The implications of the Syria Vote: how Britain goes to war (or not)

The Commons' refusal to go to war is a landmark in British constitutional history. What is it that stands out in UK parliament that is giving our MPs an increaing authority over Britain?

Peter Harris
11 September 2013



  Flickr/UK Parliament. Some rights reserved.

Parliament’s decision not to back the use of military force in Syria could prove to be a landmark in British constitutional history and the history of British foreign policy. For centuries, the executive—originally the monarch and in recent times, the Government acting in the monarch’s name—has wielded a monopoly over whether to declare war or peace. An emerging constitutional convention, however, inexorably seems set to wrest this ancient prerogative from Downing Street and place it in the hands of MPs. Although it is a complex development that needs to be treated with some caution, this can only be a good thing.

As even the most dilettante student of British politics knows, Britain’s constitution is uncodified. This means that, in common with countries like New Zealand and Israel, the British polity’s supreme body of public law is an amalgam of (written) statutes, legal decisions and treaties, together with (unwritten) conventions, traditions and prerogatives. There is no single document analogous to the U.S. Constitution or the German Basic Law.

While some contend that this makes the British constitution weak and pliable, others vaunt its flexibility and endurance. The constitution has changed since Bagehot and Dicey wrote their classic nineteenth century treatises on the subject, but it has not changed that much—not as much as, say, the French, German or Chinese constitutions. That the British constitution has displayed considerable staying power is beyond debate.

There is an argument that, precisely because the constitution is so old, its provisions are sound: the cut-and-thrust of democratic politics would have (and has) removed the wicked aspects of the British constitution and left in place the wise. The point here is not to defend such a functionalist—and inherently conservative—assessment of the constitution. Rather, the point is that even staunch defenders of the British constitution acknowledge that gradual, piecemeal constitutional change can be a very good thing.

One such change has unfolded over the past decade. In Britain, the power to declare war has since time immemorial come under the Royal Prerogative—an ancient set of rights, privileges and immunities held by the sovereign. In the modern era, most of the monarch’s prerogative powers have been entrusted to the ministers of His or Her Majesty’s Government, often the Prime Minister. Such has been the case with decision-making over war.

Of course, this is not to say that parliamentarians have had no influence over the exercise of war-making powers. Even the most presidential of Prime Ministers do not govern in a political vacuum. Parliament is required to vote supply to fund wars, for example, and the government of the day always is responsible to Parliament. In particular, ministers must retain the confidence of the House of Commons. Several ministries have succumbed to parliamentary disapproval after bungling wars. In 1940, Neville Chamberlain even resigned as Prime Minister after winning a parliamentary vote on the Norwegian campaign, but managing to do so only with a reduced majority.

Nevertheless, Tony Blair was the first British Prime Minister to give the House of Commons a vote on whether to authorise military action before such action was launched. This was a historic step, with MPs being given ownership of the decision to go to war in Iraq instead of being relegated to holding the government to account once war had already begun. The seeds of a new constitutional convention had been sewn.

More recently, Parliament was given a vote over the use of force in Libya. To be sure, the decision then was whether to support a UN-backed mission against Muammar Gadaffi and not whether to initiate a preventive war (as in Iraq 2003), or sanction the use missile diplomacy for humanitarian reasons (as in Syria 2013). Under international law, war is only legal if (a) undertaken in strict self-defence or (b) authorised by the UN Security Council. Libya met one of these conditions, offering MPs something to hide behind if the ensuing conflict went badly. Iraq met neither and nor did Syria. 

Illegality under international law is not the only thing that the Syrian and Iraqi votes have in common. David Cameron’s brazen request for authorisation to use force on the basis of admittedly uncertain intelligence reports was eerily similar to what took place in 2003, although Blair and his co-partisans were bullish about the credibility of their intelligence even in the face of incredulity.

Yet the vote on Syria was different from the vote on Iraq in at least one key respect. Commensurate with the moment of the occasion, Blair treated the March 2003 vote on Iraq as tantamount to a vote of confidence in his premiership. To defeat the government would have been to depose it. Cameron, on the other hand, made no suggestion that he would resign from Number 10 if he lacked support to attack the Assad regime. There are good reasons for why he did not: the shadow of Iraq looms large; Cameron and Nick Clegg have agreed a fixed-term Parliament; Cameron was aware that his authority over Tory backbenchers was dangerously thin. Why risk the coalition over something like Syria?

In the event, Cameron badly managed the way in which the Syria vote was conducted. He never should have risked losing the option to deploy military force before the UN had reported back. By forcing a decision before the case for military action had been adequately made (under pressure from Washington, it now appears), Cameron lost the support of the Opposition and sceptics on his own backbenches—MPs whom otherwise might have been won over. This shows that ministers must learn to respect Parliament and not take for granted its support for military action.

When looked at in the longue durée, however, few of these political circumstances will be remembered. What will be recognised is that, as of 2013, the British constitution increasingly requires that the government obtain the consent of the House of Commons before launching military action. The seeds sewn in 2003 have long since sprouted and now seem poised to take root as a fixture of the British constitutional system.

Viewed in a comparative context, there is something of an irony about all of this. In the US, where the written constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, successive presidents have insisted that the role of commander-in-chief implies the power to deploy troops abroad without consent from the legislature. In Britain, where the constitution is clear that the power to declare war is part of the Royal Prerogative, MPs are acquiring more and more authority.

It might appear crass to discuss implications for the British constitution at a time when so many people in Syria are suffering. Nothing, of course, should overshadow their plight. But Syria’s suffering is a reminder that there is little as momentous as war. Decisions to spill blood and treasure are the gravest that political leaders must take. Out of respect for those affected by its horrors, war demands deliberation. A constitutional convention that obliges British ministers to engage in formal and meaningful deliberation is something to be welcomed, trusted and respected.


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