Irrespective of the action taken against Syria, whether it was the right thing to do, or the wrong thing to do, either way, ought Parliament to have voted first?
Giving the decision to Parliament is no guarantee as to the wisdom of the outcome. Exceptionally, we gave the decision whether to invade Iraq to Parliament, and look how that turned out.
I say ‘exceptionally’ because giving Parliament a vote on military action is a recent innovation.
Of all the military conflicts in which we have been involved (and there are a couple of hundred since 1800), Parliament voted on three: For the Iraq war; against attacking Assad in Syria, and in favour of air strikes against Daesh in Syria; and all of these in the last two decades.
It is an innovation of which I disapprove and I am glad that it now appears to have been abandoned.
The Government is accountable to Parliament for its decisions and the conduct of military operations, but it is not obliged to ask for Parliament’s prior permission.
The job of Parliament is to make the law, and government ministers must abide by that law, just as everyone else has to.
If Parliament wants to have a veto on military operations then it must pass a law to that effect. It is nonsense to have parliamentarians complaining about not being consulted first, when they make no legislative proposals to require it in future.
Ought Parliament to legislate to give itself decision making powers over military operations?
I believe it would be folly for us to do so.
It would make us the most unreliable of allies, and unable to give assurances with respect to military plans.
It would rob us of the most important of military advantages: the ability to use surprise and to take the initiative. This weakness alone, would invite an enemy to seize the initiative in the knowledge of our likely parliamentary procrastination.
In seeking to persuade Parliament to authorise military action, governments would be tempted to share intelligence with it. This would be extremely dangerous: Intelligence is vital, but its value lies in its very secrecy; it is important that an enemy does not know what we know, and what we do not know. If they discover what we know it is a short step to figuring out how we know it, so enabling them to take preventive measures.
Of course, those who would support the principle of prior parliamentary approval for military operations would be likely to try ameliorate these difficulties by making provision for emergency action by Government when there is simply no time to wait for a Parliamentary process. Herein lies perhaps the greatest danger: Governments potentially taking precipitate action in order to justify avoiding a difficult and possibly prolonged parliamentary proceeding, even for the best of motives.
Let Government deliberate on the basis of intelligence, military and legal advice, that is what Ministers are for.
If they get it wrong, they are accountable to Parliament for their decisions. Accordingly, if Parliament wants to, it can sack the Government.