A MORE DEMOCRATIC BRITAIN WOULD HANDLE THIS VERY DIFFERENTLY
Today, and unless the House of Commons springs a complete surprise, Britain will join many other countries in committing to military action against Islamic State (IS).
Unlike those other countries, however, Britain will not allow government to take military action unless or until approval has been granted by a Parliamentary vote.
Even then, British forces will be limited to operations in Iraq, and will not be allowed to strike IS in its heartland across the border in Syria. This puts Britain into a ridiculous position.
The naïve might argue that the requirement for a vote proves that Britain is more democratic than her partners. In fact, the opposite is true. It is the effective functioning of democracy in countries like America and France which permits action to be taken by the government alone. That a vote is required in Westminster shows just how undemocratic Britain has now become.
Let’s be clear about how, in a democracy, this should work. The authority to take military action is vested in government, not least because it is simply not practical to vote, stage by stage, on the conduct of a war.
The vital role of Parliament is to review, after the event, the actions of ministers, holding them to account if things go wrong. If Barack Obama’s strategy proves mistaken, Congress won’t hesitate to pass judgment, and a similar process applies in France.
This is how it used to operate in Britain. Indeed, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was removed from office in wartime because Parliament judged that the government had bungled the intervention in Norway in 1940. (Ironically, of course, Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill, had been the real architect of the Norwegian operation).
After the 2003 Iraq invasion turned into the disaster that many had predicted from the outset, however, successive governments, and Parliament, dropped the ball. In a functioning democracy, Parliament would have reviewed the Iraq operation and passed judgment on the conduct of ministers and officials, holding individuals responsible if this were deemed appropriate.
Instead, government and Parliament have failed to carry out this responsibility.
More than a decade after the event, the public is still waiting for answers about Iraq. This necessarily creates grave mistrust, and has contributed to the widening of the gulf between governing and governed. This, fundamentally, is why a Parliamentary vote is now required.
It is, of course, hardly surprising that the Labour government chose not to investigate its own conduct, but this duty should have fallen on Parliament, not ministers. That MPs failed to force an investigation shows just how far the House of Commons has become subordinate to the executive. What is more surprising, on the face of it, is that the coalition administration hasn’t sought to hold its predecessors to account.
The unavoidable conclusion has to be that, irrespective of which party is in office, real power is exercised by closed coterie of ministers and officials which has a collective desire to prevent the investigation of their conduct. This conclusion is reinforced by the observation, set out in my previous article, that the governance of Britain suffers from a grave lack of accountability.
They do these things better in more democratic countries.