Previous Section Index Home Page

Dr. Palmer: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a genuine difficulty? We have discussed the problems with having a vote very late in the process, but if we have a vote very early in the process a lot of MPs will feel that it is rather premature and that it might inflame the situation. There could be a delicate diplomatic situation and the Prime Minister of the day could have
15 May 2007 : Column 528
to go to Parliament and say, “Give me a mandate to go to war,” when there might still be a chance of peace. Does he agree that there is a genuine objective difficulty that makes it difficult to lay down in statute exactly when the vote should take place?

Mr. Gerrard: I accept that point. There are genuine difficulties about the timing. If we look not just at the Iraq war, but at some of the other military actions over the past 10 years, we see that there have been quite long build-up periods. Choosing when there should be a vote is not simple. I would not pretend for one moment that it was. But we ought to give some thought to the mechanisms for determining the timing of the vote. That will be critical in getting a procedure that works properly—if we are going to have parliamentary involvement. I am not suggesting for one minute that I have a simple, easy answer, but it is a key point.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Should not the rights and responsibilities of Parliament extend not just to the resolution to deploy into an area of armed conflict? Should it not have the right to monitor what subsequently happens? Perhaps it could appoint a bespoke Select Committee to monitor what happens in the conflict and post conflict. In situations such as Iraq, when Parliament knows that it is potentially on a countdown to deployment to armed conflict, such a bespoke Select Committee could be formed and could help to determine when parliamentary votes were required and when debates were appropriate.

Mr. Gerrard: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is obviously one possible mechanism. In terms of scrutiny, there seems to be no problem with Select Committees choosing to look at what is happening. The real problem is that debate is not taking place in the House as a whole. We have had relatively little debate in the past two or three years about what is going on within Iraq, when it is clearly of immense importance and when there are many, many Members who are seriously concerned about what is happening. But that is a slightly different issue: it is to do with what happens afterwards, rather than what happens at the point when we are about to take military action.

I was interested to read in the report from the House of Lords Constitution Committee some of its descriptions of what happens and what needs to happen. The Committee talked about wars “of necessity”, “of choice” and “of obligation”. A war of necessity is self-defence. If one is attacked, quite clearly one expects to defend oneself. As far as this country is concerned, it is difficult to think back to a time when that actually happened—when the trigger for war was a direct attack on this country. The Committee dismissed wars of obligation as not being a reality. It pointed out that none of the international treaties that we are signed up to forces us to take military action. Even perhaps the most obvious example, article 5 of the NATO treaty, which is the core commitment to collective self-defence in NATO, only commits each signatory to take

in the event of an attack on another. In the end, the sovereign country still decides whether to take military action.

15 May 2007 : Column 529

In every case, the military action that we are involved in, and have been involved in over quite a long period of time, has been the result of choice. It was a political choice to be involved in military action in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq—the major military actions over the past 10 years. It cannot be suggested, as some tried when we discussed parliamentary involvement a year or two ago, that if Parliament had been involved, it would have given the game away and alerted the enemy that we would be involved in military action, because every example involved a significant build-up period. In most, although not all, of those cases, military conflict did not involve the UK going it alone because either we were in a coalition, or the action took place under the auspices of UN resolutions.

I am glad that there is recognition that some of the objections that were raised in the past were rather spurious and that we have reached a position in which we will today agree the principle that we need to find a different mechanism. I understand the argument that a convention could be more flexible than legislation and that a workable convention might be easier to achieve. I remember from drafting my private Member’s Bill that it is really difficult to get all the detail right and to think of all situations that might arise so that they can be covered. The key issue is that there should be substantive votes. We need a mechanism that will ensure that substantive votes take place in the House and that the House can have a degree of control over the timing of votes. Those are the two things that we should be looking for from the consultation that will take place as a result of this debate.

6.41 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Supply days usually make very little difference, and I often wonder why we are always on a three-line Whip for such debates because the Opposition always get voted down by the Government and, apparently, very little ever changes. However, this will clearly be an historic occasion—the earth has moved. Governments have declared war, which is arguably the most important thing that they have to do, in a certain way for centuries, but, apparently, as a result of the motion moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), both sides of the House have had a Damascene conversion this week and decided that Parliament should be allowed to have a say on all future occasions. As several hon. Members have said, there is very little difference between the motion and the amendment. This is an historic occasion, and I hope that, for once, when the newspapers are printed tomorrow, they will note that.

On that bipartisan note, we can all be very pleased, but why has this happened? I do not think that anyone can deny that there has been a massive breakdown in trust in the Government’s word to Parliament. We must be very careful about what we say because we do not want to be ruled out of order, but everyone knows that that breakdown has happened.

We have heard a lot of talk about how the historic prerogative of the Crown is rather old-fashioned and how no one believes in it any more, but there was
15 May 2007 : Column 530
overwhelming public support for what Governments were doing in all wars before the Iraq war, which was declared in March 2003. We only have to think back to the days before the declaration of war in 1914 to recall that there was overwhelming support among the public and in the House and massive demonstrations were held. There was a feeling that we were absolutely right to go to war because the independence and neutrality of Belgium had been violated. The mood in 1939 was much more sombre, but it was absolutely united. We felt that while we had given Germany every opportunity to try to maintain peace, owing to our desperate experience of the first world war and our desire to avoid war, we had to go to war. Although there was some opposition to the Falklands war, there was basically a united House of Commons and united public opinion on that much smaller war, which happened after the sovereignty of part of the United Kingdom was grossly violated by an invasion. While all those wars drew support, there was one important exception: Suez. That rather proves the point.

We should not dismiss what happened in the past as being rather old-fashioned, but accept that before the events of March 2003 the system worked really quite well. Prime Ministers did not act alone irrespective of public opinion. The truth is that they acted in line with public opinion—they almost had no choice. During the events of May 1940, Winston Churchill said that if the Government had tried to resist public opinion, they would have been physically dragged from office.

Dr. Palmer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leigh: No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman has made a lot of interventions and he will be able to make his speech in his own way.

We cannot brush aside the serious events of March 2003. The motion for which we voted—I must admit that I voted against it, not for it, and most people were misled by it—made it absolutely clear that we were going to war because there was a direct threat to this nation. The motion cited numerous United Nations resolutions and stated explicitly that the war was a just war. A just war is a war into which a country is forced against its will to defend itself. We were told in March 2003 that we had to go to war because we were faced with a dictator who was out of control, who had the third or fourth biggest army in the world, who had weapons of mass destruction and who was a real and potent threat to the region.

At that time, numerous people—I and many others who were far more knowledgeable than I was about opinion in the Arab world—raised their voices about the risks, while many people with huge experience in our diplomatic service warned the Government that invading a sovereign Arab nation would, far from solving the problems of terrorism, grossly exacerbate the problems. All those voices have been proved right. However, everyone in the House, even those who voted against the war, believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Those who voted against the war believed in deterrence and thought that as the concept of deterrence had always worked in the past, it would work in this case. We believed that even if he had weapons of mass destruction, he would never dare use them. We need not rehearse all the arguments that were
15 May 2007 : Column 531
made at the time. We accepted the word of the Government, but that word simply was not right. There were no weapons, which is why we must accept that there has been a massive breakdown in trust.

We can argue that that is now all history. In a sense, this debate has been a rather friendly academic exercise. We have talked about history and while, of course, the Government will never apologise for what happened, they have half-apologised and said that they acted in good faith. However, while we have made progress in that we all apparently accept that the decision was difficult and that votes must take place in the future, as they did then, the terrible aspect of what we are debating is that the situation continues. Fifteen of our soldiers have been killed in the past year alone. As a result of the decision to invade Iraq, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have died, yet otherwise they would still be alive. They died yesterday, they are dying today and they will die tomorrow.

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that scaling back the Crown prerogative by ensuring that parliamentary approval was required before engaging in armed conflicts would help to clarify our war aims from the outset? Clear, unequivocal war aims would ensure that we avoid the sort of mission creep that is taking place in Afghanistan, where a war that started to root out the Taliban is fast becoming a counter-productive campaign to eradicate poppies. Does my hon. Friend agree that, regardless of which party is in office, rolling back Crown prerogative would mean better decision making, greater clarity and less muddle?

Mr. Leigh: Of course I agree with that. To turn briefly to the subject of Afghanistan, apparently everybody assumes that there is broad support for what is going on there, but looking at the history of Afghanistan and our previous involvement there, I have enormous doubts about what is happening in that country. I have doubts about whether we will ever resolve the situation, and whether we will ever defeat the Taliban, their successors, or the successors of their successors, because once again we are being sucked into a vortex of military operations in an Arab country. Of course my hon. Friend is right. Apparently, we are all in agreement on the problem: in future, we must have a resolution before we go to war. However, there are still enormous doubts about how to ensure that that happens.

Where I part company from many people in the House—I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have to say this—is that I believe that we need another vote on whether we should stay in Iraq. As I said to the Leader of the House, to the Prime Minister last week and to the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday, although the point was constantly brushed aside, the situation has changed fundamentally. We went into Iraq because we feared for the security of the region, and we believed that the country’s Government was a threat to the region. We now justify our continued presence by saying that we are asked to be there by the democratically elected Government, and we say that we will stay there as long as is necessary. However, there has been very little debate in the House about what is actually going on Iraq, and what little debate has taken place has had to be forced on the Government.

15 May 2007 : Column 532

We all know that, in reality, the writ of Iraq’s ostensibly democratic Government hardly extends beyond the green zone. We face the same situation that we faced in Vietnam and in many other wars: our Government and the American Government are desperately finding an excuse to get out. The excuse will be that we have somehow resolved the security situation, and that the democratically elected Government of Iraq is happy for us to scale down our forces, but we all know that that is simply not true. We all know that there is a complete and desperate mess out there. None of us has any time for what Saddam Hussein did, and we all know that he was a ruthless and desperate tyrant, but we have enormous sympathy for ordinary Iraqi people. When I visited Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power, those people were going about their business. They were running their little stalls in the marketplace in some semblance of peace and security, but now they are living in a vortex of violence. Our troops are still there, and it appears that no Government Member has the courage to come before the House and say, “It’s all over. The mission has failed; it simply has not worked, and we are going to get out.”

As I said yesterday to the Secretary of State for Defence—my point was brushed aside—we all know that the incoming Prime Minister will get us out of Iraq before the general election. It is inconceivable that British troops will still be in Iraq at the time of the next general election. Any Government that still had troops in Iraq at the time of a general election would be swept aside by our electorate. Such is the complete breakdown in trust, and such is the opposition of the British people to our continuing presence in Iraq, that whatever happens, and whatever the security situation on the ground, our troops will leave. For that reason, the process is subject to an arbitrary timetable of three, or more probably two, years.

Is there any sensible debate? No. Is any real intelligence coming out of Iraq? We are told, of course, that we are doing terribly well in the southern part of the country, although the Americans are having all sorts of problems, and we are told that we are gradually withdrawing, but we have not actually been told what has been happening in the provinces from which we have withdrawn. We all know that gradually a strong military or political force will take over as we leave. Apparently, we will now withdraw to the airport, but does anyone think that a country can be run from an airport? The reason we are withdrawing to the airport is to try to reduce our casualties. It means that we can maintain the political fiction that we are still in the country and are sustaining the Government, and that everything is all right. We are stuck in the airport. Armies that retreat to airports are armies that are leaving the country.

The only way we can run Iraq is by having many more British troops there. We would need not 5,000, but 10,000, 15,000 or 20,000 troops on the ground throughout the southern part of the country. Is there any real discussion of the subject? Is there a vote? There is nothing. We are deluding ourselves. When we leave, one of two things will happen: either there will be complete chaos and civil war, or some strong man will take charge. We are all apparently agreed that terrible mistakes were made in the aftermath of the invasion,
15 May 2007 : Column 533
that we should have left the Iraqi army in place, that we should have left Ba’athists in charge of the army, and that we should have got out within three months—and there were all the prison scandals, too. However, that is all said with hindsight. At the end of the day, a strong man will emerge, and it will not be the present bunch of corrupt politicians who are sheltering in the green zone, and who have just awarded themselves a two-month summer recess while American troops are dying in the streets trying to protect them. Incidentally, there is a lot of disquiet in America about that.

Why do we not have the courage to hold another vote, or to start doing what the United States Congress is doing? Ours is now one of the weakest Parliaments in the western world. The United States Congress is applying massive pressure to the American Administration. Negotiations continue daily, and votes are threatened that would cut off President Bush’s supply; he is having to negotiate his way out of that impasse. Here, we are brushed aside with soft words. We are told, “The Prime Minister says that we are in Iraq at the behest of its Government”, and we are told that we are making progress, but no details are given.

There are no intelligence reports, just as there were no intelligence reports before the war, and I suspect that there is actually very little intelligence. Before the war, we all imagined that the Government were equipped with massive amounts of sophisticated intelligence, and that there were agents on the ground informing the Government what was happening. I do not believe that that sophisticated intelligence is out there at the moment. I think that the Government’s intelligence on what is happening in the provinces that we have vacated is very weak indeed. The Government are flying by the seat of their pants, and they have no idea what will happen; they simply want to get out. Why do we not have the courage to have another vote in Parliament, or to do what other self-respecting legislators have had the courage to do and say, “It’s all over”?

Iraq is not worth the life of another British soldier. It does not matter whether we get out next month, in a year’s time or in two years’ time; Iraq will find its own way, and that is the right way. I cannot understand why we have a sort of intellectual imperialism as regards Arab people and the Muslim world, or why we think that we are entitled to impose our ideas of western liberal democracy. Of course, in this House, we all believe that those ideas are superior, but do we have no idea what is going through the mind of ordinary Iraqis, apart from those few politicians sheltering in the green zone? Do we really imagine that we are popular in Iraq? I know that there is a division of opinion on that, and that some people would perhaps like us to stay, but fundamentally, most people are opposed to what we want, and opposed to our way of life. They see violence around them, and they want us to get out. The days of us imposing our views on those people are over.

This is a great debate, and we have made enormous progress. As a result of a massive breakdown in trust, there will be no more wars that commit us in the way Iraq did. However, the time has come for another vote—a vote calling for an immediate, ordered withdrawal of British troops, so that the Iraqi people,
15 May 2007 : Column 534
and the Iraqi Government, whatever shape or form they take—military, semi-democratic, Shi’a, Sunni or Kurd—can find their own way to peace and justice, according to their own lights. Let us have another vote, and let us get ourselves out of this mess.

6.59 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): In response to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), I do not think that the debate has a great deal to do with Iraq specifically. Indeed, Iraq shows the limitations of what we are doing today. I also do not think that the debate has much to do with Afghanistan. I slightly question the hon. Gentleman’s expertise, as he seems to think that Afghanistan is an Arab country. It is not.

I shall explore in my speech the limitations of what we are doing today. To some extent, we have all been in agreement and we have made matters too easy for ourselves. I accept what everybody has said so far, that the issue is extremely important, and that we are making a very important change to the democratic tradition in Britain. It is a good change and it is overdue. I pay tribute to hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and others who are not present. I also draw attention to my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who tabled motion 27 on the Order Paper, which I guess he can now withdraw because it is essentially identical to what we are about to approve today.

The background to this debate is the increasing public scepticism over the involvement of Britain in international affairs to anything like the extent to which we have been accustomed in recent years. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who spoke earlier, is a vigorous supporter of Britain punching above its weight. There was a recent opinion poll that specifically asked, “Are you in favour of Britain punching above its weight?” A substantial majority said, “No, we are not. We are against Britain getting too much involved.” That is a serious issue for all of us.

We can all think of conflicts on which we disagree. For some it might be Suez, for some it might be Iraq, for some it might be a number of conflicts. Similarly, unless we are pacifists, we can all think of occasions when we would like Britain to intervene or to have intervened in the past. Many people feel that we ought to be intervening in Darfur. There are some who feel that we should be intervening in Zimbabwe or in Burma. There is always a debate on these topics and there is always a case for intervention. It is sobering that we have come to a point where the public on the whole say, “I don’t care if there is a good case for it. We don’t want to get involved.” In what we are doing today and in subsequent discussions, we need to try to rebuild the process to the point that the public accept that if that process is gone through in the correct way, we will reach a reasonable basis on which to intervene overseas.

Next Section Index Home Page