Weekly Column

Who takes Britain to War?

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Leaving aside (for the moment) the question of why we launched air strikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen last night, and the consequences of it; it has raised an interesting procedural and constitutional question- namely who it is that decides on wars and to deploy our forces? Is it Parliament? The PM and Executive? The King?

Some people would argue that this is the greatest of all decisions, and that therefore Parliament ought to decide. Yet the curious thing is that of all the dozens of wars we have fought in the last couple of hundred years, Parliament has only ever voted on two before the action takes place. In 2003 we voted to invade Iraq, and in 2013 not to launch air strikes against Bashar al Assad in Syria. Neither occasion shows Parliamentary decision making at its best!

The reality is that we in Parliament (as opposed to Government) do not have the secret intelligence, the legal advice, the strategic vision to allow us to take such a decision. If it is debated fully in Parliament we lose the element of surprise which is nearly always essential in any successful military endeavour. And perhaps more important than either of those, if we MPs vote in favour of a war, how can we then thereafter criticise it, or ask the questions which are our duty?

From ancient times, and until the English Revolution in 1640, it was the Monarchs who took these decisions “by Divine Right”. For a time it was the Cromwell ‘Protectorate’(dictatorship), then from the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1688 it was the Prime Minister, acting under the ‘Royal Prerogative’ handed down to him. There was a brief time after 2000 when various luminaries (including William Hague) argued that there should be a strong presumption in favour of a vote before any deployment or action; but since then good sense has prevailed. The PM takes the action and the House of Commons hold him to account for it.

Unusually on this occasion, the PM chose to brief the Opposition Parties in No 10, and then for the first time that I can remember he called the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle in for a briefing “in lieu of consulting Parliament.” Now there will be those who will be outraged by that. They will demand a full debate and a substantive vote in Parliament; they wanted the House to be ‘recalled’ (for no apparent purpose); they will rant on about democracy and the will of the people. But the reality is that if they wish to criticise what the Government have done, then they must not become complicit in that decision by voting for it (as Labour did in 2003 over Iraq). There will be full statements and debates next week, which is as it should be. MPs will have their say, and the Government will have to answer for what they have done.

The war making decision pendulum has swung from the Divine Right of Kings to full Parliamentary decision making. It has now settled in the right spot- the PM acting using the Royal Prerogative and Parliament holding him to account for it. That is how it should be.

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James Gray
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Published Date
January 12, 2024