Friday, 30 August 2013

Parliamentary sovereignty and foreign policy

It’s less than twelve hours since the shock defeat of the government not over involvement in a punitive attack on Syria but on the principle of such an attack.  It is to the Prime Minister’s credit that he immediately accepted the verdict of the House of Commons as well as making clear that he will not use his powers under the Royal Prerogative to thwart that verdict, something that is within his powers to do.  In fact, on this particular issue the Prime Minister was on a hiding to nothing whichever way the vote had gone.  Had he won the vote, this morning people would be saying that Britain was again acting as the United States’ lap-dog and that there would inevitably be mission creep leading to more direct involvement in Syria.  Now that he has lost the vote, Britain is being accused by some of appeasing dictators, that our standing in the world community has been diminished and that this is a bad day for democracy.  Given that even the most naive commentator could have predicted these outcomes, one has to ask why the Prime Minister went down a road that was going to lead to disappointment whatever the outcome.  In reality, the government was unable to convince MPs and by extension the country that we should be involved in yet another Middle East adventure. 

Within the British Constitution, the executive makes and implements policies while the legislature hold those policies to account.  It is not a case of who is in charge. Neither is it the case that MPs set Britain’s foreign policy; they simply rejected a policy that the government proposed as is their constitutional duty.  Foreign policy is this morning still set by the executive but it must, as has been the case since the votes on the Iraq war in 2003, carry Parliament with it instead of relying on the antiquated notion of the Royal Prerogative.  Foreign policy, especially in relation to peace and war, is now a collegial matter.  The government lost because it was unable to convince MPs of either the intelligence or legal case for intervention and this raises important questions not simply about the legitimacy of intervention but raises important questions about political timing:

  • Given that intelligence concluded that there had been 14 previous chemical attacks in Syria, was it simply the scale of the attack last week that led to a change in policy from one of diplomatic warnings but largely inaction to intervention?  In other words, the global community (effectively the alliance of the willing in the West) could not longer be seen to do nothing. 
  • Given that this is the case, why then did the West seek to intervene before the UN weapons inspectors has completed their examination of the incident and before the matter had been discussed in the UN Security Council?  In other words, why did it not follow due process?  In Britain, this became a critical issue when Ed Milliband decided, probably strongly influenced by the poisonous legacy of Iraq, that he could not support the government’s policy until due process had been observed.  Whether this was a principled stance or political opportunism, the Prime Minister should at this point have postponed any debate until after the weapons inspectors reported (probably early next week) rather than proceed with a vote on the principle of intervention.
  • That he did not reflected what most commentators believed: Parliament would vote for the principle of intervention and that this would have made it more difficult for it later to vote down any motion calling for that principle to be put into practice.  MPs would need to demonstrate why, having voted for the principle of intervention, why it should not be applied in the case of Syria.  At one level this was a tactically sound approach from the government as there seemed little likelihood that it would lose.  In fact, had all the Labour MPs been present, it is likely that it would have lost by a greater margin that thirteen votes.  Had the Prime Minister decided to postpone the debate until next week it is quite possible, even probable, that he would have won.  Timing it seems is everything.

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