Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee) 5:31 pm, 15th May 2007

I apologise, but I must conclude.

My main concern is of course to improve parliamentary control, and to deal with the problems that the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton addressed, such as the ever-growing power of the Executive and the ever-weakening role of Parliament in holding the Executive to account on the public's behalf. However, we must also ask questions about the legitimacy of warfare. We all want to debate what is a just war and what is not. What are those extreme situations where British interests are so threatened that the use of military power is justified? There are few pacifists in this House, and we all accept that such situations do occur. However, they have occurred 60 times—some to a minor extent—in the last 10 years. We need to be satisfied, and our troops, too, need to be satisfied, that they are embarked on a legitimate process that has been authorised by the Parliament of their country, which is upholding the best interests and the best values of their country.

The point was brought home to me most clearly in one of those arguments that I have described with one of my neo-conservative friends—a leading architect of the war. I was debating with him United Nations resolutions and the legality in international law of what was being proposed. I knew very well that he did not take the United Nations or international law very seriously; on the whole, such matters were indulged in by neo-conservatives to assist their European friends in getting their own countries involved, as well. They were not high on the list of priorities so far as leading neo-cons were concerned. However, my neo-con friend was able to answer my question about the legitimacy of his argument: he said, "We have all the legitimacy, as an American Government, that we require. We have large majorities in favour in both Houses of Congress." He thought that far more important than UN resolutions, or some fiction—in his opinion—called international law. I reflected that I could not counter that by saying that such legitimacy would necessarily be required under the curious constitution of the United Kingdom.

What we are advocating, and the change that we are embarked on, will not in my opinion weaken this country as a power able to exercise influence in foreign affairs or defence. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary, is concerned that we might put in place systems that hamper our ability to punch above our weight—to use the Foreign Office phrase of which he is very fond—and to have an influence for good in the world. I would not wish to see that, but nine times out of 10, the process that we are discussing would strengthen a British Government's power to handle a diplomatic incident and to insist that British influence prevail.

There will be cases like Suez, when Ministers lied to Parliament quite substantially—which I have no basis for saying that Ministers in the present Government did in the case of Iraq. There will also be cases like Iraq, in which there was controversy, and eventually it was proved that the whole thing was wrong. But in other cases, if a British Government facing our enemies, or other problems, can say, "We can demonstrate that we have won the support of Parliament"—it would usually be on a cross-party basis—"by explaining the cause and the legal basis and by being frank about the deployment," that Government will be more feared and respected. There will then be less doubt about their ability to take part in military action if our interests are not respected.

I do not think that, in the 21st century, we would weaken a Government by doing that; I think that we would strengthen it. We would get rid of the absurdity whereby it remains the case that the Prime Minister of the day can take to himself the powers of an absolute monarchy. A future Prime Minister would have enhanced authority if there were a process by which he could get the authority of Parliament behind him in defending British interests overseas. The proposed constitutional change would improve, rather than weaken, our ability to conduct foreign policy, and it would be looked back on as a change that it is amazing was not made a century earlier. This system should not have been allowed to drag on until this stage. At last, we have a Government spokesman standing up and defending what future students of politics will regard as obvious common sense.