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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of a fact about which I have been asked on every platform in the past few weeks. I repeat that it is correct: I made that decision, and I continue to regard it as the biggest political mistake of my life. However, my defence is that I believed what I was being told. I have no regrets about that explanation because it is true.

We should not get locked into a discussion about Iraq. The debate is not an argument about the rights and wrongs of going to war over Iraq in the sense that we should introduce a decision-making procedure that would prevent such a result in future. A large majority in the House and the nation now take such a view about Iraq, but that is not the point, which is much wider. Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of particular wars, the decision to go to war is so paramount to the life of the nation that it should be made only by an elected Parliament on a substantive vote, well before events have moved to such a point that Parliament has little or no alternative to ratifying a decision that has already been reached.

The matter, more than any other issue, raises the question of democratic accountability in Britain, which has withered away in the face of a marked centralisation of power in the past 30 years. The power of the Prime Minister under successive Administrations has increased, is increasing and should be cut back. Many of the previous checks and balances have been eroded and some of the pre-existing autocratic powers in the hands of successive Prime Ministers, derived from the monarchs of previous ages under a totally different system of governance, have been consolidated further. The right to take a country to war, irrespective of parliamentary or public opinion—that is the actual position, however unlikely it may seem—is the clearest example of that.

Under the royal prerogative over the centuries, the powers of the Crown, exercised by the Prime Minister, without consultation with either the Cabinet or Parliament, include the right to declare war or make peace, to sign or ratify treaties, to confer honours—recent events might suggest that that is another subject that Parliament should further consider—to make appointments, to establish commissions and to grant pardons.

I am pleased that considerable advance has been made inasmuch as the democratisation of those prerogative rights is, it seems, increasingly advocated by all the political parties. Other political parties can speak for themselves, but I am pleased to say that my party, when in opposition, said that it would ensure that

"all actions of government are subject to political and parliamentary control, including those actions now governed by the arbitrary use of the royal prerogative".

The document particularly emphasised as central areas of concern both going to war and the ratification of treaties. One smarts a little about this, but I have to say that it is rather regrettable that the Government have repeatedly sought to block private Members' Bills that have tried to provide validity to those aspirations. It would, of course, be very much better if the Government legislated, which is what is needed, so it is essential that, in the light of this debate, the Government now bring forward their proposals to implement that commitment.

In addition to the democratic dimension, strong constitutional arrangements are important. I am pleased that attention has been given to the crucial point that evidence cited to justify such a momentous decision as going to war should be full and transparent—subject to the strict dictates of national security, which is, of course, another problem, as all Governments regrettably use national security as a way of concealing information that might be damaging to themselves. In the case of Iraq, that would mean that the Attorney-General's full advice on the legality of the war—the 17-page version, not just the one page—would be made available, as would the evidence on the existence and threat of weapons of mass destruction, insofar as it was available to the intelligence services, and the proper reporting of what turned out to be crucial in that case, which is the key French position on the possible use of the veto in the Security Council.

All of that would need to be laid before Parliament. Had all that information been made available in the months running up to March 2003, I think that a very different decision might well have been reached in Parliament. If such full information were provided, all of those matters would be much more thoroughly scrutinised and the manipulation of the evidence would become much more problematic. I might add that this is even more the case in an era of what some have called "sofa Government". The informality with which even major decisions are taken was devastatingly documented in the Butler report. Again, sadly, cross-departmental consultation and negotiation is today much less constant and less systematic.

For all those reasons, as I said, I introduced a Bill in February. Either because of the luck of the draw—I was low down in the order—or for other more mischievous reasons, I have not previously had the opportunity to put my case to the House, so I am grateful to the Opposition for the opportunity to do so now. The Bill requires that the approval of Parliament be sought before British armed forces can be deployed in military action. For that purpose, it also requires the Prime Minister to lay before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out the objectives, the legal basis and the likely duration of the proposed military action.

The Bill also deals with important situations where the Prime Minister may need to determine that deployment is urgently necessary before the approval of the House of Commons can be achieved. We should not in any event seek to prevent that, but in such circumstances—they would, I think, be rare—the Bill requires that the Prime Minister must still lay a report before Parliament within seven days of the commencement of troop deployment. I believe that that is a reasonable compromise.

Those demands are not out of step. There is nothing remarkable about any of the proposals, and it is not as though we would be making any great democratic advance by adopting them. Rather, we would be catching up with what other countries already do. In the United States, for example, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 states that if the approval of Congress for waging war is not secured within 60 days, the President must withdraw US forces within a further 30 days.

The proposals that we are discussing today represent a crucial change whose implementation is long overdue. As we now know from the leaking of the Downing street memo, the Prime Minister apparently committed the UK to war in Iraq in secret in April 2002 by giving his word to President Bush at his ranch in Texas. The fact that, under the present arrangements, he could legitimately argue that he was entitled to do so—I believe that that is the case—is precisely why those arrangements need to be reformed. I submit that it is now our duty in this House to put in place proposals to ensure that that kind of personalised, secretive and undemocratic decision making, reminiscent of a long bygone age and totally unsuitable for a modern constitutional democracy, is brought to an end, and that Parliament takes the role that we all know the nation and the electorate clearly demand.