The failure of the House of Commons to support the Prime Minister over action in Syria last week was an event with seismic consequences. Plainly the vote has consequences for the people of Syria—for good or ill. It has consequences for stability in the whole Middle East region, and ultimately for the peace of the globe.
It has profound consequences for Britain’s foreign policy and global positioning, not to mention our relations with the United States, although Barack Obama’s decision to follow David Cameron with a vote in Congress throws us a bit of a lifeline. And it was an astonishing and historic humiliation for David Cameron. Not since 1782, when Lord Frederick North’s motion for further warfare in America was defeated by around 17 votes has anything similar occurred. It resulted in his resignation a month later.
How is it that Prime Ministers since then can have engaged in such a wide variety of wars and military engagements (1968 is the only year since 1945 in which no service person has been killed on active service) without risking parliamentary defeat over them? For the last 200 years, Prime Ministers have taken the country to war more or less unilaterally, and certainly without seeking a substantive Commons vote on the matter. They did so using the “Royal Prerogative,” a constitutional convention which allows them to deploy troops, issue orders to engage in hostilities, and declare war—at least theoretically—without any recourse whatsoever to parliament.
The Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Suez, the Falklands, Balkans, the First Gulf War and even Afghanistan all took place without any formal approval by MPs. It was not until Iraq in 2003 that MPs were first allowed a substantive vote on going to war, and even then it was a vote whose outcome was fairly predictable, at least partly because it was allowed only a couple of days before the actual outbreak of hostilities. And few observers would conclude from the precedent of Iraq that a parliamentary vote approving a war necessarily makes that a good war to have waged. As for the campaign in Libya, the parliamentary vote was on the Monday, the campaign having started on the previous Saturday.
So it could be argued that the Syria vote was the first occasion on which the Royal Prerogative had been fully abandoned. It was the first time in recent history that a parliamentary vote on warfare really mattered, and would genuinely affect the outcome.
You could argue that that is good for parliamentary democracy; that it is real evidence of the legislature clawing back some of its powers from the executive; that of all matters the act of going to war should surely be a matter for MPs and the people they represent; and that restraining the warlike tendencies of Prime Ministers is a thoroughly good thing. There is, of course, great merit in most of those arguments.
Yet the Royal Prerogative has much to recommend it. Strategically, it enables the Prime Minister to form alliances, control timings, and position our armed forces to the best possible advantage, and to respond instantly to attack. Militarily, the Prime Minister may well have access to intelligence which justifies war, but which he nonetheless may not be able to share with parliament and thence the potential enemy. Politically, it avoids the risk—especially when the Prime Minister commands a small parliamentary majority, or even none at all, like now—of an otherwise perfectly legitimate military action being thwarted by an Opposition seeking party political advantage. And as a statesman, it enables the Prime Minister to position himself above the political hurly-burly, and to seek to act truly in the interests of the nation as a whole. They are, after all, Her Majesty’s forces, not parliament’s.
A parliamentary vote on military action is complex. A fair vote entails backbenchers like me having access to even the most secret of secret intelligence in order to judge whether or not military action is really necessary, with obvious consequences for the intelligence source and the conduct of the action. Perhaps even more importantly, if those who are to take the final decision about whether or not to go to war are backbenchers who are seeking re-election, quite possibly within a short space of time, then almost by definition we will politicise what really ought to be an entirely non-political decision.
It is not true to argue that the Royal Prerogative gives the Prime Minister “power without responsibility.” It actually gives the Prime Minister the power to act responsibly. The consequences of abandoning the Royal Prerogative on this occasion may be slight. And I fully accept that any return to the status quo ante of the Prime Minister (and in America, the President) being allowed to make decisions about warfare may now be politically undeliverable. But a similar misjudgment on another occasion, and a similar failure to do what is right for the security of the country and the world for fear of courting unpopularity, might well have devastating consequences.