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BLOG: The Parliament's Secret 'War'

last modified Mar 27, 2017 10:00 PM

"It is now clear that parliament has voted clearly to support the government in its efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein... Now that the democratic decision has been taken it is time for the country and parliament to unite."

Those were the words of Labour chairman John Reid, calling for unity several minutes after the UK Parliament approved of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This decision, to consult Parliament prior to sending British troops to Iraq, is widely held to have redefined the norms of parliamentary engagement on questions of war. 

This is the subject of a new book, ‘Parliament’s Secret War’, by two Cambridge University lawyers: Dr Hayley J. Hooper and Dr Veronika Fikfak, who shared their ideas with the Centre of Governance and Human Rights in a recent salon.

The conventional narrative goes that the Iraq War in 2003 transformed the constitutional norms dictating decision-making concerning ‘war’. Parliament was from here on in to be consulted not after, but before intervention. And, on a historic day in August 2013, these new constitutional muscles were ready for flexing: the British Parliament voted down Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to intervene in Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.

But was this new convention of Parliamentary engagement genuine, or merely a smokescreen? Hooper and Fikfak make a strong case that Parliamentary consultation has been tokenistic, employed to gain domestic support and legitimacy for a pre-determined policies when international authorisation is absent or unclear.

Meaningful engagement or tokenism?

Recent British military interventions, whether supportive such as Mali in 2013, or coercive like Libya in 2011, have not been subject to Parliamentary approval. By framing the decision to intervene in terms of responding to an emergency request from the French and Malian governments or the UN Security Council, the Government has frequently left the Parliament out of the equation. This reflects a broader trend in British decision-making on matters of war. Where a UN Security Council resolution authorising intervention exists, the Government ceases to care what Parliament has to say prior to sending troops. Once there is international authorisation, the British Government - the Prime Minister and his Cabinet - is driven by the international story and ceases to look for domestic support. Yet, as Hoper and Fikfak highlight, alienating Parliament is a missed opportunity for better quality decision-making. By sidelining the legislature when decision-makers still have the widest range of strategic options available, the Parliament is denied a real stake in matters of war. Once the troops are sent, this space for maneuvering closes.

The picture looks different when there is no clear international authorisation. In cases of self-defence, such as in the Falklands conflict in 1982 and Afghanistan in 2001, or when there is no UN Security Council resolution, like in Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2013, prior engagement with the Parliament increases. The Government turns to the Parliament to gain domestic legitimacy. However, rather than a historic development heralding an increase in democratic decision-making, Fikfak and Hooper show that Government is manipulating Parliament in a strategic way.

The argument that a new convention has developed capturing Parliamentary debate prior to deployment of troops, while traditionally the Government has decided whether or not to go to war, is therefore misleading. Yet, officially, it is the case that Parliament should be consulted prior to any engagement. The 2011 Cabinet Manual calls for prior Parliamentary consultation ‘except there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate’. But what counts as an emergency? This is a matter that the Government decides. This is a matter that the Government decides. Moreover, even when an emergency is absent, from relying on drone strikes to deployment of special forces, a determined Government has numerous options for engaging in war without Parliamentary involvement. Put simply, Fifkak and Hooper find the ‘new constitutional convention’ to be little more than a smokescreen, misleading the general public on the importance of Parliamentary involvement.

The Government’s advantages over the Parliament reside not only in its ability to consult the chamber when and if it desires (or, in Hooper and Fikfak’s research, when it fails to gain a UN Security Council resolution), but also in its ability to do so on its own terms. In other words, the Parliament faces a significant secrecy problem, consistently operating on a field of informational asymmetry with the Government of the day. Whether the Parliament is completely excluded on national security terms or kept unaware of secret diplomatic commitments, the fact is that, when debating military intervention, MPs often don’t have the whole picture. The British Government even has its own constitutional mechanism for excluding MPs, with Privy Councilors on both sides of the House allowed access to special briefings and sensitive intelligence while the rest of the room is excluded. With Tony Blair’s 2002 ‘dodgy dossier’, the Parliament faced a whole new wall of secrecy. This was the wall of ‘selective disclosure’, where Blair provided crucial intelligence information to MPs without the context they needed to make sense of it. This intelligence was, of course, Saddam Hussein’s ability to deploy WMDs in 45 minutes, disproven both before and after the recent Parliamentary inquiry into the Iraq War and now well-known to the British public to be false.

So what is a Parliament to do when it is consulted only strategically and deprived of access to crucial information? This is a question both Parliament and the MPs who make it up must ask themselves seriously, but it is also a question which Fikfak and Hooper’s book begins to answer. The first step is abandoning the idea - championed in the media since 2013 - that Parliament now controls British war-making. It doesn’t, and it is only by admitting this that MPs might focus more on the process of educating themselves to offset the cumbersome informational inequalities they face. For example, when Tony Blair said Saddam Hussein could deploy WMDs in 45 minutes, a very small minority of MPs questioned this assumption. Fikfak and Hooper call for a Parliament where this number would be a lot higher. It is a vision of an institution that engages not just legally but also politically and practically with the questions of war. It is an institution that does not blindly accept UN Security Council resolutions, but insists on being consulted no matter what.

Parliamentary engagement may look democratic, yet Fikfak and Hooper show that the quality of parliamentary involvement breaks down to a fig leaf. To put it simply, the ‘new constitutional convention’ is a smokescreen and misleads the general public on how much weight Parliamentary involvement actually carries. John Reid may have called for unity after the British Parliament backed the Iraq War but, if we follow Hooper and Fikfak, the British public will need more than a unified Parliament to make its voice heard on questions of war.

Talia Zybutz and Georgiana Epure, the authors of this blog post, are MPhil candidates in International Relations and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.