Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:08 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 6:08 pm, 15th May 2007

On the face of it, the debate is about parliamentary approval for this country to go to war, but it is almost as much about the erosion of trust in Government and the Prime Minister that has led to the demand for change. I am perhaps the first to contribute to the debate who is profoundly unenthusiastic about the change. I will support it, for reasons I will come to in a moment, but I take no particular pleasure in doing so. I have in mind not only the continuing controversies over the Iraq war—and the feeling shared by many people that they were let down by the Government in the projection of the case for war to both Parliament and the country—but the Kosovo conflict.

Whatever one's views about the Kosovo conflict, the truth is that we effectively declared war on another country that had not attacked us. We proceeded to bomb that country for six months, but at no time was a vote taken in this House of Commons to give approval to that decision. Three debates took place on the Adjournment, but on no occasion was there an opportunity for a vote on something that was manifestly a war, even though no war had been declared.

The conflict in Kosovo, in combination with the Iraq situation, has led increasingly to a profound mistrust of our arrangements, and to a demand to formalise them. Why do I say that I am unenthusiastic about that change? The answer is that, when one looks at how the royal prerogative has developed over centuries, one sees that what we have now is very different from what existed originally. In the past, the royal prerogative meant that a monarch—or any Prime Minister or chief minister appointed by that monarch—could take decisions regardless of the views of Parliament. Even in those days, however, the need to vote supply meant that Parliament could influence indirectly the monarch's ability to go to war.

In contrast, the circumstances of the 20th century and today are profoundly different. When hon. Members of all parties talk about the need for democratic accountability, they speak as though we did not have an elected Government. Yet the Government are as elected as this House is, and they are the Government only because the Prime Minister and his or her colleagues command a majority in this House. Therefore, there is not the fundamental lack of legitimacy that existed when the royal prerogative was developed and used at an earlier time in our history.

Moreover, the question goes beyond the fact that a Government—any Government—are elected. The comparisons with the US made by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke are not entirely appropriate, for the following reason. The US President does not depend for his continuation in office on the support of Congress. If the American legislation did not require a vote in Congress before the US could go to war, a President could take that decision on his own initiative. Short of impeachment—which is incredibly difficult, for all the reasons that we are familiar with—there would be no way in which Congress or the American public could either reverse the decision, or stop it.

A President is elected for a full term of office. He does not need to have a majority in Congress—very often, as at present, he does not have such a majority. It would therefore be intolerable, of course, that an issue as fundamental as peace or war could be determined by the President without anyone being able to do anything about it, short of invoking the ultimate nuclear weapon of impeachment.

In the case of the UK, we all know what the political reality is: a Government who decline to ask for an endorsement by the House of Commons in these matters will not survive unless they command, if not the enthusiasm of the House, then at least its acquiescence. The Government take great pride in the fact that they asked for the House's support when the war in Iraq was determined. That is, of course, historically correct, but I do not think that I will be contradicted when I say that many Labour Members voted for the Government only with enormous reluctance. They did so because they feared that the Government would fall if they failed to carry the day. Similarly, a Government who went to war without a vote would know that the consequence of acting against the wishes of the House and of their own party would be the same.

In an ideal world, therefore, I would prefer that we were not going in the direction in which we are moving. Once constraints such as we are discussing today are introduced by statute—and also, to some degree, by convention—there is a danger that demands for repeated votes during the course of a war could create extraordinary uncertainty and incoherence for our armed forces in the field.

As I say, I take no great pleasure from the direction in which we are moving, but I believe that the Kosovo conflict was hugely important. I make no comment about its merits, but no vote was held in respect of that conflict, and not because the Government believed that not holding a vote would somehow assist our armed forces. No vote was held because the Government were, I suspect, embarrassed by the lack of a mandate from the UN Security Council, and by the fact that we were attacking a country that had not attacked us. The Kosovo mission had broad support on both sides of the House, but the Government found it convenient—for political rather than military reasons—to avoid the House being requested to give its formal approval.

That is now history, and it is important that we go forward. If we are to require in future that the House must give its explicit endorsement when military operations are contemplated or about to take place, it is very important that we are conscious of what the necessary safeguards should be.

The Government and my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague have both suggested that there would be occasions when it would not be possible for the Government to ask the House for approval in advance of a military operation, and that therefore provision should be made for retrospective endorsement. It is true that there might be such occasions, but any such retrospective endorsement would have to be considered very carefully. In an intervention earlier, I made the point that it is hugely important that a failure to grant retrospective endorsement should not render illegitimate a war already begun, as that would place our armed forces in a very difficult and incoherent situation.