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Commons vote on Syria

Four questions answered.

Tomorrow the House of Commons will vote on whether to take military action in Syria. Ahead of the vote, Dr Hannah White answers four questions about Parliament’s involvement in decisions to commit to military action.

Can the Government go ahead with military action in Syria without parliamentary approval? Technically, yes. As we have clarified previously, “The power to commit troops in armed conflict is one of the remaining Royal Prerogatives – that is powers that are derived from the Crown rather than conferred on them by Parliament.” This means that the PM has a constitutional right to decide when to authorise military action. But in reality that would be politically very dangerous. The convention that the Commons should have an opportunity to debate military action has become ever more entrenched in recent years. In 2011, the Government said it would observe this convention except in an emergency, and this principle was subsequently included in the Cabinet Manual. The PM has also demonstrated his intention not to proceed without parliamentary approval, simply through his reluctance to schedule a vote without reasonable certainty that it would be won. As Jeremy Corbyn has indicated he will allow Shadow Cabinet members to vote according to their personal views in a free vote, that victory now seems likely. What is the process for securing parliamentary approval? As mentioned above, there is no codified requirement for the Government to seek approval before taking military action. Recently, votes on military action have involved what are known as ‘substantive motions’: votes which express an opinion or take a decision, but have not necessarily explicitly sought to authorise military action. For example, the 2013 motion on Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons included a statement that a subsequent vote would be required to authorise military action. This time the extended discussion over whether the UK should become involved in the bombing of Syria has allowed time for a number of other parliamentary scrutiny mechanisms to come into play. For example, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) last month set out tests to be met before it would support UK involvement in Syria. Then, by directly responding to the FAC’s tests, the PM highlighted the perceived importance of the debate. FAC Chair Crispin Blunt’s subsequent change of position, from cautious to supportive, was also judged by commentators to be significant. The Government then also held an unusually long (2 hour 40 minute) PM question session in the House last week to try to persuade backbenchers. Is there any precedent about whether votes on military commitments are free or whipped? Lack of agreement within the Shadow Cabinet about Labour policy on military action in Syria led to a debate over whether it ought to give MPs a free vote or whip the vote. The parliamentary convention on free votes has been that they are appropriate when MPs are voting on matters of conscience rather than party policy. On matters of policy, a whipped vote would be completely normal. The 2013 vote on Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, which the government unexpectedly lost by 13 votes had been whipped. But the issue now is whether a decision to commit armed forces – whether sending in bombs, drones or troops - ought to be a matter of conscience or a matter of policy. What kind of military action now requires a parliamentary debate? As with any convention, this all depends on how the Government wants to interpret past precedent. Historically – during the First and Second World Wars, for example - conflicts saw parliamentary debate normally only once military action was already underway. Over time, motions have been increasingly debated prior to military action, and have therefore become considered politically necessary in order to commit troops. During the conflict in Kosovo throughout the late 1990s, concern was expressed about the Government’s reluctance to hold a debate on a substantive motion in Parliament. In relation to Afghanistan, there were a number of statements and debates on the deployment of British troops, but there was no government-tabled motion allowing the House to express its view. However, the subsequent Iraq conflict in 2003 saw not only a specific motion authorising British action, but also the political precedent that the PM had indicated he could not commit troops without that support. Since that time, while the majority of military deployments have been subject to prior parliamentary approval, some have not. In 2013, military assets were deployed in Mali without prior parliamentary approval. The Government justified this saying it was in response to an emergency request, in support of a UN Security Council Resolution, and British forces were not deployed in a combat role. The House of Commons Library suggests that on the basis of recent military operations, prior approval is now required when military action is taken “in an offensive capacity” and/or “is premeditated”.  Retrospective approval is required when military action is taken to “prevent a humanitarian catastrophe” and/or “to protect a critical national interest". But these are by no means clear cut thresholds - the range of possible military actions varies widely and the circumstances in which emergency action might be taken to secure ‘critical national interests’ without prior approval could be broadly interpreted. This lack of clarity has led some observers to argue that the convention should be codified by resolution or legislation. But as with all the grey areas of our Constitution, there are many complexities (explained in detail here) that make codification difficult.

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