Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Labour, Oldham West and Royton 5:14 pm, 15th May 2007

There are two reasons why I enter into this debate. First, we are discussing a hugely important constitutional issue that involves democratic accountability, which I now regard as one of the central issues of our time. Had I had a little more opportunity in the leadership contest, I would certainly have been advancing the arguments for reform very strongly. Secondly—Mr. Hague had the grace to refer to this at the beginning of his speech—I am currently promoting a private Member's Bill, the Waging War (Parliament's Role and Responsibility) Bill.

It is surely one of the most astonishing comments on our so-called—I say that deliberately—British democracy that in this country the decision to go to war, which, as all Members have said, is the gravest decision ever facing a nation, is still taken by one person alone, the Prime Minister, and there is no requirement to seek parliamentary approval. I acknowledge that the Government's amendment states—I hope that this is correct—that it is "inconceivable" that there would not be a parliamentary vote, in accordance with what happened in 2002 and 2003, in committing this country to war. However, even if that were true—and the fact is that there have been several occasions when it was not—it is, in my view, not sufficient in a parliamentary democracy, on an issue of such gravity, to rely on such assumptions. We do not, of course, have a written constitution—I do not expect that to change at all quickly—but this is a matter that must be clarified explicitly, beyond any conceivable doubt.

That is all the more so given that, as I was amazed to find in my preparations for this debate, even where the Prime Minister of the day does allow a parliamentary vote, and that vote is opposed to war, the Prime Minister still has the absolute power to ignore the result of that vote and to commit the nation to war. That applies both where the vote is taken after the declaration of war, as in the case of the Attlee Government over the Korean war and the Major Government over the 1991 Gulf war, and where the vote is taken shortly before the start of war, as was the case with the Blair Government over Iraq.