Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:23 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 8:23 pm, 15th May 2007

I apologise again to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being unable to be here for the opening exchanges. I am interested in this issue, and there are two reasons why I was unable to be here, both of which are relevant. First, I had to go earlier today to the military funeral of a young man called Simon Davison, a constituent of mine who was killed in Afghanistan last week. As many Members know, such occasions bring home to us the responsibility that we feel for the circumstances that produce the tragic death of brave young men such as Simon. My feeling that I should share some direct responsibility for such occasions was reinforced by the fact that Simon's family and the local community would expect their political representative to be involved in some way in the decisions that produced the consequences. I felt that I should be involved and that I should be held to account for the things that I had done. That event simply brought home to me the importance of the general issue that we are discussing.

The second reason for an apology is that the Public Administration Committee, which I chair, was meeting this afternoon, so I could not be here earlier. As is stated in the motion and the amendment, it was a report from our Committee in 2004, "Taming the Prerogative", which first systematically drew Parliament's attention to the need to tackle prerogative powers. We identified the areas that we thought needed the most urgent attention, and war-making powers were at the top of our list. They were not the only item. We also talked about, for example, the approval of treaties.

History explains why Parliament has been omitted from the picture in various areas. Mr. Gray put it fairly in explaining his conversion, and it is the central argument for me. What history tells us, and what we tried to say in the report three years ago, is that it is among the peculiarities of our history—in some ways, the blessings of our history—that we have not, in some considerable time, had to sit down and work out what kind of political system we want or what kind of political people we want to be. We have never had to devise a new constitution, or indeed any kind of codified constitution, never having been successfully invaded or having had a successful revolution in modern times. We have never had to undertake the kind of political enterprise that other countries have had to do, so we have never had to confront what has happened in our history, which is—among all the blessings of broad stability and gradual change—that powers that used to reside with monarchs have been transferred lock, stock and barrel to modern Executives. That is the running thread of our history. We come now, late in the day, to try to put Parliament back into the picture. We are doing that on several fronts, with some success.

It was only a little while ago that I made the case that it was a constitutional anomaly that the Prime Minister did not account to a Committee of this House in the way that other Ministers did. Through our Committee, and then through the Liaison Committee, I entered into correspondence with Downing street about that. I used to get letters back—we published them—that told me that it was constitutionally impossible and went against all the conventions for the Prime Minister to attend on a Committee of this House. When Robin Cook was Leader of the House, he memorably asked me to stop going on about the issue, because the Prime Minister would never agree to it. The following week came the announcement that the Prime Minister would attend twice a year to give evidence before the Liaison Committee.

We can see in that process a convention in the making. One day, it was constitutionally impossible and offended against all our traditions; then it happened; and now it is inconceivable that any future Prime Minister would not attend on the Liaison Committee. That is how we make constitutional change, but it is hard because we do not do it from first principles or a blank piece of paper. We come at the problem from this point in history, when we are trying to insert Parliament back into a war-making powers process. That is a process from which it has been excluded, inappropriately, for a long time.

I agree with everyone who has said that the matter requires very careful consideration. We need to get it right. There are arguments about whether it is better to use law or convention, but, in some ways, as long as we get a strong and proper mechanism, that does not matter greatly.

This debate is part of a process that has been going on for some time. We are embracing these matters for particular local and immediate reasons, but my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was writing about the need to review prerogative powers 20 years ago. In those days, the Labour party was not routinely in government: as we have become so, of course, our interest in these matters has waned. When the PAC report appeared three years ago, neither the House nor the Government was terribly interested in what it said.

In the wake of the Iraq vote, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was asked, in the House, whether Parliament's vote on the war had created a precedent. I do not remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect that, yes, he agreed that a precedent had been created. My right hon. Friend is a former Foreign Secretary, so when he says that a precedent has been created, we are well on the way to getting either a convention or a law. That is how this place works.

As I was not here earlier, it is only fair that I should be brief, so I shall end by saying that the change that we are discussing is not in Parliament's interest alone. It is constitutionally proper that Parliament should be inserted into the process, and it is good to see support for that general principle, even though people have worries about how it might work.

I have always thought that it is essential for Governments that Parliament has a role. I spoke earlier about attending a funeral this morning, and I believe that it is no longer possible to send people to war without their representative institution having some say in the process. The argument is as fundamental as that: given how contentious the 2003 vote on Iraq was, can anyone imagine what it would have been like if the Government had decided to go to war without a vote in this place?

I voted against the Iraq invasion. People sometimes say to me that I must be very pleased about that, but I am not. What has happened gives me no pleasure: I wanted Iraq to be a stable democracy by now, and I regret hugely the fact that it has all gone so bitterly wrong. However, the vote in the House was crucial to giving that highly contentious war any democratic legitimacy in this country.

In future, Parliament must be involved in the process if any military conflict is to have legitimacy. A hundred or so years ago, Lord Salisbury of all people remarked that the French were always going on about what their chamber would or would not put up with, and that perhaps we should have one like it. In a sense, we are saying that we should have a Chamber like that. It will be good for Parliament, and for Government too.