Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 9:11 pm, 15th May 2007

I very much welcome the debate. I have had a similar experience to that of my hon. Friend Dr. Wright. When I argued for greater scrutiny and suggested that the Prime Minister should appear before a Select Committee, I got precisely the same reaction as he did. I was told, "You must be off your trolley, Mackinlay, to suggest that the Prime Minister should appear before a Select Committee." Yet that came about. Over 10 years of the Blair Government, a number of my suggestions have been dismissed by colleagues, only to come about later. This question of gaining parliamentary approval and oversight for the deployment of our armed forces is one of them.

I very much welcome the conversion of Government and Opposition Front Benchers. I say that because committing our armed forces, in my view, justifies the full-hearted consent of both Parliament and people. Indeed, the people's will is expressed through this Parliament. When we take a decision about deployment, we need to do it with full knowledge and full consent because it is such a grave matter. I certainly support the idea of a statute that lays down the ground rules for this House of Commons to approve deployment. Implicit in that is the fact that provision must be made for the continued deployment to be scrutinised and reviewed.

One of the flaws in existing arrangements is that there has been no reaffirming vote for the deployment of our troops in Iraq. I am quite sure that the House would reaffirm it, because, irrespective of our views on the original decision, we all understand the constraints. It seems to me healthy for democracy that that should happen. If, in extreme circumstances, there were a need to withdraw or retreat—heaven forbid, to cut our losses—that too should be done through Parliament.

Dr. Fox made a passing reference from a sedentary position to the Narvik debate of 7 May 1940. That is pertinent, but I would like to draw the House's attention to the fact that 67 years ago yesterday, there was a vote in this House on the prosecution of a war. We had been at war for a year, but the principle of reaffirming our resolve was upheld here and, indeed, there was a Division of the House. I checked the Official Report and found that the motion was carried by 381 votes to nil—but there was a Division nevertheless. The motion before the House was to confirm the new coalition Government, but it went on to say that this House

"welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion."

It set out the House's view, demonstrating the will of the country, on what should happen, giving a mandate to Winston Churchill and his coalition Government to prosecute the war with Germany to that victorious conclusion.

I always think that one of the modern-day miracles happened in those critical hours in May 1940 when George VI appointed Churchill rather than Halifax, because Halifax could have used the royal prerogative to come to terms with Germany. It is a matter of fact that he, and many other good people, thought that they might have to cut their losses, and they would have used the royal prerogative to do so. They would not have come to the House of Commons to review the matter. What eventually happened would not have taken place but for Churchill's initiative of bringing that motion to the House of Commons and getting it ratified by a Division.

Churchill's speech spelled out the issue. He said:

"You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, 'Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.'"—[ Hansard, 13 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1502.]

Churchill was speaking in the House of Commons, and the House supported him in a Division; it gave him a mandate. We should not lose sight of the fact that that was an important occasion, not only giving him legitimacy but helping things on. In contrast, let us consider how King Leopold used the royal prerogative to capitulate without going to the Belgian Parliament. Mr. Walter mentioned the Belgian constitution in his speech earlier. There are good reasons why we should learn from history, because the idea that we are debating tonight has proved a worthwhile tool in promoting our national interests at the most critical times.

I remember, soon after the Labour Government came to office 10 years ago, the deployment of British troops to Sierra Leone. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I thought that it was incumbent on the Committee to ask questions about the ground rules of the deployment, the rules of engagement and the relationship with Sandline and other private military companies—I call them mercenaries. That inquiry was most unwelcome. It is a matter of fact that enormous pressure was put on the Foreign Affairs Committee—including my hon. Friend Ms Abbott and me—not to inquire into the matter. The Government assumed that if we were making such inquiries, we must be opposed to their policy. It worried me deeply that because we were inquiring about the ground rules and the reasons for the deployment, we were thought to be opposed to them. I just wanted to know what was going on.

I remember that the then Member for Livingston, the late Robin Cook, for whom I had very high regard, was extraordinarily angry. He called me at midnight one Sunday evening and asked, "What the heck"—he actually used a stronger word than that—"are you doing?" I told him that I intended to pursue the matter with vigour. I also remember being away with two colleagues whom I like and respect very much, but when I went on television to say that the matter should go before the House of Commons, they told me that I was completely mad. I shall be interested to see which Division Lobby they go through tonight. Things have now moved on, and it seemed to me that we needed transparency on that occasion.

To the credit of the late Member for Livingston, when the history of the Iraq conflict comes to be written there will be no doubt that it was he who persuaded the Prime Minister that he had to come before the House of Commons and seek a mandate. The flaw in that experience, however, was that the House did not have independent intelligence verification or independent legal advice. In the unlikely event of that happening again while I am in the House of Commons, I shall certainly want to know that the intelligence has been verified by a Committee of Parliament—not a committee of parliamentarians, and not the so-called Intelligence and Security Committee, which is not a Committee of Parliament but is appointed by the Prime Minister to judge his own stewardship of such matters, which is wholly unsatisfactory.

As part and parcel of the proposals tonight, we need to ensure that we have a parliamentary Committee, which would be highly responsible, which we will choose, and which realises that its knowledge could be critical to the lives of our service personnel. We should have that high ambition for Parliament: we should judge the verification of intelligence. Equally, we need to know about the legality of any deployment of our armed forces from an authority separate from a Law Officer who is a Minister of the Crown.

Colleagues will recall the great irritation over the Sierra Leone situation, and the phrase—coined by Alastair Campbell, I understand, but attributed to the Prime Minister —"What's the problem? The good guys won." I like the good guys to win, too, but we needed to know what the mischief was in the first place, and what the relationship was between our armed forces and Sandline—an unhealthy situation. That was never disclosed, however, to the House of Commons.

I hope that we shall embrace the proposals tonight. As many other Members have said, when we look at the differences between the amendment and the motion we see that we are dancing on the head of a pin. I rejoice in the conversion both of those on the Conservative Front Bench and, more importantly, of the people currently in government, who have stewardship of the principle. I do not, however, want to be deceived. I want to be sure that this is not a way of getting over a particular difficulty. I want written down in tablets of stone the ground rules by which we deploy and protect our armed forces, and by which Parliament reviews their deployment.

Our armed forces can take strength from that, as the House of Commons is a responsible place, which would never put our armed forces in jeopardy. In times of great crisis our Government and our diplomats would have greater strength, and a greater mandate, if they knew that they had the wholehearted consent of Parliament and people. I support the amendment, although it is a little silly—this is occasionally a silly place—that we do not have an agreed motion.