British MPs have just approved the use of Syria airstrikes against ISIS. 397 Members of Parliament voted in favour of airstrikes, with 223 opposed. The debate in the House of Commons lasted more than ten hours, with some MPs reportedly close to tears by the end of it.
The thing is though, even if Parliament had totally opposed this action, it would still have been legal for Cameron to bomb the hell out of ISIS if he wanted to. Even so, there’s no way he would have dared oppose Parliament’s decision on Syria airstrikes. Scenes explains.
There’s no law in the UK saying that a Government has to listen to its Parliament on whether to go to war or not. The United Nations Security Council approved a resolution to “take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law” to combat ISIS. This means Britain could have legally joined France in interpreting “all necessary measures” as meaning military action in self-defence with Syria airstrikes. Britain could have done this even if the UK Parliament had voted against airstrikes.
We can be sure, however, that Cameron almost definitely wouldn’t have ignored Parliament if it had voted against Syria airstrikes, because of our democracy. Recent years have cemented an expectation that makes it difficult for a British Prime Minister to go to war without Parliament’s direct consent.
This trend goes back to the decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003, led by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. It’s commonly thought by people who remember the early 2000s more for Pokémon than for possibly illegal wars that the war with Iraq was all about 9/11. In actual fact, the UK and US had agreed in the mid-1990s that from their point of view it would be nice if Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein wasn’t leader anymore.
Exactly why the US and UK wanted Hussein gone deserves an explainer of its own, but the next section gives you just a taste of the issues that led to the war. All you need to know to understand this current explainer, is that at the time a lot of important people thought that an invasion of Iraq by the US and UK would be illegal. By illegal, we mean in breach of international law.
Under the United Nations Charter, the use of force (going to war or using military force) by a state is not allowed except in specific circumstances. A state can use force either in self-defence, or if every member of the United Nations Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US) says it’s OK. Many British MPs felt that neither of these things applied to the case of Iraq. Over a million people protested in Britain against the this ‘illegal war’ in 2003.
A year after the US and UK invaded Iraq, the Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan explicitly said the war was illegal because it went against the United Nations charter. However, he apparently did not say anything this clear when the UK was actually deciding whether to go to war. If you want to get a brief idea of why the US and UK wanted this later-declared illegal war, read the next section. If you don’t have time, skip to the next section for now and come back to us when you do.
The US and UK had supported Saddam during his Iraqi war with Iran back in the 1980s. However, the US then began expressing concerns that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. Then the attacks on the World Trade Centre happened in September 2001. The US and UK governments linked Saddam’s regime with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. The worry, they said, was that if Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, then these could be shared with terrorists and used against the West. In his speeches, Prime Minister Tony Blair emphasised the murderous dictatorship that Saddam Hussein was leading in Iraq.
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was running a brutal regime. However Mr. Blair’s description of life under Saddam could have applied to any violent dictatorship around the globe, and he wasn’t suggesting that Britain intervene in any other country to liberate its people. It’s also important to mention that no weapons of mass destruction were found once Iraq had been invaded. The Chilcot Report is expected next year to explain what evidence Mr. Blair had of these weapons existing the first place.
There is widespread speculation that there were a few other reasons why the US and UK were interested in getting rid of Saddam Hussein. This is the part that needs its own explainer, and the concrete evidence is frustratingly fuzzy. It’s not as simple as the US wanting control of Iraq’s oil. However, it could be argued that the United States felt entitled to protect its own security (as a country reliant on oil to function) through ensuring that the part of the world holding much of the world’s oil reserves – the Middle East – was run by US-friendly faces.
Like we said, a lot of important people thought the US and UK had no legal leg to stand on when it came to invading Iraq and getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Under pressure from his party, Labour leader Tony Blair made history by calling a Parliamentary vote on invading Iraq.
The Guardian at the time explained why this made constitutional history:
“Over the centuries, the decision to go to war has rested, first, with kings alone, then with monarchs in the privy council, more recently with the council acting on the advice of the prime minister … Yesterday, all this took a fresh twist. Though the formal prerogative power to declare war remains with the Crown, the de facto authority passed yesterday to MPs.”
So in plain English: the actual legal power to decide whether to go to war still 100% sat with the Government. By calling a vote in Parliament, however, Mr. Blair had symbolically handed that decision making power over to elected Members of Parliament. It was symbolic because the vote would not be legally binding: Whatever the result of the vote, the law still said Mr. Blair could do what we wanted as Prime Minister. It was much more than symbolic, however, because Mr. Blair made it clear in his speeches that he would treat the vote as politically binding, and would resign if Parliament voted against the war. So while in law Parliament still had no power over war or peace, in reality they had all the power.
Mr. Blair won the vote – although many of his own party and the Liberal Democrats rebelled against him. Almost unanimous support from the Conservative Party gave political legitimacy to the invasion of Iraq.
This political legitimacy was badly needed by the British government. Remember – there was still the question of pesky international law that some still thought Blair was breaking.
From then on, there has been an increasingly solid expectation – or convention, as it’s known – that any decision to go to war should be put to a Parliamentary vote.
The real test of this convention came in 2013. At this point, the current civil war in Syria had been going on for two years.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron called a vote in Parliament on whether to intervene with Syria airstrikes against authoritarian leader Bashar al-Assad. Leader of the opposition Ed Miliband led a defeat of this proposition to bomb Syria: The war in Iraq had not gone well and learning from this the Labour leader insisted it was better to consider the concrete evidence against a dictator before bombing him.
Here’s the important bit: The vote in Parliament had been lost. Even though it would still have been within his rights as Prime Minister to use Syria airstrikes, David Cameron accepted the vote and agreed not to intervene. This 2013 vote cemented the convention, which began with the vote on Iraq in 2003, that it is up to Parliament to decide on matters of war and peace.
Does this mean decisions to go to war are more democratic? The Members of Parliament who vote on whether to go to war are democratically elected representatives of the people. So we can expect their votes on war to represent the will of the people. Is that what happened in the most recent vote on airstrikes in Syria against ISIS?
A poll shows that 46% of Englanders and 72% of Scottish people oppose airstrikes. 64% of all Members of Parliament voted in favour of airstrikes, with all 54 Scottish National Party Members of Parliament voting against the airstrikes.
Another poll suggested that 75% of Labour members opposed airstrikes in Syria against ISIS. 67 out of 231 Labour Members of Parliament voted against airstrikes: that’s 29%. Polls don’t tell you everything – but it’s interesting to ask these sorts of questions.
Another question is whether we should think about making this convention into law. It currently seems the logical thing to do. However it’s a tough and complicated decision because we have to consider what sort of military intervention will be encountered in the future – did someone say cyberwarfare??? – and whether it is always in the national interest to take this time consuming approach to warfare.
We have also seen over the years that these debates can morph into political sparring between parties and individuals looking to score points. This can distract from the actual debate on the pros and cons of military engagement.
As it stands, for now, the convention is pretty solid. What would it take for a Prime Minister to break this convention, and go to war without Parliament’s backing?