Today, Parliament has been recalled over the Syria crisis. Here’s a brief overview of the history of parliamentary responses to military interventions.
For many wars prior to 1914, Parliament often didn’t debate the start of a conflict and often Parliament wasn’t sitting or was prorogued when many of the conflicts broke out. Parliament could hold the government to account for these interventions through the occasional oral question, by votes of confidence and voting through the government’s estimates for army and navy expenditures. Occasionally, governments were defeated in the Commons for their performance during conflicts but this is entirely distinct from questioning whether they should have gone to war or not in the first place.
At the start of the First World War there were these curt exchanges on the 28th of July 1914.The next day a few questions were asked about the war and its financial footing and the day after further updates were requested. But these are not debates. No view was sought from the House of Commons about the war.
The outbreak of the Second World War was started with a debate on a business motion to deal with the running of the war, but the Commons didn’t debate the war itself. The House of Lords received a statement from the Foreign Secretary about the war and then some of the grandees in the House put their views forward. The Houses were kept up to date with further statements later on. But the House was not a participant.
The Korean War started on the 25th of June 1950. The next day, the Prime Minister was asked a question about the invasion in the Commons (which had been due to sit that day) and the day after further information was requested followed later on by a full statement. The House of Lords sat that day and both statements were repeated. Constant updates continued after British troops were deployed until the 5th of July when the Commons debated the government motion “That this House fully supports the action taken by His Majesty’s Government in conformity with their obligations under the United Nations Charter, in helping to resist the unprovoked aggression against the Republic of Korea.” After a long debate, the Commons supported the motion without a vote.
The government wanted the House’s blessing in the endeavour, perhaps because of the nature of post-war foreign policy.
When the Suez Crisis erupted, after a question in the Commons, the prime minister made a statement during a debate on a motion for the adjournment which was later resumed after the prime minister had more information. The motion “That the House do now adjourn” doesn’t really allow for a view of the House to be decided but Labour forced a vote anyway. The government ‘won’ the support of the House 270-218. In the House of Lords, only a statement was heard with some questions put to the government.
While the Commons was given a voice by the adjournment debate, the government avoided the Commons being able to express a corporate view through a substantive motion like the Korean vote before. Despite this, the Labour Party still tried to put its view on the record before the intervention occurred and to make the point that the country was not unanimous.
The government kept Parliament updated on progress. On the 1st of November, only after British troops had entered the fray, a raucus statement was made and a debate was finally had on the opposition motion “That this House deplores the action of Her Majesty’s Government in resorting to armed force against Egypt in clear violation of the United Nations Charter, thereby affronting the convictions of a large section of the British people, dividing the Commonwealth, straining the Atlantic Alliance, and gravely damaging the foundations of international order.“. After much debate, the government managed to amend the motion by around 322-255 to say that “That this House approves of the prompt action taken by Her Majesty’s Government designed to bring hostilities between Israel and Egypt to an end and to safeguard vital international and national interests, and pledges its full support for all steps necessary to secure these ends.“
In the Lords they didn’t have an equivalent motion; a debate was had merely calling attention to the government’s statement and moving for papers (a strange anachronism which is a procedural device used to let the person who started the debate speak again at the end; even if pushed to a vote, no ‘papers’ are ever expected to be given). This long debate too ended in a vote where the government ‘won’ the support of the House 82-30.
The Gulf War in 1991 was debated on a government adjournment motion which, again, was ‘won’ by the government 534-57. This motion was understood by many MPs to indicate parliamentary approval for the government in the event that Britain intervened in the war. The lack of agreement over the meaning of the motion again indicates the reason why such motions are used by governments – the will of parliament is unclear even after the vote, weakening opposition to the motion. Two days later, a statement was made after hostilities began.
The next military intervention was the Bombing of Iraq in 1998. On the 16th of November, both Houses of Parliament heard a statement explaining why military action had been authorised (but was not used thanks to Iraq backing down). A month later, bombing was authorised again and the next day each House heard a statement and the Commons debated the intervention on an adjournment motion. Those opposed to the war were deprived of even a vote on the adjournment because no members were appointed as tellers for the yes vote – because no one was appointed to count those voting yes, the vote failed to be held.
In the build-up to the Kosovo Intervention in 1998, the war merited only statements in the House of Lords initially with the House of Commons receiving statements after it returned from recess. Upon the exercise of military force in March 1999, the Foreign Secretary introduced an adjournment debate in the Commons on the deployment of British forces; again, no vote was actually held but this time it was because those opposed failed to push it to a vote by accepting the Deputy Speaker’s gathering of the voices (that bit where everyone shouts ‘aye’ or ‘no’). The House of Lords was content with a debate on the motion that the House ‘take note’ of the situation in Kosovo. There was also a statement in both Houses and a Commons adjournment debate after the policy changed the next month. This time, those opposed managed to vote but the division was declared invalid after less than forty members voted.
After the September 11th Attacks, the War in Afghanistan began; over the course of two months three recalls of Parliament were orchestrated, with each update consisting of statements in each House, an adjournment debate in the Commons and a ‘take-note’ debate in the Lords. While some members sought a substantive vote on the deployment, they were unsuccessful although the war did receive much debate in the Commons. The House finally was able to debate and vote on the deployment on the 9th of September 2010 when the House voted 310-14 in favour of the motion that “That this House supports the continued deployment of UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan“.
The continued use of the adjournment motion showed that MPs were keen to express themselves on military deployments, and the government had to keep resorting to parliamentary tactics to avoid members expressing themselves through a vote (even one that didn’t really mean anything) but it was only in 2003 that the sheer divisions in the governing Labour party forced the Prime Minister to allow a Commons vote on a substantial motion.
In the months before the War in Iraq, parliament was kept up-to-date with many statements (including one recall in the usual format of statements then adjournment/take-note debates) and after much pressure, the government conceded a Commons vote on a substantive motion to approve military action in Iraq before it began – thanks in large part to the Leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook. This long debate and vote took place on the 18th of March with the government voting down the amendment by 396-217 and winning the final vote by 412-149. The final motion was much more complex than the previous motions approving military action and runs to nearly 400 words. Meanwhile in the Lords, a similarly long debate was held on a simple take-note motion. This was the first occasion since the 1950s a substantive motion was debated on military action.
The next intervention was the Libyan Intervention in 2011, where a statement was given to the House of Commons at the first available opportunity (the 18th of March) about the UN resolution. The House of Lords was given an updated statement the Monday it returned (21st of March) and the Commons had a debate and vote on a long-winded motion to support the already-began Libyan Intervention.
This brings us up-to-date with the potential Syrian Intervention debate today. The government has backed down on asking for support for military action today and has instead tabled a motion supporting military action to deter the use of chemical weapons after a further Commons vote. The opposition is intending (as of this moment anyway) to push for its own amendment demanding that the intervention be time-limited, that a UN-vote must be held, and that the evidence against Assad must be compelling. The Lords is, again, debating a take-note motion. I’m uncertain whether there will be a statement first or not, but it’ll be interesting watching.
During the Second World War the Commons managed to require the government to come before the Commons and justify any important military actions through a statement followed by questions. For a while the Commons also was invited to retrospectively debate and decide whether it approved of military deployments but for fifty years after that the government decided to ensure that any debate couldn’t end in a corporate approval or disapproval of government action, and opposition parties supported this position.
In the new post-Iraq world the Commons decided that it wants to vote on military deployments and force the government, if it wants to intervene militarily, to do so by ignoring the publicly stated view of House of Commons.
UPDATE 30/08/13: Well that was unexpected! The government’s paving motion towards war in Syria lost by 13 votes. This is absolutely unheard of and there’s not really any equivalent vote in British Parliamentary history. The closest is 1855 when the House of Lords defeated the government over its appalling conduct of the Crimean War, but like I said that’s not the same as defeating the government over whether it should go to war in the first place.
They say the former Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook, may not have stopped the War in Iraq but he did give Parliament the right to stop a future war, and it looks as that maxim has been proved correct.