Friday, October 21, 2005

Short proposal to democratise UK declarations of war

Clare Short, the former Labour Cabinet Minister and, alongside the late Robin Cook, one of the most outspoken and high-profile Labour critics of Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq, has introduced a Private Member's Bill to the House of Commons that, if accepted, would mean that, under normal circumstances, the Prime Minister would have to seek the approval of Parliament in a formal vote before engaging in armed conflict. The Bill is set to receive its second reading today.

Opponents of the Bill put forward the fairly unimaginative arguments that such a Bill would be detrimental to national security, stopping the UK from moving quickly and decisively precisely in situations in which such action is most needed. Moreover, they state that national security further demands that legal and intelligence briefings on the situation in question must remain secret. The Bill's supporters, on the other hand, point out that the proposed law would not commit the UK to any action not already commonplace in most democracies, including the US, in which parliamentary approval, and the consequent publication of information, is commonplace. Importantly, the Bill also follows US legislation in allowing for emergency action in which ex post, and not ex ante, parliamentary approval can be sought.

Also of interest, given the recent controversy over Lord Goldsmith's briefing on the legality of an eventual war in Iraq (which, it seems, was not even made fully available to the cabinet, let alone the Parliament), a number of articles of the proposed law commit the Government to prepare a report setting out, amongst other things, "the legal authority for the proposed participation" in armed conflict. This, of course, stops well short of compelling the Government to publish all legal advice it has received on the issue; it would almost certainly, however, provide incentive for them to come up with something a little less crude than the vague assertions of legality, backed up by plagiarised 10-year old PhD theses, that we were served with last time around.

Clare Short has often been viewed as one of Blair's more extreme, less reasoned critics from within his own party; often, this has been to her detriment, and often she has had only herself to blame. Certainly, she did not manage to handle her opposition to the Iraq war with the dignity that Robin Cook displayed. This Bill, on the other hand, seems to be a very well thought-out, and balanced, proposal; difficult, indeed, not to support. This, of course, doesn't make it any more likely that it will become law in the end.

Blair, of course, did allow for a vote - some two days before the war began - but he was not compelled to do so; and many, including Gordon Brown, have suggested that it would be better to view this as having set a "parliamentary precedent", making it "unlikely that except in the most exceptional circumstances a government would choose not to have a vote in parliament". The difficulty here is that it is almost always possible to characterise a decision to go to war, by its very nature, as being taken in "exceptional circumstances". Short's reaction to this argument this morning in parliament was to note that she had "recently lived through the way in which the decision to go to war in Iraq was made" and concluded that "decisions are not well made when they are made informally". Again, knowing what we now know about the quality of the evidence and ambivalence of the legal advice that provided the "grounds" for the war, it is far from easy to disagree.

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