Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 6:00 pm, 15th May 2007

This debate is on the principle of parliamentary approval for armed conflict. It is an important debate of principle, but it takes place of course in the shadow of a very real armed conflict—the ongoing war in Iraq. I voted against that war and was never more comfortable with a vote in Parliament.

Last week, I attended a production at the Tricycle theatre entitled "Called to Account", which was conceived and directed by Nicolas Kent, in which the Prime Minister is put on trial for war crimes. There can be few armed conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries that provoke as much bad feeling and anger as the war in Iraq. Even though we had a vote on it, the process by which we went to war has put a focus on the issue of parliamentary approval.

The decision on whether to go to war is the single most important function of Government, and the public do not understand that on that decision a vote in Parliament is strictly optional. In fact, as the Leader of the House pointed out, the public do not understand why, when we do have a vote, it is on the issue of whether we should go home. It makes no sense to have procedures that have no meaning even for relatively well informed members of the public.

The process by which we agree to armed conflict at present reflects the use and abuse of the royal prerogative. Several hon. Members on both sides of the House have made reference to the royal prerogative and how outdated its use is now, but the first person whom I heard speak at length and fluently about the abuse of it was the former right hon. Member for Chesterfield, Tony Benn. On that, as on many other issues, he was both prescient and right. He has been proved correct by events and I am sure that he will be pleased to see that Ministers are catching up with him on the issue.

The other important aspect of the debate, although we are dealing only with one narrow function of the royal prerogative, is that it sheds light on the slide that has taken place under successive Administrations towards a presidential model of government, without the checks and balances that one sees in the US, which has a genuine President. It is interesting that the US is having a lively, constructive and engaged debate, instigated by Congress, about the Iraq war, its progress and whether the US should withdraw. We are having no such debate on the Floor of the House. Here, we have to await the will of whoever is Prime Minister. The comparison with the US, where Congress can have a proper debate about the progress of the war and the possibilities for withdrawal, is most illustrative.

It is especially important that the House reviews the process by which the country goes to war given the rise and rise of the doctrine of liberal interventionism. I am a sceptic on that issue, especially when the intervention occurs without a proper legal framework. If we are to intervene increasingly in other countries for humanitarian or other reasons, we need to have a much firmer framework on which to do so. At the moment, international law on the subject means whatever the last lawyer to speak about it says it means.

Members on both sides of the House have said that we not only need a vote on going to war, but better intelligence and more information. They have said that we did not have enough intelligence last time and that that was the problem. As one of those who voted against the war in Iraq, I wonder whether they read either of the dossiers that were produced. Both were simply assertion piled on assertion and lacked factual information. Having read them, I was never persuaded by them. Perhaps it is my background as a career civil servant that led me actually to read the paperwork, but I was not persuaded by it.

Nor was I persuaded by the assertion in the newspapers that Saddam Hussein had missiles that could hit British territory, or even Cyprus, in 45 minutes. Hon. Members on both sides have said that they did not have enough information, but on the information that was laid before the House—and the speeches and writings of people such as Scott Ritter, one of the last UN weapons inspectors to go to Iraq—I was satisfied that there was no legal basis for the war. Members who unfortunately voted for the war should not hide behind a lack of intelligence or information.

We had a vote on war with Iraq and for that we owe some gratitude to the then Leader of the House and the then Foreign Secretary, who felt it important that if we were to go to war in that instance we should do so after a vote in the House. None the less, it was not mandatory to have a vote. I welcome this debate and what we have heard from at least one of the candidates for the leadership of the Labour party about a willingness to move the procedure on. It is wrong for Parliament, for our armed forces and for the political process that we should continue, in the 21st century, to take our country to war through a process that depends on the norms of the 16th century.

I am glad that we had a vote on the war in Iraq, even though it was held at the very last minute, when many Members felt almost as if a gun were being held to their head. I am also satisfied with the Government's amendment to the motion, which represents a welcome move forward in the thinking on the issue.

In the 21st century—an era of 24-hour news and media punditry; an activity in which I have some part-time interest myself—talking about parliamentary processes and procedures often seems wearisome and old-fashioned. People ask why such things matter. They do not get the point of being exercised about Parliament, its role and procedures. But the truth is that, despite 24-hour news and the increasingly presidential nature of our system, the rights and the powers of Parliament remain the last and best defence of the citizen. On the issue of how and why we go to war as a country, the Government's amendment represents a significant advance. I am glad that we are having this debate and to be able to support the Government's position on the issue.