Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee 6:41 pm, 15th May 2007

Supply days usually make very little difference, and I often wonder why we are always on a three-line Whip for such debates because the Opposition always get voted down by the Government and, apparently, very little ever changes. However, this will clearly be an historic occasion—the earth has moved. Governments have declared war, which is arguably the most important thing that they have to do, in a certain way for centuries, but, apparently, as a result of the motion moved by my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, both sides of the House have had a Damascene conversion this week and decided that Parliament should be allowed to have a say on all future occasions. As several hon. Members have said, there is very little difference between the motion and the amendment. This is an historic occasion, and I hope that, for once, when the newspapers are printed tomorrow, they will note that.

On that bipartisan note, we can all be very pleased, but why has this happened? I do not think that anyone can deny that there has been a massive breakdown in trust in the Government's word to Parliament. We must be very careful about what we say because we do not want to be ruled out of order, but everyone knows that that breakdown has happened.

We have heard a lot of talk about how the historic prerogative of the Crown is rather old-fashioned and how no one believes in it any more, but there was overwhelming public support for what Governments were doing in all wars before the Iraq war, which was declared in March 2003. We only have to think back to the days before the declaration of war in 1914 to recall that there was overwhelming support among the public and in the House and massive demonstrations were held. There was a feeling that we were absolutely right to go to war because the independence and neutrality of Belgium had been violated. The mood in 1939 was much more sombre, but it was absolutely united. We felt that while we had given Germany every opportunity to try to maintain peace, owing to our desperate experience of the first world war and our desire to avoid war, we had to go to war. Although there was some opposition to the Falklands war, there was basically a united House of Commons and united public opinion on that much smaller war, which happened after the sovereignty of part of the United Kingdom was grossly violated by an invasion. While all those wars drew support, there was one important exception: Suez. That rather proves the point.

We should not dismiss what happened in the past as being rather old-fashioned, but accept that before the events of March 2003 the system worked really quite well. Prime Ministers did not act alone irrespective of public opinion. The truth is that they acted in line with public opinion—they almost had no choice. During the events of May 1940, Winston Churchill said that if the Government had tried to resist public opinion, they would have been physically dragged from office.