Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:05 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 8:05 pm, 15th May 2007

The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is sensible. It might be possible for us to set up some such structure—some form of truly secret committee in this place—to consider the secret intelligence and then to certify the approach to the war. That is a possible approach, although also a difficult one, as it is not easy to imagine how we could construct that. However, we must avoid the spinning and the perversion of intelligence of 2003.

Dr. Palmer suggested that the public were at the time of the vote on Iraq very much in favour of the invasion. That is incorrect: 75 per cent of the people of this country were against an invasion of Iraq on the day on which we voted. That is in contrast to the situation in respect of Afghanistan; 70 per cent. of people were in favour of that deployment. The Government, faced by a difficult vote when they knew that the people were opposed, had to spin the intelligence in order to justify the deployment. In other words, an unpopular war requires greater spinning, particularly if there is to be a vote, but a popular war which is acceptable to the people, such as all the others, did not require that. Therefore, if we are to go down this route, there is an important question to be asked about the way that intelligence is used.

We must also think about the way in which the armed services react to this place. I did not agree with Mr. Llwyd, who suggested that the armed services deployed in the field were significantly questioning the reasoning behind the Iraq war. That is not my experience from talking to the armed services. They say that they are ready to do their jobs and that people cleverer than them in this place have decided that we should carry out such operations. I have not come across generals or regular soldiers saying that they thought that the war was unpopular and that they wished they were not there. They are glad to be there, and to be doing a professional job. However, if every aspect of a deployment to a theatre of war were governed not by the Executive but by this place, and if there were detailed discussions in this place, that would encourage those deployed increasingly to question why they were in that theatre of war. There would be constant debates in this place about the rightness or wrongness of a particular war, which would encourage people to question it. I am concerned about the politicisation of warfare that might result.

Let us imagine that a Government had a majority of one, and that the war in question was unpopular but necessary. It is not right to think that all wars are popular; quite a few are unpopular but necessary. That Government, with a majority of one, would have to get involved in all kinds of political activities to achieve a majority in this place. Individual Back Benchers would demand the saving of particular accident and emergency departments, for example, if the Government were to get their vote. The Whips would be hyperactive and all manner of activities would be going on to achieve approval for the war.

The Opposition in question, behind by only one vote, would surely be strongly tempted to oppose the war because they would believe that they might just embarrass, or even defeat, the Government. If that Government said that they wanted a war, presumably the Opposition would see an opportunity to pick off one or two Government Back Benchers—thereby defeating the Government on the central question of going to war, for goodness' sake—as a highly attractive proposition. In other words, an issue that ought to be dealt with through statesmanship would have been party politicised. That is another extremely difficult problem. We would need to find a way under the proposed procedure of establishing that where reasonable consensus exists on the question of going to war there should be a vote, while recognising that if there is a lack of consensus it might be much more difficult to do that. Reversion to some form of Executive prerogative, rather than royal prerogative, might be necessary.

We have touched briefly on emergencies and of course, if there is an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile, no one would suggest that there should be a vote in the House of Commons on whether we should shoot it down. That is fairly obvious, and the Executive would of course have the authority to shoot it down, but what about less dramatic but none the less important emergencies? There are a variety of situations, such as the no-fly zone in Iraq, on which an immediate decision by the Executive is important for the sake of the peace of the world. A decision by this place, especially if it involved intelligence committees and so forth, would take quite a long time to reach.

The sinking of the Belgrano springs to mind as an illustration of whether it was right for a Prime Minister to take such a decision. The Prime Minister of the day decided to sink the Belgrano and many people think that that was the wrong decision—I believe that it was the right one—but if this place had been asked whether to sink it, the ship would have been at the north pole before we had even begun to discuss the issue. There are many situations that need an urgent decision, and it would not be right to leave them to this place. What would happen, moreover, when we took part in United Nations or NATO operations or—heaven forfend, from my standpoint—if we took part in an EU operation? Might there be circumstances in which the UN or NATO sought to deploy British troops, but this place decided not to? Whom would the generals obey—their NATO commander or this place? That is a difficult issue that needs to be considered carefully.

So, although I am persuaded that the removal of parliamentary powers that we have witnessed in the past 10 years probably ought to lead us to seek to restore them by some reduction in royal prerogative, and although I am persuaded that the worry of committing our people to war is so huge that such a decision ought to be taken in this place, I none the less have very real reservations about the proposal and its operation in practice. I suspect that the risk is that, while we were satisfying ourselves on the democratic side, we would be undermining our capability as a force for good in the world. My hon. Friend Mr. Walter made a powerful point in that regard when he explained how Germany is hampered by its constitution.

Contrary to what I thought this morning, although I am ready to support the Conservative party's motion and, indeed, Labour's amendment, as well—given that they seem to be more or less identical—I do so with significant reservations. The discussions that the Government have promised us in the months that lie ahead are vital. We must get this right if we are to continue to be the force for good in the world that our nation has always prided itself on being.