Emily Thornberry: End the democratic deficit on British military action

Posted On: 
27th April 2016

"The changing nature of modern warfare makes it even more essential that Parliament plays a formal constitutional role."

Five years ago, as parliament was asked retrospectively to approve the military deployment in Libya, William Hague promised that the government would “enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting parliament on military action”.

This was a historic pledge: the first time the House of Commons’ role in the momentous decisions the government takes on war and peace was to be formalised. Without it, the convention established by Robin Cook that military action should be put to a vote remains exactly that – a convention – and parliament must rely on the goodwill of the government of the day.

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But this month, without ceremony, William Hague’s pledge was dropped, and now, as the government contemplates another intervention in Libya, we find ourselves in the dark as to when – or even whether – parliament will be asked for its view.

Modern warfare is changing to such an extent that the classic circumstances when parliament would expect to be consulted – the deployment of our conventional armed forces on a formal combat mission – are becoming increasingly rare.

Nowadays, Britain can play a significant role in a conflict – through the use of special forces, drones, cyberwarfare, the embedding of our pilots in other countries’ air forces, or by training and advising another government’s armed forces – and parliament might not be informed that activity is taking place, let alone be asked to vote on it.

We end up in the bizarre position where – as happened in January – the King of Jordan briefs US congressional leaders about the deployment of British special forces to Libya, while Britain’s own parliament is kept in the dark.

In my view, the changing nature of modern warfare makes it even more essential that Parliament plays a formal constitutional role in scrutinising the country's interventions in conflict situations.

Take Libya again. Philip Hammond recently announced that Britain stood ready to deploy hundreds of troops to train local security forces. This, he argued, would not require a parliamentary vote as it is “not appropriate for the House to be consulted… as if it were a combat deployment”.

But in a conflict situation, can we really differentiate between combat and non-combat troops? Were we to deploy troops on a training mission, they would presumably still be armed. If so, what would their rules of engagement be? If not, who would be protecting them?

The foreign secretary also suggested that any training would take place in safe areas away from combat zones. But if the location of a training camp was identified at any point, it would automatically become a terrorist target, even if based in neighbouring countries not involved in conflict. As we found in Afghanistan, even somewhere as well-protected and remotely-located as Camp Bastion was subject to attacks.

Of course, the other major concern with supposed non-combat deployments, and with the use of special forces and drones, is one of mission creep. And the only way to avoid that is to be crystal clear about the mission from the outset.

But in Libya – and even more so in Yemen – the government’s mission is anything but clear. Would our troops be training forces just to combat Daesh, or to stabilise Libya as a whole? And if the latter involves not a fight against terrorists, but a struggle to control and subdue a wider number of armed, tribal factions, is our commitment an open-ended one no matter how long that effort takes?

To none of these questions has the government provided a satisfactory answer. And yet, thanks to the convention which leaves a debate entirely in their gift, they may not have to. 

We need to find a better way forward, and start a debate about how Robin Cook's principles on parliamentary consultation can be maintained in the era of modern warfare.

One option would be to establish a senior committee of – for example – experienced Privy Council MPs, to whom the MOD would report whenever any of our military forces or assets are to be deployed in combat zones, in closed session where necessary, so that their plans can be properly scrutinised.

Given the controversies that have often attended the legal underpinnings of British intervention overseas, this committee could also be given the right to request access to the government’s official legal advice.

Where that committee felt that the nature, extent or purpose of those deployments required more formal parliamentary scrutiny, and that this could take place without compromising the security of such deployments, they could formally recommend that the government holds a debate and puts the matter to a vote.

No one would propose that highly-sensitive operations relying on top secret intelligence should be publicly discussed, or ever delayed from taking place, but there must be a sensible balance between the freedom the government rightly has to order such missions, and the role that parliament should play in holding the government to account on much less sensitive but no less dangerous deployments, such as a training mission inside or nearby Libya.

Where and how that balance is appropriately struck, how different missions are defined, and by whom, are all issues that would require debate, but it is a debate we need to start.

As William Hague wrote in 2007, the parliamentary debate on the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was “an act of generosity by the government for which we almost had to be grateful”.

13 years on, nothing has changed, except that changes in modern warfare are increasing even further the scale and secrecy of our deployments overseas, and the accompanying ‘democratic deficit’ in parliament’s awareness and approval of them.

In opposition, the Tories argued repeatedly that parliament’s role in authorising military action should be strengthened. In 2006, David Cameron called it “an important and tangible way of making government more accountable”.

That is as true today as it was then. So the question is: why does the prime minister no longer believe it?

Emily Thornberry is shadow defence secretary and Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury