Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 7:54 pm on 15th May 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham 7:54 pm, 15th May 2007

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Walter, whose knowledge of Europe and its defence forces is extensive. I have drawn two conclusions from his contribution. Although the Luxembourg system, which he mentioned, may be of value, I understand that Luxembourg has only 10 soldiers in Afghanistan; no doubt their presence is welcome. On a more serious point, his contribution shows how much work we have to do before a sensible European response to international crises is possible.

I support my right hon. Friends' motion, although I have serious reservations about it. My first reservation is a purely political one. I echo the comments of Mr. Llwyd that the reason for the sudden change in Government policy, given that the Lord Chancellor was, two or three weeks ago, pouring cold water over the change proposed in the Government's amendment, is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is clearing out the stables before taking office. He knows perfectly well that what has happened over the Iraq war has driven trust in the Government to the lowest point. Therefore urgent action is needed; hence the amendment, which I assume will be accepted tonight instead of our motion.

My reservation about the amendment is that it

"calls upon the Government, after consultation, to come forward with more detailed proposals for Parliament to consider."

Should we hold our breath? When the Chancellor takes over as Prime Minister, will his advisers come round saying, "Prime Minister, is it wise to give Parliament this important power?" We have to wait and see, with a degree of cynicism, whether anything will come of tonight. Certainly I hope that something does come of it, because that will enhance the reputation of Parliament enormously.

My other reservation, which has been reflected in many other Members' speeches, is whether the proposal will interfere with the ability of this country and its military to operate properly. Will it handicap our armed forces in action? Clearly, the military must have freedom of action, certainly when engaged in a conflict. Tonight, however, we have heard that changing circumstances could result in further votes. How will those further votes square with giving the military the proper discretion to operate in a conflict zone, if they know that such votes might take away the legitimacy of what they are doing? If, as was suggested in the House tonight, we had another vote on Iraq, and the House voted against continuing engagement there, would not our forces have to be pulled back with a degree of urgency, in an undignified retreat? To make the proposal work, a lot of hurdles need to be overcome.

Another hurdle is the intelligence. How will the House come to a properly informed decision unless it is privy to the intelligence? How will it get the intelligence without betraying its source? That seems to be a difficult circle to square, and it is a major problem. People have suggested different ways of dealing with that, such as intelligence committees, but the Opposition will not trust the Government on intelligence, nor will some Labour Members.

Another hurdle is deciding whether to implement the proposal through a convention, as the House of Lords Select Committee recommended, or, as others have suggested, through a statute. If we have a statute, there is again a problem, because if British forces are engaged in a conflict, and then Parliament votes that that engagement should cease, does that mean that whatever has happened up to that point becomes unlawful? That is an interesting question for international and other lawyers, of whom I am not one. Given a chance, I would probably prefer the House of Lords Select Committee's recommendation of a convention, rather than a statute.

Historians divide wars into two categories: wars of choice and wars of necessity. Most of the wars that we fight are wars of choice. World war one and world war two, and possibly the Falklands, would be described as wars of necessity, when we had no option but to fight. All the other wars in which we have been involved—we have been involved in more military action than any other country since the second world war—have been wars of choice. In theory that should give Parliament plenty of time in which to debate the issues in the run-up to its decision on whether to take action, but in reality the position is not nearly as clear-cut.

The war in Sierra Leone, for instance, was initially a war of necessity. We had to go into Sierra Leone to rescue some hostages, including a detachment of our own troops, and we went there with solely that function. Having succeeded in our aim—and we did very well—we stayed on, in order eventually to fight a conventional war with the rebel army and, to a great extent, to pacify Sierra Leone. Thus a war that had begun as a war of necessity ended up as a war of choice.

Andrew Mackinlay shakes his head. My understanding of history may be wrong.