the constitutional question of the degree to which the power of the government of the day to take military action should be constrained by parliament.

Until very recently, the constitutional position on this had always been very clear. The government exercised what had once been the prerogative power of the Crown to engage in warfare without the need for specific parliamentary approval. Parliament exercised its power in these matters solely through its willingness or unwillingness to express its confidence in the government through an explicit vote of confidence. So long as the government maintained the confidence of the House of Commons, it could continue to direct our forces in line with the decisions of the Cabinet.

More recently, a convention – not yet encoded in any law – has arisen, under which major military intervention, and in particular the deployment of significant numbers of troops on the ground for a sustained period is seen to require the backing of parliament. But within this convention it has so far been clear that rapid actions, undertaken in conformity with international law and not involving the sustained deployment of ground forces, can be undertaken by the government on the authority of the Cabinet without specific recourse to parliament.

This is clearly an evolving constitutional settlement, and there are certainly arguments of some weight that can be deployed in favour of several different views about the proper resting point. But, for myself, after having spent six years sitting in meetings of the National Security Council trying to make the right decisions on such matters, I cannot see how the UK will be able to respond with sufficient flexibility and immediacy to rapidly changing events in the world if it really becomes the case that even highly constrained and brief actions involving, for example, small numbers of special forces, targeted use of airstrikes without collateral damage to civilians, or cyber-attacks, have to be cleared in advance through a process of parliamentary debate and voting.

In relation to these sort of actions it seems to me, at least, the best and most workable way for democratic accountability to operate is through the continuing need for a government to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons rather than through specific requirements for parliamentary approval for specific actions.

No doubt the readers of this column will have their own views in these matters and it is right that they should continue to be debated.