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House of Commons

Friday 21 October 2005

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

9.34 am

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): I beg to move,

That the Bill be now read a Second time.

There are two important reasons why this Bill should become law and why the House should strongly support it. The first is an argument for democracy. In our system, the power to declare war or commit troops to military action belongs to the Prime Minister. The reason for this is that it used to be a power of the monarch and therefore is still a royal prerogative, and the royal prerogative these days is exercised by the Prime Minister, with Parliament having no right to control the way in which he uses the power.

As we all know, the United Kingdom has no written constitution. The powers of Parliament were built up over a long period of history through Parliament using its power to raise taxes to insist that the monarch was made accountable to Parliament in the exercise of his and, occasionally, her powers. However, Parliament did not manage to make the monarch accountable over the right to make war. In the Act of Settlement of 1700, however, which laid down who was to succeed to the Crown after the death of Mary, wife of William of Orange, Parliament did say:

It would seem that that section is still in effect today. So Parliament has in the past restricted the royal prerogative to make war, but as there is little prospect currently of the Crown passing to a person who is not a native of this country, perhaps it is time for Parliament to update its control over the power to go to war.

I have been shocked to discover, through reading the Library's briefing on the Bill, that the current powers of Parliament are even less than most of us had thought.
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Thus, even when the Prime Minister decides that he wishes to allow Parliament to vote on a substantive motion on whether to support a war, which happened, for example, under the Attlee Government over the Korean war, under the Major Government over the 1991 Gulf war and under the Blair Government more recently, just before the Iraq war, he has the constitutional right to ignore a defeat on a parliamentary vote if he so wishes.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I think that the right hon. Lady is slightly incorrect. As for Attlee and the Korean war, the votes were after the deployment of troops. The first time—the only time in the history of Parliament—that there was a substantive vote before the deployment of troops was in respect of the Iraq war of 2003. My understanding is that, had that vote been lost, the Prime Minister would not have been able to commit troops. Is my understanding correct?

Clare Short: No, the hon. Gentleman is not correct. He is right in the case of the Korean war and the 1991 Gulf war. In those instances, the vote was taken shortly after the declaration of war. The Library briefing is absolutely clear that the Prime Minister decides whether to allow a vote and has the absolute power to ignore the result of that vote. If the vote had gone against the recent Iraq war, the Prime Minister could still have gone on with the war. That is a remarkable and extraordinary state of affairs.

The more that I thought about this situation, the more I concluded that, given the Prime Minister's powers under the royal prerogative, he could argue that he was entitled secretly to commit us to war in April 2002 by giving his word to President Bush, as has been revealed by the leaking of the Downing street memo. Similarly, the Prime Minister could insist that he was entitled to exaggerate the intelligence on the threat of weapons of mass destruction, manipulate legal advice and misreport the French position on the possible use of its veto in the Security Council. If the power to make war belongs to the Prime Minister and requires no approval from Parliament, he was entitled to do what he thought was right and then set out to persuade, in the way that he found best, the Cabinet, Parliament and country to support the decision that he had already made.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the history is even more complicated? She and I were both members of the Government when Britain went to war in the Balkans. As it happens, I was very supportive of that military action. Nevertheless, at that time there was no requirement for approval and no approval was given by Parliament. That cannot be a sustainable case. In the case of Iraq, with which I did not agree, the Prime Minister did come before Parliament. The worry is that the Prime Minister's freedom of action is not circumscribed. If he or she so chooses in future, Parliament can be ignored entirely. That cannot be sustainable.

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is right. It is for the Prime Minister to decide whether to bring the issue before Parliament. He or she can do so or not do so; in
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the case of the Kosovo war, there was no vote in Parliament. There is the argument that there was a vote before the Iraq war. At the last minute, when the troops were on the ground and when arms were being twisted, the Prime Minister was saying, "Please do not humiliate me in this situation." I do not think that that is adequate consultation of Parliament. It is not the way to make good decisions to protect our armed forces and the dignity and authority of our country.

As most Members of Parliament are aware, many people in Britain are very disillusioned with our constitutional arrangements and the weakness of our democracy. An elderly Iraqi engineer who had spent most of his life in the UK summarised the situation to me some time ago. He said that this is the freest country in the world; we can buy any book, arrange any meeting, organise any demonstration and have any discussion—the only problem is that the Government do not take a blind bit of notice of what the people are thinking. It is a very free country, in the sense of freedom of discussion, although there are proposals that might curtail that, but the distance between public opinion and the power of the Executive is too great in our constitutional system, and it is causing disgruntlement across the land.

It was Lord Hailsham in 1976 who said that we have an elective dictatorship, and power has centralised in the office of the Prime Minister very much further since then. I know many people who went on the march against the Iraq war on 15 February 2003, which was probably the biggest demonstration that has ever taken place in British history. As all Members will know, many, many people who went on that demonstration had never been on a political demonstration before in their lives. Many people are now very disillusioned and feel that they cannot get politicians to listen to public opinion in the UK.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Would my right hon. Friend at least give credit to those who did listen to all those people who marched through London and voted no to the war?

Clare Short: Yes, indeed; that is a matter of record, but the argument that I am putting this morning is that we have a serious constitutional problem.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Clare Short: No, I will get on a little, if I may.

Politicians are increasingly held in contempt and a declining percentage of people feel that there is any point in voting. We should be worried about that, and many Members of the House are. Given that there is no more serious decision that politicians can make than the taking and sacrificing of human life in war and the unleashing of the ugliness of war, which no matter how justified is always an ugly thing, our democracy is surely deeply flawed when the people whom the public elect have no power to approve or disapprove the deployment of our armed forces.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): The right hon. Lady is giving some very good constitutional reasons for
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the proposed power, but is not there a very good practical reason as well—for the morale of our armed forces? There was a huge debate in this country, to which she referred, about the recent Iraq war, and there was a debate in the armed forces as well—they were discussing these issues—and the mere fact that there was a vote in the House that went one way, although not the way that I wanted, gave them the confidence to go on and do what they did. Had there not been a vote, and had the Prime Minister ignored a vote that went the wrong way, the morale of our armed forces would certainly have been severely dented.

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