In whose name? Democracy and British foreign policy

About the authors

Simon Burall is director of Involve, an organisation that designs and promotes processes for public participation in government. 

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88.

The decision by Tony Blair's government to join the United States-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 dramatically demonstrated the weakness of the United Kingdom parliament's ability to hold the executive to account over a critical foreign-policy decision. Members of parliament, peers and the public as a whole have almost no say in foreign policy – be it going to war, making treaties, giving aid, selling arms, negotiating with the European Union, Nato, the World Bank and other major intergovernmental organisations.

Policy decisions made in these areas have a huge impact on domestic policy and daily life in the UK. Through unprecedented support for the anti-war marches and the more recent Make Poverty History campaign, the British public has demonstrated that it is increasingly interested and concerned about Britain's place in the world, its ability to make war or keep the peace, in international aid, trade policy and the environment.

Stuart Weir is director of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and a consultant to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the State of the Nation polls. He is co-author of Voices of the People: popular attitudes to democratic renewal in Britain (2001), Democracy under Blair: a democratic audit of the United Kingdom (2002), and The International IDEA Handbook on Democracy Assessment (2003)

Simon Burall is director of the One World Trust

A national opinion poll, carried out in January 2006 by ICM, demonstrates conclusively that a huge majority of the British people want this country to pursue an "ethical" foreign policy – and they want that policy to be determined not by Tony Blair, his ministers and advisers, but by "Parliament as a whole".

The poll was commissioned to underline the findings and recommendations of a major collaborative study, Not in Our Name: Democracy and Foreign Policy in the UK, undertaken by the Democratic Audit, Federal Trust and One World Trust. This study is the result of more than a year's work including interviews with key parliamentary and government players. The study exposes the full extent of the gap in democratic oversight of foreign policy and proposes a series of reforms to close it. The gaps in parliamentary oversight fall into three main areas: structural, a lack of resources, and cultural.

First, influential committees of the House of Commons, MPs, journalists and academics agree that the UK executive has too much power over parliament. Once elected, governments are subject to few effective restraints as long as they keep the loyalty of their parliamentary majority. This tendency is more pronounced in foreign-policy decisions than in any other area of policy making because of the existence and use of the royal prerogative. This constitutional relic from the days of absolute monarchy allows the executive – i.e., Tony Blair – to make war, sign treaties, reach international agreements and conduct trade negotiations while eluding parliamentary accountability.

Second, Britain has bilateral relations with nearly 200 states and is a member of hundreds of intergovernmental organisations. Structurally, parliament is unable to achieve effective oversight of the sheer weight of issues which emerge as a result. Despite their often valiant attempts, committees lack enough resources to do their work effectively.

Third, a peculiarity of Westminster political culture is that MPs and peers often feel inhibited from playing an effective oversight role. In part this cultural problem is a hangover from a time when the view was that politics ends at Dover because foreign affairs, allegedly, did not affect the daily lives of the British people. This argument no longer holds in what is a truly interdependent world. Decisions on the environment, trade and the issue of global terrorism made at international bodies all have a direct effect on the lives of the British public.

In addition, parliamentary select committees do not take a comprehensive and coordinated view of external policy. For example, while the international development select committee gives significant attention to international organisations that work in relevant areas, the health select committee gives far less time and notice to the World Health Organisation, even when the world faces the threat of Sars and the real prospect of the spread of avian flu. There is a tendency for select committees to back away from an issue if they think that it might fall within another committee's remit, leaving issues to fall through the gaps.

Oversight

A striking example is parliamentary oversight, or lack of oversight, of the Bank for International Settlements. This is a hugely powerful global organisation holding 7% of the world's foreign exchange reserves and drafting financial standards and codes which Gordon Brown, has said "are the financial architecture for the new global economy". Yet there has only been one question asked about it in parliament and this was about its governance structure rather than its substantive work.

Formal parliamentary mechanisms are such that ministers are normally held to account on a post-hoc basis. Yet the way that foreign-policy decisions are taken – particularly if not exclusively during intergovernmental negotiations – are such that the checks and balances inherent in the domestic legislative process do not exist and parliamentary input at critical stages is nearly impossible.

The provisions within the 2000 Freedom of Information Act (FOI) should have given both the public and MPs access to the information they need to evaluate and oversee government policy. However, the government is able to conduct its business largely in secret because of a large range of exemptions under the act that apply disproportionately to foreign-policy decisions.

A series of exemptions enables the government to withhold publication of information that might prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and another state, any international organisation or international court. In addition, to close any gaps through which light might seep, the act exempts information that might prejudice the promotion or protection by the UK of its interests abroad. Taken together, these provisions ensure that very little information related to any form of international affairs is available for scrutiny by parliament.

It is worth noting that in the course of our research for the Not in Our Name report the foreign office was unable to provide a list of the intergovernmental organisations of which the UK is a member. In addition, it was unable to provide a complete list of the active bilateral treaties under which the country has obligations. If the government is unable to identify our external obligations, parliament has little hope of overseeing them effectively.

Ethics

There is consensual level support among British people for an "ethical" foreign policy with parliament and not the government in the lead. The poll demonstrates a major consensus around key elements of an "ethical foreign policy":

  • A clear majority of respondents want parliament to take a central role in foreign policy decisions, with 85% saying that "Parliament as a whole" should decide Britain's main foreign-policy objectives in pursuing British interests abroad, compared with just 13% for "the Prime Minister, ministers and their advisers"
  • An even larger proportion of respondents, 89%, said that Britain should seek agreement through the United Nations for action to deal with states that endangered British and western interests and should seek to comply with international law. Only 8% favoured the use of armed force by Britain acting alone or with allies.

It is also clear that British interests are not as central to the public's concern as might be imagined. The poll found that 83% of respondents were against arms and military exports to countries which violated their citizens' human rights (even though they were reminded that exports were important to the UK economy and jobs). Confirming that self-interest may not be the only factor in the minds of the British public, 85% of respondents believed that Britain should "argue vigorously" within the European Union for reforms of EU trading practices to make them fairer for developing countries (even with the reminder that these practices benefit British industry and jobs).

If it were left to the public, Britain would also significantly dilute the "special relationship" with the United States. Half those responding said that Britain's foreign policy should be based equally on a close relationship with the European Union and the United States; about a quarter said that the EU should be Britain's partner in foreign affairs and only 7% said the US should be the UK’s prime partner. Asked if Britain should continue to give loyal public and military support for the US if the special relationship were to continue, in return for private influence, or should rather act as a critical friend, some two-thirds chose the more open option.

Also by Stuart Weir in openDemocracy:

"Democracy? Yes!" (July 2004)

"The rules of the game: Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy" – with Andrew Blick (November 2005)

Also by Simon Burall in openDemocracy:

"Preventing global mob rule" (September 2001)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Reform

The poll as a whole confirms that the public takes a keen and principled interest in who is making foreign-policy decisions and on what basis. Parliament must therefore be reformed. Here, we make six suggestions for changes which to parliamentary procedure and practice which if implemented would go a long way towards placing our representatives at the centre of foreign-policy making:

  • The royal prerogative must be reformed. Clare Short has tabled a private members' bill which would go a long way to removing one of the worst aspects of the prerogative by ensuring that parliamentary approval must be sought before armed forces can be deployed. Unfortunately, the parliamentary timetable will almost certainly prevent this being passed into law. Reforms to the prerogative also have the backing of the influential public administration select committee. Pressure must continue and this feudal hangover must be removed in order to ensure that the power between the executive and parliament is rebalanced.

  • Parliament must also be given the power to recall itself in case of emergency, subject to a number of safeguards to prevent its misuse for individual party gain.
  • Select committees must no longer work in compartmentalised "silos", with the result that business flowing from the European Union and from the myriad of intergovernmental organisations to which Britain belongs would no longer be considered solely by the European and foreign-affairs committees of both houses. Such business must be "mainstreamed" to ensure that the specialist health, environment, education and health committees, for example, undertake oversight of foreign-policy decisions which are relevant to their work.
  • The presumption must be that select committees will meet with ministers before important negotiations or intergovernmental meetings in order to provide a "soft mandate" for those negotiations. As in Scandinavian countries, the government must be in contact with these committees during the negotiations to enable MPs to provide an input as our partners' negotiating positions change. This is possible and practical to do without giving away the country’s negotiating position or tying the hands of the government of the day.
  • The House of Commons spends £10 million annually overseeing a government behemoth of £430 billion. Britain gets democracy on the cheap and it shows. Select committees must involve more MPs in their work if they are to cover all the key issues which will affect voters, and they require a huge boost to their research capacity, probably through building up the scrutiny unit or establishing a foreign-policy counterpart to the National Audit Office. Parliament as a whole needs an independent legal counsel if it is to properly understand the implications of European legislation and international decisions domestically.
  • The FOI must be reformed including the abolition of the ministerial veto which enables government to block the release of information which is approved by the information commissioner.
  • Conclusion

    The democratic deficit within national politics is heightened and exacerbated where foreign policy is concerned. Decisions taken at the World Trade Organisation have profound implications for British jobs, the British economy and the global environment. Decisions taken at Nato affect the country's national security and the way the World Health Organisation deals with emerging global pandemics may mean life or death for thousands of British citizens. Yet parliament doesn't have the resources, the structure, capacity or culture effectively to hold the government to account.

    The world will continue to become more interdependent. This means that the impact of foreign-policy decisions on the lives of the British people will increase. This means in turn that parliament must be able to guide and oversee the government both at home and overseas more effectively. Anything less risks increasing the democratic deficit still further.