Saturday, December 29, 2007


Should the Commons Decide on when we should go to War?

Anyone wishing to encourage the growth of more democracy in our political system would be likely to support the idea of the Commons having the right to vote on when Britain goes to war. Brown suggested this would be a right the Commons would receive under his new 'era of change'; yet it would seem at least two former luminaries of the defence world think otherwise. In an interview with Peter Hennessy, Lord Guthrie, Blair's former chief of the defence staff, and Sir Kevin Tebbitt-cousin of Norman and Cambridge mate of Hennessy-former MOD Permanent Secretary, both oppose any Commons final say on deployment of troops abroad. Their reasons?

1. Any debate might prejudice the military effort through release of intelligence and, how much, anyway, should the government tell MPs?

2. Allies might well baulk at military decisions being dependent on the 'amateurs' in a legislature and the morale of the troops might be adversely affected.

3. The precise definition of when a 'state of war' has arrived is not easy to define; a peace-keeping role might suddenly escalate into a military action but surely no local commander should be kept waiting while MPs debate? As Guthrie comments; 'What we do is slide into war, you cannot avoid that'.

4. 'Tebbit suggests a debate here about a war powers act is redundant. "No prime minister is able to deploy forces without a parliamentary majority." Therefore, the government is already accountable to parliament, he claims. The US was different. Unlike in Britain, there is a separation of powers in the US between the president, the commander in chief, and Congress.'

It follows from all this that a US style 'War Powers Act' , such as Gordon Brown has suggested, would be counter productive. It occurs to me that maybe it would be better to delay Commons approval so that it is given retrospectively, when the pros and cons can be clearly identified-yet this would frustrate the whole idea of parliamentary approval. If this is neither possible or wise, then it seems to me the defence boys' apparently 'anti-democracy' arguments are hard to refute.

I don’t agree at all Skipper. The claim that a Parliamentary debate would “prejudice the military effort” is wholly unpersuasive; “sensitive” information pertaining to “operational matters” could be withheld. A debate could still take place on the general principle of going to war, on whether the causus bellis is legitimate. Surely to God no Government is going to say to MP’s and the public: “We’ve decided to go to war with Ruritania but we can’t tell you why. That’s “hush, hush” old boy”? As for amateurs taking the decisions. Well, that’s democracy. The decision is not taken by the military but by politicians (acting of course with the benefit of the advice of the military). Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell are, after all, amateurs in the art of war, neither having “fired a shot in anger” unless in their macho dreams (I seem to recall Blair back in 2003 – sounding for all the world like Patrick Pearse - talking of the need for a British “blood sacrifice” in Iraq: he meant other peoples blood, of course). As for the “slide” into war, and the need to act swiftly, a War Powers Act could easily allow for that, as the American Act does (the President has 60 days to seek Congressional approval). Finally, why not generalise the argument that a Parliamentary debate is unnecessary, since the government has a majority? Send Parliament packing. Let the government legislate by decree. Or are laws about tuition fees and fox hunting of greater importance (necessitating Parliamentary scrutiny) than the decision to go to war (where such scrutiny is unnecessary)?
Having said all that I doubt if a War Powers Act would make much difference. If say, the Government had 60 days leeway the decision to deploy troops could be taken ahead of the debate, leaving things pretty much where they are now. (Requiring Parliamentary approval ahead of troop deployment is a non-starter: the “need for a swift response” argument will take care of that). Still, an Act would at least make a debate mandatory within a specific period (which could reasonably be shorter than 60 days).

Sorry for such a long post. It’s rare that I so comprehensively disagree with you.
The decision to go to war must surely be a political one - with Military advice on the feasibility & strategy.

That then must be left for politicians to decide. I absolutely agree with the previous post.
Andy W
I don't think anyone disputes that such decisions should be taken by politicians- it's which politicians which is the question. Should it be those heading up the executive or the whole of the legislature? I have to say Politaholic's excellent comment is causing me to rethink my post and favour a Commons right to debate possible wars-he's right, they are usually clear to see on the horizon- if only in principle. But in a globalized world things can happen so rapidly sometimes- Sierra Leone?- that we just have to trust those in charge to make the right judgement.
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