The Guardian run a retrospective story on Parliament’s decision not to use British military force in Syria after the chemical weapons attacks there. One of the threads in the story is that the old division of powers between the executive and legislature has been irreparably changed. In my mind the precedents and the development of Law needs to be put in the context of the decisions taken about Suez, the Falklands and Iraq, the latter two military interventions both having Parliamentary debates before military action. It should also be born in mind that the US used to have a similar disposition but changed their laws after Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War.
The article is subtitled, “Former minister says the decision to defy David Cameron on military action created a ‘constitutional mess'” and states,
But Burt – a close ally of the foreign secretary, William Hague – revealed his deep anger at the failure of MPs in August to back the principle of military action. “We have put ourselves in a constitutional mess this way. I think government needs to take executive action in foreign affairs. It informs parliament. If parliament does not ultimately go for it, then the issue becomes a vote of confidence issue. I don’t think you can handle foreign affairs by having to try to convince 326 people [a majority of MPs] each time you need to take a difficult decision. You do it and if they don’t like it, they can vote you out and they can have a general election.
The first thing is that, one might be looking for the support of more than 326 people to take actions which lead to war; there are considerably more citizens and voters. It’s an illustration of Burt’s elitism, an attitude probably shared by many MP’s and Foreign Office civil servants.
Elsewhere in the article it talks about the significant opposition within the parliamentary Conservative Party; it is clear that none of the major parties have an internal democracy that allows their parliamentary party to exercise a mandate on behalf of their Party at large, let alone the electorate. There are many members (and ex-members) of the Labour Party who are exceedingly bitter about Burt’s preferred method of doing things; because that’s what Blair did in 2003 over Iraq, he offered the PLP and the Party at large the choice of his war, or their government. Not enough inside the Labour Party opposed him, nor sought a third way.
It’s fascinating how often decisions that can’t win a majority are considered ‘necessary & difficult’, and inappropriate for citizens to take.