The Commons should always vote before we go to war

Jan 11, 2013
Crispin Black

The campaign that has cost the Army 439 lives in Afghanistan was never endorsed by MPs

ON MONDAY, Richard Walker, a sappper from 28 Engineer Regiment, was shot by a member of the Afghan National Army at Patrol Base Hazrat - the 439th British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. 

When British troops were first committed in any numbers to Afghanistan in the summer of 2006 the news came as part of a routine MoD announcement and was never put to the vote in the Commons.

Today the despatch of British troops to war can still be authorised by the prime minister acting alone using the 'royal prerogative' – a pompous mumbo-jumbo term for what amounts to arbitrary power. Even David Cameron used to be with the programme on this one. As long ago as 2006, when Leader of the Opposition, he said that trust in politics could only be restored if MPs had the final say on sending troops to war.

On 21 March 2011, during the debate on the coalition's first military action, in Libya, Foreign Secretary William Hague gave a formal undertaking to MPs as they prepared to vote: "We will also enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting parliament on military action."

The debate was held the day after the RAF launched its first raids on Tripoli although Hague seemed sincere at the time. But as of January 2013 there is still no action, no timetable even for a law, to the chagrin of many MPs.

The signs are that the coalition are dragging their feet. The Liberal Democrat, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who speaks for the government in the Lords on foreign office matters, gave no commitment on legislation when answering questions just before Christmas. In the past few days Whitehall officials from the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office have been briefing journalists that they are struggling to come up with a workable solution.

The Falklands War was endorsed by the House of Commons on 3 April 1982 – the morning after the Argentine invasion - at the end of one of the great debates in its history and the first on a weekend since the Second World War. Parliament was behind the armed retaliation, but made it clear that if Mrs Thatcher failed she was finished.

The Iraq War was endorsed by the House of Commons on 18 March 2003. Tony Blair knew he could not despatch 40,000 troops to Iraq without the backing of the Commons. He wasn't sure that MPs would support his flimsy case for war so he 'sexed it up'. It's hard to say, but my guess is that without Blair's porkies the Commons would still have supported him, although a more honest debate might have helped avoid some of the post-war planning failures.

But it is hard to see how the hare-brained plans for deployment to Helmand in 2006 would have survived a parliamentary debate and a vote. Even some of the staff officers involved in the planning thought we were crazy to go anywhere near the place.

Some kind of formalised parliamentary control over the deployment of British forces is clearly necessary – for the protection of our troops and to discipline the thinking of both government and military. The possible benefits and unavoidable dangers need debating in the open each time.

The army I served in from 1980 to 2002 was full of pent-up military testosterone. The nearest most soldiers got to any excitement was patrolling the Falls Road in West Belfast - a depressing and grubby experience occasionally enlivened by snipers, petrol bombers or, most fun of all, a riot. Many looked longingly at the paintings on the mess wall and dreamed of the real thing, preferably somewhere hot.

Even now, after nearly seven years of the slow car-crash in Afghanistan, many officers dread the end of Operation Herrick – and a return to a dull garrison life. But the people to watch out for are the admirals – smarting from the Royal Navy's forced inactivity over the last decade. With two new giant aircraft carriers to play with they will be keen to display their Nelsonian credentials.

The legal requirement for a vote in the Commons would at the very least offer some protection against any future military adventurism.

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But the Afghanistan deployment was made because of a call under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. There is no wriggle room. The UK was committed by its obligations.