Why is a parliamentary vote on military action necessary?

I have just come back from a wonderful week in the Highlands with only intermittent connection to the internet. The apologetic note from the housekeeper of our rented holiday cottage saying that the wifi was out of action was unexpected but very welcome. It was incredibly restorative to have a few days when the only thing I had to worry about (and this is not insignificant, I have to say) was the incredibly dim pheasants with no instinct of self preservation whatsoever that would blithely wander into the path of the car on the single track road to the cottage. Seriously, one of the little beasts held me up for three full minutes last night as my dinner was getting cold. Oh, and there was the irony of finding that Scottish Water, who have been delaying my commute with their roadworks in Edinburgh for nigh on half a year were also digging up the village on my twice daily route to the beach. The delays were substantially less, though.

My very grateful thanks and promises of beer and wine at a later date are due to Paul and Mary who kept the site going through mine and Kirsten’s absence this week.

Since we’ve been away, the horrific chemical attack in Syria has shocked, if not surprised, the world. When something like that happens, it’s so important to respond in a careful and considered way, with a proper plan that has the support of key international allies and, in our case, parliamentary approval. I know that we technically don’t have to have a parliamentary vote, but it sends a much stronger message if action is taken with the consent of a majority of members of Parliament. It lends a legitimacy to the proceedings.

Any Government sending our people into active service should have the democratic scrutiny of Parliament behind it. We live in a parliamentary democracy and the government shouldn’t avoid its responsibilities in that regard.

I am still not entirely sure whether I support the attack in principle. Of course anyone who gases their own people needs to be stopped and, frankly, sitting round a table and asking Assad nicely not to do it probably isn’t going to cut it. I think there is an argument for taking out the capability to produce and use these awful weapons. However, you have to be very sure that you aren’t going to make the situation worse for the people who live there.

Vince Cable’s statesmanlike approach to these issues has made me wish he were making the decisions rather than May and certainly the ever volatile Donald Trump. He has been reasonable, asking for evidence, a plan and a parliamentary vote and he’s been explaining today why he thinks that is so important:

He’s said:

Riding the coattails of an erratic US President is no substitute for a mandate from the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister could and should have recalled Parliament this week and sought the approval of MPs before proceeding.

Liberal Democrats stood ready to assess the evidence and objectives for any action and, if it were properly planned and justified, to support a military response.

At this moment our thoughts are with British and allied troops. But the Government’s decision fatally undermines the integrity of this mission. It shows a weak Government putting short term political expediency before democracy and in so doing further diminishing the standing of Britain in the world.

I suspect that he would have been prepared to support the strikes had there been a parliamentary debate. I’m not sure I would have agreed, but getting me to agree to any military action isn’t an easy feat. However, I’d have respected the manner in which he’d gone about making that decision. He also made sure that he consulted in the party. I was impressed that he thought to invite views from members of party committees. Not all leaders would have done that.

There is one aspect of this that I think we need to talk more about, though. It really grates that a government sees an urgent need to act only with bombs and not with providing sanctuary for people fleeing. The Government has been extremely slow to take unaccompanied refugee children as required under the Dubs Amendment. 3000 children should have been helped, but the Government reduced this figure to 480 and at the end of last year fewer than half that number had come here. I’d be much more willing to accept the need for urgent military action if there had been active and urgent humanitarian action going on with it.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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18 Comments

  • William Roy 14th Apr '18 - 7:12pm

    Actually the very title of this thread is at best illusionary and at worst openly misleading and wrong.

    “Why is a parliamentary vote on military action necessary?”

    For a start parliamentary vote is NOT necessary. Indeed it is so rare in historic terms that actually it can be argued legitimately that a parliamentary vote indeed would not be justified.

    Unfortunately for those who think that a parliamentary vote should have occurred for legal reasons prior to any strike one over riding principle should be pointed out, it is up to the Government to govern – not the MPs in parliament to govern. Indeed MPs can vote and could vote against a government, and indeed do regularly, but it is not for their job to govern – but rather to hold the government to account for its actions.

    There is of course the choice of parliamentary MPs to debate all kinds of laws proposed by the government and put before parliament, but this was NOT a law, this was an action, and done rightly so under the Crown Prerogative.

    This may be unpleasant reading for those who think that they, although a minor party on the opposition benches, should govern the country, but these are the facts, it is how our democracy and our constitutional law has evolved and it is that which is place.

    Now of course MPs can choose to debate the matter, that is for them to decide, they could even try censoring the government with a vote, again that is for them to decide. But it is not, and I repeat NOT for MPs to govern the country – that is the job and duty alone of the Government.

  • Legally the crown perogative allows the government to take military action without parliament … The idea that parliament has to vote is a new one. Politically, howver, it does make sense to seek Parliamentary approval as Vince points out.
    He has set out the argument very well in emphasing that a parliamentary vote in favour of military action unifies public support for committing the UK military.

    Many of the displaced rebel factions have congregated in Idlib province which has already seen aerial attacks from Syrian and Russian air forces and purported chemical attacks. As and when a concerted ground offensive begins in this area of Northwest Syria where Turkish troops are already engaged against Syrian Kurds, we are likely to have to revisit this issue of UK engagement in the area once again.

  • As with almost everything in life it is easy to pick on negatives. There are always reasons not to do something and everything we do has consequences. Sometimes we just have to get on and do things even if others do not like it, because it is needed and on balance is probably right. In my respectful view this is one of those occasions.

  • Personally, I don’t think the recent convention needs to be applied in all cases. The UK Government, of whichever political persuasion, needs to be able to react to circumstance and to very occasionally use military force without first advertising it through a parliamentary vote. For example, in this case they may have needed to act before the chemicals were moved.

    The vote would have been a joke anyway as Labour had already made up their mind as evidenced by Dianne Abbot on the Today programme…

    That said with the oaf that is currently the US President being unable to keep his finger off his twitter finger the move was advertised anyway!

  • There is a splendid book called ‘The Internationalists: And Their Plan to Outlaw War’ by Hathaway and Shapiro. I suggest you all read it.
    Under international law such a strike requires approval by the United Nations. The days of a government taking this country to war without prior Parliamentary debate are over.

  • Key point for me is that this government does not have a majority. It’s easy to forget this as the DUP have been completely bought by the Tories, but their arrangement is not a formal coalition. This is a hung parliament. Therefore the moral argument for having a parliamentary vote seems stronger than ever.

  • The Sunday Times has an account of events in Douma from a family that managed to get out of Douma to NorthWest Syria
    https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-little-girl-whose-agony-set-the-west-on-path-to-war-gwv0d0rfl.
    Their refuge in Idlib province may provide only a temporary reprieve from the attacks they have so far survived.

  • It is difficult to see the actions as alleviating “overwhelming human suffering” when Britain helped arm rebel groups in Syria. The CIA was facilitating the flow of arms from Libya to Syria in 2012 in collaboration with “the UK (United Kingdom), Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”

  • It is the duty of parliament to ensure that there is a long term policy on our reaction to events in Syria. My own view is that parliament should ensure that we have a carefully worked out policy on our reaction to possible war crimes and crimes which might be genocide anywhere in the world. There has been a failure to do any of this.
    The real questions are what the U.K. is going to do next week, next month or next year in Syria. As far as I can see the actions to date have only made matters worse.

  • As others have pointed out , this is a decision for the executive to make, not the legislature, though parliament clearly has a role in scrutinising after the event. The so called “convention” of asking parliament before taking military action can be attributed to David Cameron, a man whose penchant for consulting all and sundry has led us to the nightmare of Brexit.

  • Steve Way 14th Apr ’18 – 10:41pm…………….Personally, I don’t think the recent convention needs to be applied in all cases. The UK Government, of whichever political persuasion, needs to be able to react to circumstance and to very occasionally use military force without first advertising it through a parliamentary vote. For example, in this case they may have Steve Way 14th Apr ’18 – 10:41pm
    Personally, I don’t think the recent convention needs to be applied in all cases. The UK Government, of whichever political persuasion, needs to be able to react to circumstance and to very occasionally use military force without first advertising it through a parliamentary vote. For example, in this case they may have needed to act before the chemicals were moved…………..

    So ‘parliamentary democracy’ should only apply when convenient? As for “in this case they may have needed to act before the chemicals were moved”. They had a week and the strike was not only widely advertised but done on the day that the inspectors, supposed to verify the initial chemical attack, reached Damascus…All rather convenient

  • I’m glad I’m not having to make these sorts of decisions, but I’m glad that Vince and most of the LibDems do see it as a difficult decision that needs consideration.

    I’m very wary of military action (for me it’s premature to call our involvement war), but I think too many people who are against military action don’t seem to realise that ‘doing nothing’ is also a choice that has consequences. The difference being that it seems easier to blame people for the consequences of action than for the consequences of inaction, and so doing nothing seems to be easier politically, if not better morally.

    I do think that May should have consulted Parliament, but I understand why she didn’t. IMO, it’s right we complain that she didn’t, but so long as yesterday morning’s action is being treated as a one-off and we get sufficient information (being mindful of security restrictions) that this action was very carefully targeted at facilities associated with the production and storage of chemical weapons, and we get an assurance that future action debated in Parliament, then I don’t think it’s worth labouring that point. It comes across as petty party political point scoring, and distracts from working out what is actually best for the people of Syria. The language used by Trump is equally unhelpful, but the pettiness of people on either side of the debate shouldn’t influence the actual debate.

    Like others, I think it’s shameful that this government has fallen so short in our support of Syrian refugees, and of course there are all sorts of issues around our approach to arms sales, and so on. However, as soon as we realise that chemical weapons have been used on civilians, then it’s just not good enough to say ‘if only we’d done x, y, or z in the past’.

  • Steve Way, Indeed “they may have needed to act before the chemicals were moved”, but bearing in mind Expats comment in another thread “These chemical labs, etc. that were hit by the missiles? Isn’t it really strange how Syrian authority personnel are climbing all over the ruins without any protection (especially considering the precautions taken by the UK personnel weeks after the Salisbury incident)..
    We are told that calls were made to Putin to ensure that no Russian personnel or equipment were endangered and it would be naive to believe that Assad was not aware of the targets…”

    It looks as if those in power wanted to make a gesture, but were afraid of hurting the Russians and so warned them, who warned the Syrians, who moved their stockpiles out of the area.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Apr '18 - 11:27am

    Boris of the F&CO was interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show. He is the most useless of interviewees because he struggles to answer short questions. He is not unique in this, the Labour spokesperson had a difficult time on Peston on Sunday. Skilful use of words are needed for his conversations, some of which are with powerful and/or influential people who are listening to him in what is not their first language. He has a strange tendency to interrupt himself. Pity the poor Hansard writer who needs to record what Boris said, proofread it lest new errors are introduced, and then send it back to him for approval. Pity the subsequent interviewers who quote verbatim from a recording and try to tie him down. He knows that his audience (and maybe spectators) will want to know what UK government policy is (or ask the PM? ) or whether Boris is kindling the embers of a leadership bid.
    He should therefore be more careful. In respect of the difference between willingness (political) and preparedness (military ? )
    I can think of one former cabinet member who has a more precise command of language than Boris AND answers the question asked AND understands the dependency of one on the other.

  • @Expats
    “So ‘parliamentary democracy’ should only apply when convenient? ”

    Not at all and a deliberate twist on my point. There are times when it would reduce or negate the effectiveness of an individual mission were it to be publicised in advance. This is entirely different to a sustained military mission which should quite rightly be subject to a parliamentary vote.

    I imagine the military planners in all three countries were horrified by Trump’s tweets. Even those carrying out this type of raid only hear about it when they need to. Like it or not there are some powers that need to be left with the executive (of whichever political flavour). Parliament will never be fully informed due to limitations on the sharing on intelligence and detailed knowledge of force deployment capabilities and preparedness. This type of information needs to be restricted.

    Parliament has the power to remove the PM through a no confidence measure so there is no avoiding it ultimately.

    @Expats & David Evans
    None of us know what the intelligence stated about those sites. I would also point out that it is the equipment that is used to produce Chemical and Biological weapons that would have been the main target most constituent parts are harmless and available. Most chemical weapons are non-persistent once released. The idea being you incapacitate the opposing forces and then move in to take the land. Assad want to regain control of his country not leave it as a permanent chemical wasteland.

    A properly planned strike would have used weapons designed to destroy not dissipate the substances.

    The War Powers Act mooted by Corbyn would be a disaster. Basically Russia or China would be able to stop our armed forces responding unless we were directly attacked. It would also invalidate our membership of NATO which requires no such UN Resolution to come to the aid of a fellow member if they were attacked.

  • @David There are a number of reasons for this, not least that Syrian H&S regulations aren’t as strict as in the UK. Another thing, often overlooked by concerned onlookers/conspiracy theorists, is that good practice means keeping your PPE on until you get to the decontamination area, not just when you leave the area of concern. Depending on the substance of concern and local practicalities, it’s not always possible to put your decontamination trailer right next to the barrier tape.

    And of course equipment for making chemical weapons, or precursors for making chemical weapons are not chemical weapons, and chemical weapons exposed to high temperature incendiary devices rarely remain chemical weapons for very long.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Apr '18 - 3:08pm

    What we need is a more harmonious country so there is such a consensus behind our response to this predictable atrocity that a parliamentary vote would be predictable.

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