Matthew Parris

Must MPs always vote before we go to war?

I don't agree with Jesse Norman's arguments about the Commons and the military. But the question he raises deserves more than a pat, pious response

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

Jesse Norman was permitted three minutes for his speech to the Commons in last Friday’s debate. But the contribution from the Conservative MP for Hereford & South Herefordshire was one of the more important backbench interventions — and no less important for being wide of the debate’s focus.
The House was being invited to support British intervention against the Islamic State. Mr Norman’s speech was about whether the invitation was even appropriate. As he put it, ‘A convention has started to develop that, except in an emergency, major foreign policy interventions must be pre-approved by a vote in Parliament.’ The MP thought this unwise.

I disagree. Or half-disagree. But ­Norman’s case was powerful, and I shall give you the gist. He is all in favour of debates, questions or statements on military action; he thinks them vital; but he objects to the emerging rule that ‘a prior authorising vote’ should be required. ‘The plain fact is,’ he said, that in matters like this, ‘members of the House are inevitably far less well informed than ministers who follow and reflect on the issues every day. We do not have the same access to officials and advisers; we are not privy to diplomatic traffic or secret intelligence; and we are not briefed by, and may not demand briefings from, our armed forces. As a large corporate body, we lack the capacity to react quickly and without warning to fast-­changing events. The result is delay and a loss of agility and surprise, which ill serves our forces in the field.’
Norman’s second argument was that a Commons authorisation, once made, ‘binds members in their own minds, rather than allowing them the opportunity to assess each government decision on its own merits… Ministers can always take final refuge in saying, “Well, you authorised it.”’
I must dismiss that second argument out of hand. It is far too strong. We’re all of us humanly disinclined to revise our opinions once registered; but we often do have to take a view.

I’m afraid Norman’s first argument is also too strong. If the fact that ministers know things backbenchers don’t were an argument against MPs being able to stop government in its tracks, MPs would be left with little to do. On a wide range of ministerial responsibilities, not defence alone, debates are rare in which ministers don’t know more than most backbenchers. Nevertheless backbenchers do regularly authorise (or block) the implementation of policy. They should.

The whole theory of democracy offers amateurs, not professionals, the final say. That’s what a general election does too. Democracy supposes amateurs may have the wisdom and maturity to recognise the limits of their knowledge; but the wisdom, too, to realise that even though experts may know more facts, experts may still reach the wrong conclusion.

It may sometimes be true (especially in war) that ministers have secret intelligence denied the rest of us, but I should be very wary indeed of the idea that this means the rest of us can’t have a useful opinion. ‘If only you could see the intelligence that crosses my desk…’ Tony Blair was wont to say when mere amateurs doubted his claims about weapons of mass destruction. If only we had been less impressed.


The same claim was advanced in favour of 90-day detention without trial, which the House blocked. Ministers should certainly be able to tell MPs when their opinions are led by important secrets; they should ask MPs to take them on trust. But it should be up to MPs to decide whether to.

Norman has a point about the loss of the element of surprise, but I’d return the same answer: Parliament should be trusted to understand when military action cannot be debated in advance; and to forgive the lack of prior debate in this case. If the case was strong, Parliament always would retrospectively forgive.

In that last assertion, however, lie the seeds of a third way between the view that the House should not be asked to authorise war, and the view that it always should. The word that I think is inappropriate — and here I agree with Jesse Norman — is ‘authorise’. A convention that could and (I’d argue) should arise is that prior approval should be sought wherever that is possible and reasonable; and that this will depend on the circumstances.

Since these will vary enormously, and reasonableness will often be a matter of opinion, no mechanism for obtaining (say) a Speaker’s certificate before prior debate is denied, is likely to prove workable. The surrounding circumstances being so fluid, the concept of licence or authorisation is unworkable. There should simply be a presumption that prior debate and resolution take place wherever possible.

One should not look forward to any new military adventure, but if one should arise before too long in which for obvious reasons no prior approval was sought, that would be a useful corrective to the development Mr Norman fears: an iron rule.

The Prime Minister’s proviso last Friday, that ‘if there was a moment when it looked as though there could be an urgent humanitarian need for intervention, I would be prepared to order that intervention and then come to the House and explain why’, was along the right lines but did not go far enough. Self-defence, for instance, as well as humanitarian concerns, could be a reason. The Crown (essentially, prime ministers) should always reserve the right to declare war without prior announcement or debate; but should not do so unreasonably.

A vague formulation, I grant, but plenty else in our unwritten constitution works well enough on such understandings. A convincing display of parliamentary support is an important weapon in any government’s armoury during warfare. If a convention were to arise — as I think it is beginning to arise — that this should usually be sought, then I think, pace Jesse Norman, that’s a good thing. But he sounded a useful note of warning last Friday.

Iraq-and-Syria-debate-coffee house imageThe Spectator is holding a debate ‘Iraq and Syria are lost causes: intervention can’t help’ at 7pm on Wednesday 22 October at Church House, SW1. Speakers for the motion will include John Redwood and Patrick Cockburn, and against, Douglas Murray, Ed Husain and General The Lord Dannatt. Chairing the debate will be Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.

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Show comments
  • stag

    Sounds like you agree with Mr Norman. You are of the opinion that a Commons vote is generally a good thing, but should not be an absolute requirement. That last part – that it should not be absolutely required – was Mr Norman’s position too.

    A good article, and one I can pretty much entirely agree with (for a change).

  • Tom Chance

    Do we necessarily need to be “invited” personally to join in action by the country concerned? The Iraqi leadership had made clear their desire for international support, and America had formed a coalition with Western & Arab states, and was able to take action weeks before we got round to it.

    Britain sat waiting by the phone to be personally invited by the Iraqi PM to take part. He has more important things to do than meet each and every single world leader to ask for their support individually. Why do we think we’re so special?

    • rublew

      It’s called international law, you nonce.

      • Tom Chance

        Did America, France, Saudi Arabia and all their other partners break international law when they intervened? The Iraqi gov’t had clearly expressed its desire for international support. We shouldn’t think we’re so much more important that we deserve a personal invitation.

        • rublew

          Under international law there are certain circumstances in which a state can take part in military action in / against another state. Most pertinent here; self defence (not applicable as western states do not face an existential threat from IS), when the state in question is either unable or unwilling to tackle a domestic problem that has international repercussions (the US hinted toward this in relation to their current action in Syria), or through a specific invitation from the state in question that it desires help (this is linked to the state being ‘unable’ to sufficiently respond to the threat on its own). The Iraqi government had to make a specific request to our government to get round the legal question of our military action. They made the same specific requests to the other states involved (if there had been no requests then yes, they would have ‘broken’ international law in this scenario). It’s more semantics than anything. Perhaps the UK took longer in its public deliberation and acceptance of the request, but that appears to be more for domestic consumption than anything else.

  • Innit Bruv

    “Members of the house are inevitably less well informed than ministers…..day”
    Is the guy having a laugh? Are these well informed ministers the sort of people who advise the likes Blair and Cameron about intervening in Iraq or Libya?

    • ButcombeMan

      One very well informed Minister (Robin Cook) resigned.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0f8NBlmwwE

      Blair deceived parliament and people, it is that simple

      • Mike

        Once you’ve been deceived, trust is very difficult to be regained.

      • Innit Bruv

        Robin Cook,the exception that proves the rule…

  • whs1954

    I’m afraid, Mr Parris, you are wrong and Mr Norman, or rather the implication of his speech, is right.

    Why did the Commons vote overwhelmingly for air strikes last month? Because the situation in Syria and Iraq is so bad that it is almost impossible to sit back and watch. The fact the French went in before us says it all.

    But why is the situation in Syria and Iraq so bad now? Because it has been left to stagnate for a year – 12 months ago, long before anyone had even heard of ISIS, a short sharp war in favour of the then-secular Free Syrian Army would have got rid of Assad and bypassed the Islamists.

    But why was there not such a short sharp war 12 months ago? Because the US and NATO got cold feet when they found the UK would not be going in.

    But why did the UK not go in? Because the House of Commons voted against it 285-272.

    But why did the House vote against it? Because the Labour Party, unofficially, put the whips on. Not one Labour MP voted for – if this had been treated as an issue of conscience by Labour, you would have found at least one voting in favour.

    But why did Labour whip against? Because Ed Miliband thought he could win a few points in the opinion polls, by pandering to BME voters they lost over the Iraq war.

    The process I describe above is not the way the greatest nation on earth (as I for one still believe the UK to be) should be deciding great issues of war and peace. I should sooner trust an informed War Cabinet and the commanders of the armed forces to decide whether we go to war, than a bunch of MPs whipped by a leader of the opposition playing political games.

    • evad666

      An accurate summary.

    • Bill_der_Berg

      “I’m afraid, Mr Parris, you are wrong…”

      ……. but you prefer to ignore his arguments, rather than try to answer them?

  • Mike

    Whilst I agree with the sentiments of Jesse Norman its difficult to trust ministers let alone Prime Ministers after that sack of s*** Blair went to war on a lie.

    In an ideal world I agree that ministers would have all the information at their fingertips to make an objective decision to go to war or not compared to parliament or the public. How can that trust be restored when we have a bunch of expense fiddling, liars and cheats in LibLabCon only concerned with their own well being and not the electorate.

    We’ve been hijacked by the PC fascists, we’ve seen young girls gang raped and MP’s & Local authorities conspire to cover it up, criminals get off with light sentencing, life for murder means 10 years now, the criminal is now the victim and there is no accountability for those who abuse their positions. All in all, recent governments have sold us out.

    Nothing would be better if we had a PM with honesty, character & morals who we could leave to look after the country for all our interests but Blair, Brown and Cameron have all let us down and treated us with contempt.

  • pp22pp

    Quote from Matthew Parris.
    “I’m not arguing that we should be careless of the needs of struggling people and places such as Clacton. But I am arguing – if I am honest – that we should be careless of their opinions.”
    Would he dare say that about the Moslem population of Rotherham?
    Of course not!
    A fool and a coward, worthy of nothing but contempt.

  • Bill_der_Berg

    The House of Commons was called upon to decide whether the UK should play a minor supporting role in a war to be fought and funded by the US. All major military decisions will be taken by the US, ‘in consultation with its allies’ for what that’s worth. So perhaps the real questions we should be asking are about the motives and ambitions of the US government.

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