Monday, April 16, 2018

Why a "War Powers" act would be a seriously bad idea.

The government should always be accountable to parliament after the event for everything it does including military action.

There will be some instances where it is practical and desirable for parliament to discuss and determine in advance the principles and objectives of a potential military action.

However, the idea that the executive should always require the prior approval of parliament for any military action in any circumstances is both absurd and dangerous.

To compare Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot is grossly unfair to Michael Foot, but this Cummings cartoon first published during the Falklands war and taking the mickey out of Foot makes the point perfectly:



 I share many of the concerns of those who do not want the UK to be involved in Syria's civil war, and I think it was wise of the US, French and British governments that the action they took at the weekend was clearly aimed specifically at chemical warfare facilities and designed to minimise the risk of escalation. As I wrote on Saturday, I think that action of the kind which was actually taken was the least worst of a set of very bad options.

I can respect the view of those who thought that the action should have been put to parliament first, though on balance I don't agree with them. To get parliamentary approval the government might have had to share information which it was prejudicial to the safety of RAF personnel and to the mission's chance of success to put into the public domain - and thereby provide to the Syrian regime's forces - prior to the attack.

I cannot agree with the views of those who think there are no circumstances in which a British government might have to act without prior approval from the House of Commons. There will certainly be some circumstances where there just isn't time or where the process of getting such approval will give too much information to our enemies and put the lives of British servicemen and servicewomen at risk.

The same applies to those who say that Britain should never act without the approval of the United Nations Security council. As former attorney general Dominic Grieve told the House of Commons today, the inevitable consequence of such a policy would be that

“Any tyrant or megalomaniac, if they have support of an amoral state on the UN Security Council, could act with impunity,"

"Far from upholding the international rules based system, it would be dead.”

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"There will be some instances where it is practical and desirable for parliament to discuss and determine in advance the principles and objectives of a potential military action." - You're absolutely right, this was such a case.

Chris Whiteside said...

As I wrote above, I respect the view that this was such a case.

I think it is perfectly possible for a reasonable person to come to that conclusion.

However, on balance I incline to the opposite view because I think it would have been difficult to avoid the debate straying onto the sort of subject areas - like which targets you are going to attack - on which you don't want your thinking shared in the public domain before a military action.

Anonymous said...

So to avoid difficult questions you deny the right to question? We're not living in the 18th century at least most of us aren't.

Chris Whiteside said...

Don't be ridiculous, I didn't write anything of the sort.

As I wrote in the first line of the original post, the government should always be accountable to parliament for everything it does including military action.

The issue is not whether difficult questions can be asked, that must be possible. The issue is WHEN they can be asked.

It cannot be done in public in advance of the action where that would provide advance information to people we may be about to be shooting at, if that would put the lives of British servicemen and servicewomen at risk.

But when a government acts in advance of a parliamentary vote they should always provide an opportunity to the House to ask those questions after the action, as Theresa May did on Monday when she answered more than 140 questions over a period of several hours and as the government asked for MPs to have a further opportunity to ask such questions later this week.

This is not a new principle and I have it on good authority that most people on all sides of the House of Commons have understood it for decades, even though they may not always agree about when it applies.