Authorising a single bombing raid is not the same as war. It was right there wasn’t a vote on Syria

by Atul Hatwal

To listen to Labour’s frontbench yesterday would be to think parliamentary democracy lay in ruins because the government had not called a vote on Syria before intervention.

A frequent refrain in the House is that there is no more serious issue than that of war or peace. Few would disagree that Parliament should be central in these matters, but the unasked question yesterday (certainly by Jeremy Corbyn) was whether the Syrian mission constituted war.

Labour’s leader drew the parallel with Iraq, where there was a vote before deployment. But is Labour really saying that a single bombing raid is the same as a war?

Iraq entailed an air, sea and ground operation involving thousands of armed personnel on a mission that was planned to go on for months into years. Syria involved four planes on a sortie that took minutes.

One of the worst aspects of parliamentary practice is the way precedent is so rapidly ossified into hallowed practice and wreathed in constitutional piety.

After the precedent of the Iraq vote in 2003, now every action, no matter big or small, is subject to the same threshold for assent.

It was right that there was a vote on Iraq just as it was right that there was a vote on the operation in Libya, but not the interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone or the bombing of Iraq in 1998 in operation Desert Fox. These latter three were much nearer to Syria and in no way comparable to the Iraq war or even Libya.

The one anomaly in recent times has been the response to 9/11 with the invasion of Afghanistan – there wasn’t a vote but should have been for the same reasons there was a vote before Iraq and in 2011 before Libya.

Jeremy Corbyn was right in his speech yesterday – the Convention which was articulated by the Tories in 2011 and accepts the need for a Commons vote before military action on the basis of the 2003 Iraq precedent, is broken.

But not because it needs to be hardened from what is effectively an accepted guideline, into a fully-fledged War Powers Act as Labour will propose in the debate today. Instead the parliamentary process should reflect the reality that a raid is not a war and not every action merits a full vote in the Commons, complete with fevered build-up, publicity, vote wrangling and contentious discourse.

Even the prospect of a fractious and drawn-out parliamentary battle, likely running down a government’s political capital, would discourage them from making choices on Syria-type interventions, purely on the humanitarian merits of the case.

The principle that some action requires active Commons assent while others does not is already well established in parliamentary procedure on legislative matters in the distinction between primary and secondary legislation.

Primary legislation requires an Act of Parliament. Secondary legislation is subordinate law, made by the executive under powers delegated in primary legislation.

Currently, the political discussion on the Syrian intervention and the Convention is framed as if primary legislative authority is required for each and every military commitment.

To embed this position in legislative aspic, as Jeremy Corbyn desires with his War Powers Act proposal, would be to use a procedural measure to limit all future governments’ scope for flexibility in responding to humanitarian crises.

By opting not to hold a vote on Syria – even though it’s evident they could have easily won it – the government they have set a new precedent and, in line with parliamentary practice, de facto updated the Convention.

In doing so, they have rendered a service to future administrations of all parties – there is now a clear case that limited military engagements, such as the Syria raid, are in a different category to before, more akin to that of secondary legislation.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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9 Responses to “Authorising a single bombing raid is not the same as war. It was right there wasn’t a vote on Syria”

  1. John Wall says:

    Pretty much what others have said – doubt the Corbynistas will agree though:-(

  2. Tafia says:

    Bizarrely for one I agree with Atul.

    There is a world of difference between Parliament and Government. Government – headed by the Prime Minister of the day, needs the ability to carry out certain things such as limited military actions without having to bring the matter to the House first. Likewise there is a world of difference between a limited precision strike and a full scale war.

    We haven’t invaded Syria and nor do we intend to. Assad has been warned so many times now over the use of chemical weapons, that warnings have become thoroughly debauched in value ( Obama is largely to blame for that having twice threatened Assad with military action and twice failing to back his threats up.)

    Assad should now consider this a warning. If he uses chemical weapons again the next kick up the arse he gets will be far larger. He is free to use tanks, artillery, air power, his Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian allies. But he is niot free to use gas and hopefully he (and anyone else in the future) now realises that when we say ‘stop’ we bloody mean stop.

  3. Vern says:

    Seriously concerned for our security with Corbyn. His Deputy Tom Watson spent the weekend asking an academic on the legalities of the attack…..Many of his closest buddies refused to condemn the attacks and focused on whether Theresa May was wrong not to recall parliament.

    Innocent Syrians attacked with chemical weapons and Labour are seen as obstructing. Plumbed even lower depths this week and it’s only Tuesday. I warned you that there is more to come – we have barely started to release the full wave of stupidity but trust me it’s on its way.

    Ohhh Jeremy Corbyn I hear them sing

  4. Alf says:

    Deselection? Some of the remaining Blairite rebels are just asking for it.

  5. Anne says:

    Thank you Atul for explaining some of the legal/formal framework surrounding the bombings, and to an extent I agree with you, but I have reservations. I do not consider that allowing any PM the authority to bomb another country without consent from Parliament is safe practice for our country, it sets a president for other occasions, and could have unforeseen consequences – these decisions are just too serious for one person to make.

  6. John.p Reid says:

    Alf, Rebels heh, labours policy I said renewing nuclear weapons so anyone who rebelled against labours policy in the chamber, should be deselected, ok get rid of Jeremy then.

  7. Ultraviolet says:

    Well, even your hero “bomber” Benn disagrees with you on this one.

  8. leslie48 says:

    All our enemies are looking forward to Corbyn being PM. Like blitzkrieg which took Nazis about 10 days or so to defeat France. Corbyn would have waited days and days to do anything …indeed people will depart UK if he is ever PM in fear of his inactivity, nonintervention and his prevarication while he waits to defend Russia or Syria or Iran and he searches to blame America or France. Gassing children in Syria or poisoning UK citizens, or ISIS terrorism whatever. …let’s wait, let’s debate, let’s wait for all the facts. What a farce this is for a once leading political party.

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    We shouldn’t do anything at all – no more liberal interventionism

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