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15 May 2007 : Column 548

The war in Sierra Leone, for instance, was initially a war of necessity. We had to go into Sierra Leone to rescue some hostages, including a detachment of our own troops, and we went there with solely that function. Having succeeded in our aim—and we did very well—we stayed on, in order eventually to fight a conventional war with the rebel army and, to a great extent, to pacify Sierra Leone. Thus a war that had begun as a war of necessity ended up as a war of choice.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) shakes his head. My understanding of history may be wrong.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman’s recollection of the history is not quite sound. I hope to refer later to the pressure that was put on me by the late Member of Parliament for Livingston and by No. 10 Downing street when we tried to probe the reason for deploying our troops in Sierra Leone. If I catch the Speaker’s eye, I shall clarify the history.

Mr. Atkinson: I shall wait to have my facts corrected, but I was trying to give an example of circumstances in which matters become deeply complicated.

Let us consider other areas of conflict in the world. I think that this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer). If we were ever to intervene in areas such as Darfur and Zimbabwe, the mission could creep and we might again be faced with a rapid escalation, which could mean a second vote in Parliament and a change.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has long opposed all aspects of the royal prerogative. It is a curious animal. When the Bill of Rights removed the royal prerogative from the King and gave it to the Prime Minister, it gave the Prime Minister more power than the monarch. The monarch depended on Parliament to give him the wherewithal to fight a war; once the removal of the royal prerogative had transferred that right to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister could deliver not only commitment to the war, but the money and equipment that he needed in order to pursue it. It is curious that history has been slightly misinterpreted in that respect.

Several Members have said that too much power is centred on the Prime Minister—I see nods across the Chamber—but are we seriously talking about diminishing that power? The power of the Prime Minister has been built up for various reasons, but not the least, and one of the most crucial, is that the media always want to focus on individuals. They convey politics to a mass audience by personalising the individuals involved. They believe that the grey areas of Parliament such as Committees are of no interest, whereas personality, such as that of the Prime Minister, is important. I consider it most unlikely that we shall ever be able to row back from the presidential era in which we live.

Overshadowing the whole of our debate has been the issue of trust. That, I think, goes to the heart of the debate. Trust in Governments has been declining throughout the world for a long time. At the time of the second world war and the conflicts that followed it,
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such as the war in Korea, the natural instinct of the British people was to rally around the political leaders and our troops. The Vietnam war changed that hugely, although it did not involve us. It changed the mood in America: people saw the media, and although they were being told that the war was a fight against communism and that the interests of the South Vietnamese Government must be defended, they did not consider that to be a cause worth fighting. They did not think that the South Vietnamese Government were a desirable Government in any case, and trust in what American Presidents were saying to them broke down. That influenced many people here. Over time, we have ceased to believe anything that our leaders tell us as a result of Iraq.

If the motion is passed tonight—if the Government genuinely want to introduce this change, and are able to overcome some of the serious handicaps and reservations that may have existed—I think that it may ultimately be of great benefit to Parliament, and do something to restore the very damaged trust that the electorate have in us.

8.5 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) always speaks an enormous amount of good sense on matters such as this. I suspect from his remarks that—rather like me, and very much like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—he has real reservations about the implications of what we are debating.

Having said that, I find myself in an unenviable position in comparison with many of those who have spoken this evening. There has been a cosy agreement across the Chamber: more or less everyone who has spoken has broadly agreed with everyone else. Those who have advocated the abolition of the royal prerogative for many years—the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is present, has done so for many years, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who opened the debate with such passion—must be very satisfied by what has been happening in the Chamber today. They have witnessed a huge sea change in opinion in both parties: they have seen views, which as recently as a year or two ago were deeply unpopular with both the Government and the Conservative party, suddenly becoming the flavour of the month.

Indeed, we have heard that only 10 days ago no less a figure than the Lord Chancellor, the second most senior person in the nation, took the view that the abolition of the royal prerogative was a dreadful thing and poured cold water on it. All of a sudden, we read in no less a source than The Observer that the Chancellor of the Exchequer disagrees with his noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, and wants to do away with the royal prerogative and have war-making powers decided in this place.

I find myself in a difficult position. Those who favour abolition of the royal prerogative are very satisfied because the world has gone their way, but I
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have fought and spoken against abolition as it is proposed today for a long time. In a thesis that I wrote when I was a student at the Royal College of Defence Studies in 2003, at the time of the Iraq war, I went to great lengths to express my view that the royal prerogative was useful—I shall explain why in a moment—and that its abolition in favour of a parliamentary decision to go to war would be altogether retrograde. I advanced the same arguments during a debate about a year ago on the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, promoted by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), and that has remained my view.

As recently as this morning, I contacted the Conservative Whips to tell them that I very much regretted that I would be speaking and voting against the Conservative motion. Rather curiously, had that been the case, I should have found myself speaking and voting also against the Labour amendment. I might have ended up in a minority of one—not a position that would give me any great discomfort, but it would have been difficult.

The difficulty that I have encountered is that, having listened carefully to superb speeches by, for instance, my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and for Kensington and Chelsea and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, I have increasingly been led by the two central arguments they have advanced to review my dyed-in-the-wool opposition to a parliamentary decision on going to war. The first of those arguments is that the powers of Parliament have been systematically reduced and sidelined by this Government, and that a convention that was introduced to control the over-mighty monarchs of the middle ages has swung so far to the other extreme that we now have an over-mighty Executive.

It has been said that Parliament has been sidelined to a significant degree in a variety of areas, of which that of war-making powers is, perhaps, the most significant. That is the case. I accept that the Chancellor says that he is determined to reinvent the powers of Parliament, but there is a powerful series of arguments about what has happened to the powers of Parliament to decide on a variety of matters and how Parliament has progressively become sidelined in recent years. I am also persuaded by the populist argument that of all the things that we do in this place—and of all the things that the nation does—going to war and committing our boys and girls to risking their lives is the most significant, and that it is increasingly an anomaly that this great House of Commons, which is the mother of Parliaments, has no say over whether that should occur.

Those two central arguments have been expressed by a variety of contributors to the debate. They are powerful arguments, and despite my previous opposition to abolishing the royal prerogative in this area, they are beginning to persuade me not to do what I warned my Whips I would do: vote against the motion.

I am also helped in changing my mind by our discussions on the means by which this step would be taken. I had previously imagined the new measure to be very like the Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, in that it would require a
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decision on any form of military deployment whatever to come before the House. That would be bad for a variety of reasons which I shall explain shortly. However, in all our discussions this evening—whether they have been on some statutory obligation to discuss war-making in Parliament or on the parliamentary convention approach proposed by the House of Lords Constitution Committee—we have been talking about a gradual approach, so that there would be flexibility in the use of parliamentary authority for war-making powers rather than a dictatorial or small-minded approach.

That is a very important change. In all previous debates on this matter it had been suggested that there would be an absolute requirement that any deployment of troops anywhere in the world would require parliamentary authority. Presumably that would also apply to a significant increase in the number of troops—as has happened in Afghanistan—and to a change in the legitimisation or justification for a war resulting in our wanting to consider bringing troops home from that theatre. I would be wholly opposed to that, as it would hamper our generals and our nation, and it would prevent us from punching above our weight in the world. However, given that we have received assurances from both the Government and Opposition Benches that that would not be the case and that instead there would be a convention or a carefully worded statute that allowed some degree of latitude to the Government and the armed services, I begin to be more persuaded.

There are, however, several caveats which we ought to think about extremely carefully. The first is to do with intelligence. There has been considerable debate about the use of intelligence. It is worrying that in the run-up to the vote on the Iraq war significant use of intelligence was made. The Government produced the two dossiers. They were said to be highly secret and intelligent and very important. We now know that much of what was written in them was complete and utter nonsense. Lots of the spin in the newspapers at the time—which came, I understand, not from the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence, but from No. 10 Downing street—proved to be completely inaccurate.

Let us contemplate for a moment why the Government had to go to such lengths to spin the intelligence in the run-up to Iraq. It was not so that they could take part in the war. They had to spin and pervert the intelligence in that way because they knew that they had to win a vote in this House. In other words, the very fact that there was to be a vote meant that the intelligence was not straightforward and easy to understand; it was converted into a justification for the war. That is unhealthy. Some of the suggestions made this evening about possibly using the Intelligence and Security Committee to consider the intelligence, or of employing other means to examine it before committing to war such as by means of a committee of Privy Councillors, offer a way out of that difficulty.

However, it should be said that the intelligence that we act on when we go to war is, of course, secret and in most cases if it were revealed to this place or the public we would compromise our intelligence sources, which would be a retrograde step. There must be a way of considering the intelligence, and we must avoid the spinning of it.

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Andrew Mackinlay: Why does the hon. Gentleman have such low ambitions for this place? We could have a committee appointed not by the Prime Minister but by this place that looks into intelligence on behalf of this House, reports to this House and gives a certificate as to the veracity of the intelligence that it has received and studied.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is sensible. It might be possible for us to set up some such structure—some form of truly secret committee in this place—to consider the secret intelligence and then to certify the approach to the war. That is a possible approach, although also a difficult one, as it is not easy to imagine how we could construct that. However, we must avoid the spinning and the perversion of intelligence of 2003.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) suggested that the public were at the time of the vote on Iraq very much in favour of the invasion. That is incorrect: 75 per cent of the people of this country were against an invasion of Iraq on the day on which we voted. That is in contrast to the situation in respect of Afghanistan; 70 per cent. of people were in favour of that deployment. The Government, faced by a difficult vote when they knew that the people were opposed, had to spin the intelligence in order to justify the deployment. In other words, an unpopular war requires greater spinning, particularly if there is to be a vote, but a popular war which is acceptable to the people, such as all the others, did not require that. Therefore, if we are to go down this route, there is an important question to be asked about the way that intelligence is used.

We must also think about the way in which the armed services react to this place. I did not agree with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who suggested that the armed services deployed in the field were significantly questioning the reasoning behind the Iraq war. That is not my experience from talking to the armed services. They say that they are ready to do their jobs and that people cleverer than them in this place have decided that we should carry out such operations. I have not come across generals or regular soldiers saying that they thought that the war was unpopular and that they wished they were not there. They are glad to be there, and to be doing a professional job. However, if every aspect of a deployment to a theatre of war were governed not by the Executive but by this place, and if there were detailed discussions in this place, that would encourage those deployed increasingly to question why they were in that theatre of war. There would be constant debates in this place about the rightness or wrongness of a particular war, which would encourage people to question it. I am concerned about the politicisation of warfare that might result.

Let us imagine that a Government had a majority of one, and that the war in question was unpopular but necessary. It is not right to think that all wars are popular; quite a few are unpopular but necessary. That Government, with a majority of one, would have to get involved in all kinds of political activities to achieve a majority in this place. Individual Back Benchers would demand the saving of particular accident and emergency departments, for example, if the Government were to
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get their vote. The Whips would be hyperactive and all manner of activities would be going on to achieve approval for the war.

The Opposition in question, behind by only one vote, would surely be strongly tempted to oppose the war because they would believe that they might just embarrass, or even defeat, the Government. If that Government said that they wanted a war, presumably the Opposition would see an opportunity to pick off one or two Government Back Benchers—thereby defeating the Government on the central question of going to war, for goodness’ sake—as a highly attractive proposition. In other words, an issue that ought to be dealt with through statesmanship would have been party politicised. That is another extremely difficult problem. We would need to find a way under the proposed procedure of establishing that where reasonable consensus exists on the question of going to war there should be a vote, while recognising that if there is a lack of consensus it might be much more difficult to do that. Reversion to some form of Executive prerogative, rather than royal prerogative, might be necessary.

We have touched briefly on emergencies and of course, if there is an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile, no one would suggest that there should be a vote in the House of Commons on whether we should shoot it down. That is fairly obvious, and the Executive would of course have the authority to shoot it down, but what about less dramatic but none the less important emergencies? There are a variety of situations, such as the no-fly zone in Iraq, on which an immediate decision by the Executive is important for the sake of the peace of the world. A decision by this place, especially if it involved intelligence committees and so forth, would take quite a long time to reach.

The sinking of the Belgrano springs to mind as an illustration of whether it was right for a Prime Minister to take such a decision. The Prime Minister of the day decided to sink the Belgrano and many people think that that was the wrong decision—I believe that it was the right one—but if this place had been asked whether to sink it, the ship would have been at the north pole before we had even begun to discuss the issue. There are many situations that need an urgent decision, and it would not be right to leave them to this place. What would happen, moreover, when we took part in United Nations or NATO operations or—heaven forfend, from my standpoint—if we took part in an EU operation? Might there be circumstances in which the UN or NATO sought to deploy British troops, but this place decided not to? Whom would the generals obey—their NATO commander or this place? That is a difficult issue that needs to be considered carefully.

So, although I am persuaded that the removal of parliamentary powers that we have witnessed in the past 10 years probably ought to lead us to seek to restore them by some reduction in royal prerogative, and although I am persuaded that the worry of committing our people to war is so huge that such a decision ought to be taken in this place, I none the less have very real reservations about the proposal and its operation in practice. I suspect that the risk is that, while we were satisfying ourselves on the democratic
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side, we would be undermining our capability as a force for good in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) made a powerful point in that regard when he explained how Germany is hampered by its constitution.

Contrary to what I thought this morning, although I am ready to support the Conservative party’s motion and, indeed, Labour’s amendment, as well—given that they seem to be more or less identical—I do so with significant reservations. The discussions that the Government have promised us in the months that lie ahead are vital. We must get this right if we are to continue to be the force for good in the world that our nation has always prided itself on being.

8.23 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I apologise again to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being unable to be here for the opening exchanges. I am interested in this issue, and there are two reasons why I was unable to be here, both of which are relevant. First, I had to go earlier today to the military funeral of a young man called Simon Davison, a constituent of mine who was killed in Afghanistan last week. As many Members know, such occasions bring home to us the responsibility that we feel for the circumstances that produce the tragic death of brave young men such as Simon. My feeling that I should share some direct responsibility for such occasions was reinforced by the fact that Simon’s family and the local community would expect their political representative to be involved in some way in the decisions that produced the consequences. I felt that I should be involved and that I should be held to account for the things that I had done. That event simply brought home to me the importance of the general issue that we are discussing.

The second reason for an apology is that the Public Administration Committee, which I chair, was meeting this afternoon, so I could not be here earlier. As is stated in the motion and the amendment, it was a report from our Committee in 2004, “Taming the Prerogative”, which first systematically drew Parliament’s attention to the need to tackle prerogative powers. We identified the areas that we thought needed the most urgent attention, and war-making powers were at the top of our list. They were not the only item. We also talked about, for example, the approval of treaties.

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