Syria and when a democracy goes to war

Should Parliament decide when we fight?

After the British House of Commons voted to reject military action in Syria, The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow considered the lessons.

Parliament matters more. Technically prime ministers do not need the support of the Commons to go to war. Sending troops into action is a prerogative power (meaning it can happen just on the prime minister’s say so). But Tony Blair allowed a vote on the Iraq war, and since then parliament has been flexing its muscles even more. Of course having a hung parliament helps. But this might be a good night to remember Robin Cook, whose gravestone carries the words: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.” The Tory MEP Daniel Hannan put the point about parliament’s new assertiveness well in a blog written after Cameron’s U-turn on the motion last night.

The Guardian’s editorial board found similarly.

Summoned back to debate the Syrian crisis, the House of Commons distinguished itself on Thursday. It did so more because of the political outcome than because of the quality of the parliamentary occasion itself. What mattered most was not the many powerful speeches. What really counted is summed up in the familiar constitutional phrase about the legislature holding the executive to account. For that is what occurred on Thursday. The government was prevented, by a remarkable 285 votes to 272, from mounting a premature and foolish attack on Syria. Parliament, so often sneered at, did its job when it mattered.

Philippe Lagasse seemed nonetheless unimpressed and while there is certainly a good argument to be had over whether Britain’s vote should have been a matter of confidence—see Dennis Baker’s tweets here, here and here—I will say I found myself feeling heartened when the result was announced. Not particularly because I didn’t think Britain should be dropping bombs on Syria—I don’t have strong feelings about what should or should not be done, though I suppose I’m a bit suspicious of the idea that dropping bombs on Syria will accomplish anything—but merely because Britain’s Parliament had spoken as to whether Britain should be dropping bombs on Syria.

That said, Lagasse’s concerns need to be considered—see his Ottawa Citizen op-ed as well. He raises valid concerns about the laws, principles and practicalities involved. So why do I still take heart from what happened in Britain?

There should obviously be limits on what we should expect to be brought before Parliament. Approving every deployment, no matter how small or peaceful, is probably neither necessary nor practical. Parliament should probably not be able to cut short a commitment that has already been made. The military should be free to repel an invasion without first waiting for Parliament to be reconvened. And Parliament should not be able to commit the government to a war it does not want to be involved in.

I am not persuaded though that should the opposition vote, in whole or in part, to endorse a deployment that that necessarily limits the ability of the opposition to hold the government to account for the execution of that deployment. And if we are worried about accountability—as always we should be—then it seems to me to be insufficient that we would exercise that accountability only after the bombs have started falling.

A country’s decision to take aggressive action against another is fairly irreversible. Once the bombs start falling, it is already, in many ways, too late. Laws—which, of course, must be passed through Parliament—can be rewritten, and perhaps mercy taken on those who were mistreated in the interim, but there is no taking back a bomb once it has been dropped on someone’s neighbourhood. Even something like the defeat of the government that initiated the bombing is unlikely to appease anyone whose home has been bombed.

There is value too in those who would have us engage in war having to explain and defend their desire to do so, in questions being asked and time being taken to justify the act. And if war is worth engaging in it should be able to withstand the scrutiny. If Britain and the United States don’t end up bombing Syria, it will be because their respective legislatures declined and that will prove prescient or be remembered as either a failure by the Prime Minister and the President to justify war or an abdication of responsibility by legislators (with a nod to the fresh memory of Iraq and the failure of leadership that will forever represent). But I think I will feel better, whatever the case, for the idea of war having been tested by Parliament and Congress. In many ways, I think the process will justify whatever decision Congress makes. And the energy being expended by the President to justify war is precisely the sort of effort that should be required before war is pursued.

Were we living with the American system, the decision to put the idea of war before the legislature might be more grounded in law. Absent such a constitution, the why and how of this sort of thing is more complicated. But I think I would demand this at the least: that before we commit ourselves to fighting, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister should have to stand in the House and explain why. They should be expected to make their cases in speeches and then take questions from the House. The Defence Minister should, as well, be expected to appear before the Defence Committee and explain himself there as well. And these would not merely be perfunctory appearances, but closely watched performances from which much was expected.

Could war then be pursued without a vote in the House of Commons? Maybe, in theory. That our Parliament would speak before we commit ourselves to war seems to me to have some advantages, but perhaps it would be enough to demand that the decision be explained to and tested in the House without a vote. Were there to be a vote, I suppose it would be right for it to be treated as a matter of confidence (something that would put onus on the legislature, but also the government).

But even if war remains the sole prerogative of the executive, the House remains the chamber through which the executive is accountable to us. And so if we are to go off to dropping bombs on another country, it should be there that the decision is justified. Not merely after the fact, but before we have committed ourselves to wreak such havoc and invite whatever might come as a result.