Syria: UK Military Action — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:22 pm on 2nd December 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Chair, Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee 5:22 pm, 2nd December 2015

My Lords, I do not claim to know the answer to the serious issue before us this afternoon; nevertheless, I have a point of substance to make. It is about the decision-making process and the royal prerogative. I have read as much as I reasonably can, but I do not believe that I—or most Members of Parliament, or even noble Lords—really know all there is to know about the pros and cons of military action in relation to Syria, let alone what might happen in the months and years to come. It may be that the noble and gallant Lords in our midst, or noble Lords with diplomatic experience—I was tempted to say noble and intelligent Lords, by which I mean noble Lords who are privy to intelligence—have the answer.

Having listened to ordinary voters giving their opinion in the media, I do not think they are very well informed, either. It is not sufficient to be pro-war or anti-war in a general way. It is a decision that might best be made by the Cabinet and the military experts. That is why there is much to be said for the historical practice of treating going to war as a matter of royal prerogative. For hundreds of years, and until very recently, the decision to go to war—however it was defined—was for the Crown to make: in practice, that is, for the Prime Minister. As far as I know, there was no vote when we entered the First and Second World Wars or defended the Falklands. Indeed, it has often been said that even to debate the issues in Parliament means giving the enemy, whoever he is, advance notice of our intentions and involves disclosing information that ought to be confidential and might relate to the protection of our Armed Forces.

Undoubtedly, if there was a sudden attack on this country we would expect—and it would be perfectly legal—to defend ourselves at once, without recourse to Parliament. Whether the proposed Syrian action could be called an emergency, a matter of self-defence, an extension of existing action or a war of choice is debatable. But it seems to be expected now that, if there is time, not only should Parliament be consulted but the House of Commons should have the last word on whether to go to war.

The new convention started with former Prime Minister Blair seeking parliamentary approval for the Iraq invasion, and since then it seems to be accepted that Parliament makes the decision, not the Prime Minister. The weakening of the royal prerogative and the growth of a new constitutional convention have been considered, with approval, by at least two parliamentary Select Committees. But of course, it would be surprising if Members of Parliament did not think that they should have the last word—that is democracy. Nevertheless, I am anxious that complete and confidential information may be absent from consideration when a decision to go to war is being made, for example, by polling party members or to serve party political ends or show solidarity. Least of all should the decision depend on a guess as to whether more terrorism might be unleashed on our shores. That would be giving the enemy the very control it wants over our foreign policy. There is, even today, much to be said for the royal prerogative.

Fortunately, this House is doing no more than offering its advice. The noble Earl may be able to reassure us of this in his reply, but I would submit that there is not yet a solid convention that going to war is a decision for the House of Commons alone. In my view, it is a decision for the Prime Minister, who will be accountable for it and take the credit for victory or—although I hope not—the blame.