Yesterday's vote on military action in Iraq

As you will know, Parliament was recalled yesterday so that MPs could debate the UK's response to the appalling terror now being waged by ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

As in last year's vote on Syria, I reluctantly decided not to support the Government's motion. I was not persuaded that our intervention would necessarily help the situation there, or indeed be in our long-term national interest. However, there is also a more fundamental constitutional problem with such votes, and this was the focus of my remarks.

The speech is short - we were only given three minutes - but I thought you might find it of interest.

4.25 pm

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): After six hours and many very good contributions on the substance of this debate, I want to consider the wider constitutional position in which we are placed. During the past decade or two, a convention has started to develop that, except in an emergency, major foreign policy interventions must be pre-approved by a vote in Parliament. The idea springs from honourable motives and it is understandable given the present climate of distrust in politics, but in my judgment it is nevertheless a serious mistake.

It is absolutely right for Parliament to insist on proper democratic accountability where military action is at stake through debates, questions and statements, but the requirement for a prior authorising vote of this House is very different. Yes, it is vital for parliamentarians to maintain the most unreserved communication with their constituents on this matter, as indeed it is on any matter of public importance, but the plain fact is that in matters of foreign policy, with a few signal exceptions, Members of the House are inevitably far less well informed than Ministers who follow and reflect on the issues every day. We do not have the same access to officials and advisers; we are not privy to diplomatic traffic or secret intelligence; and we are not briefed by, and may not demand briefings from, our armed forces.

As a large corporate body, we lack the capacity to react quickly and without warning to fast-changing events. The result is delay and a loss of agility and surprise, which ill serves our forces in the field.

Mr Allen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jesse Norman: I will not give way. I am afraid that there is no time.

Moreover, I suggest that as a matter of fundamental constitutional principle, extreme care should be exercised over when or whether the House is asked to vote on such matters in future. It is a basic purpose of Parliament —above all, of this Chamber—to hold the Government to account for their actions. It is for the Government, with all their advantages of preparation, information, advice and timeliness, to act, and it is then for this Chamber to scrutinise that action.

If Parliament itself authorises such action in advance, what then? It gives up part of its power of scrutiny; it binds Members in their own minds, rather than allowing them the opportunity to assess each Government decision on its own merits and circumstances; and instead of being forced to explain and justify their actions, Ministers can always take final refuge in saying, “Well, you authorised it.” Thus, far from strengthening Parliament, it weakens it and the Government: it weakens the dynamic tension between the two sides from which proper accountability and effective policy must derive.

On 3 April 1982, the House was recalled by Mrs Thatcher for the Falklands war debate. It was a Saturday—the first time that the House had been so recalled since Suez. Tempers were high. The atmosphere was one of crisis. The taskforce was about to sail. It was a matter of peace or war. The very sovereignty of this nation was at stake. Yet what was the motion that day? It was:

“That this House do now adjourn.”

When, in calmer days, the Government come to reflect on these proceedings, I hope that they will heed the wisdom in that—

Mr Speaker: Order.

4.28 pm