War Powers for UK parliament

Should the prerogative power to commit British armed forces to armed conflict abroad be removed from the UK Prime Minister and placed instead in parliament?

War Powers for UK parliament
Yes because...

The prerogative power to declare war is currently in hands of the Prime Minister alone. They can co...

The prerogative power to declare war is currently in hands of the Prime Minister alone. They can consult Cabinet, but they don’t have to; they can consult parliament, but they don’t have to. This prerogative is an outdated remnant of the traditional powers of the Crown, delegated since the 18th century to their appointed Prime Ministers. It is now time the power to declare war was taken away from the Prime Minister and given to the people’s elected representatives in parliament. After Tony Blair chose to consult parliament before committing troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, a precedent for the involvement of parliament was established. This should now be made a formal future requirement for any future military deployment.
No because...
The Prime Minister is not appointed by the monarch – that is a polite fiction symbolising the continuity of the British constitution. In reality the Prime Minister is appointed as Head of Government because he or she is the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. This means that their authority to make critical decisions, such as whether to go to war, already carries democratic legitimacy. And in practice, no Prime Minister would declare war against the will of a majority of MPs, as a parliamentary revolt could lead to a no confidence motion being passed, the Prime Minister losing office and their war policy being reversed.

War Powers for UK parliament
Yes because...

In reality, sudden unexpected crises which require a rapid response are very rare. Conflicts are us...

In reality, sudden unexpected crises which require a rapid response are very rare. Conflicts are usually predictable well in advance and so the deployment of troops can be debated, at least in principle, in parliament ahead of time - as was done in 2002 and 2003. When sudden crises arise, a War Powers Act could allow the Executive to act swiftly and send troops while parliament is recalled. The USA’s system gives the President power to act in such circumstances, but they have to seek Congress’s approval of their actions within 60 days. This allows for a flexible response but ensures that the executive is fully accountable for their actions to the people’s representatives, which is not the case at present.
No because...
The executive (the Prime Minister and their government) is always in business, able to make decisions at short notice when crises erupt. The legislature (parliament) sits for only about half the days each year, with an extended summer recess stretching well into the autumn. As military deployments often have be made at short notice (e.g. Sierra Leone, Gulf War), it makes no sense to take this power away from the Prime Minister and give it to parliament. Britain’s ability to respond quickly to a crisis would be greatly damaged if nothing could be done until MPs had been recalled and assembled to debate it. Our Government is given a democratic mandate to make decisions on our behalf; we should trust them to do so.\
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War Powers for UK parliament
Yes because...

Secrecy needs to be considered in any debate on going to war, but it need not be a bar to giving par...

Secrecy needs to be considered in any debate on going to war, but it need not be a bar to giving parliament the final decision. The general issues are always well known in advance, and this would allow parliament to make a decision in principle on whether war might be justified. Sensitive information could be withheld, or revealed only under controlled circumstances (in private sittings of the House of Commons, or just to the front bench spokesmen for each of the main political parties).
No because...
The open process of parliamentary debate could be very damaging to military effectiveness. The success of operations often depends on the element of surprise, which would be entirely removed if the decision to declare war was taken away from the Prime Minister and given to over 600 MPs through televised debates. And if MPs are to debate the issues involved properly, then the secret intelligence available to the government will have to be made known to them. This could aid any enemy and greatly compromise British military planning by revealing the extent of our knowledge, and also risks exposing our intelligence services by allowing their methods and agents to be identified.

War Powers for UK parliament
Yes because...

Giving the power to declare war to parliament would boost the morale of the armed forces by showing ...

Giving the power to declare war to parliament would boost the morale of the armed forces by showing them that the nation is clearly behind their work. Recent military deployments have often been highly controversial, with decisions made only within a very small circle of ministers and advisers. This can lead to the feeling that troops are fighting “Blair’s war”, rather than acting on behalf of the whole country. A clear mandate from the people’s elected representatives in parliament is therefore desirable.
No because...
Military morale could be damaged if parliament was given the power to declare war. The armed forces might resent military decisions being made by several hundred “amateurs” with little awareness of what combat involves. And the process of debate and division (voting) would reveal deep splits in political and popular opinion – how will troops feel if they know that not much more than 50% of the nation’s MPs back their mission? At least now the Prime Minister feels personal responsibility of any decision and can call upon expert advice from defence, intelligence and military sources. Because the Prime Minister has a clear electoral mandate to make life-and-death decisions, troops in the field know that the will of the nation is behind them.

War Powers for UK parliament
Yes because...

Giving parliament the power to declare war need not involve MPs seeking to micromanage the campaign....

Giving parliament the power to declare war need not involve MPs seeking to micromanage the campaign. MPs (and their voters) greatly respect the professionalism of the armed forces and are not stupid enough to prevent them fighting a campaign in the best way possible. But the decision in principle to commit troops should be with elected representatives in the legislature. This need not be done through normal legislation, but instead by establishing a constitutional convention that parliament (probably the House of Commons) should pass a resolution committing the UK to military action.
No because...
If parliament is given war-making powers, it is unlikely to stick simply to issues of principle. By attaching amendments and conditions to a vote to commit troops, MPs may seek to micromanage the campaign and second guess commanders in the field. For example, when voting for a peace-keeping mission they may attach mandates which prevent British troops responding if the situation on the ground deteriorates suddenly – as has happened with other countries’ deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse even than this, if war is declared by legislation then it can be picked apart in the courts as the precise meaning of individual clauses is contested on technical or human rights grounds. The interference of political and legal amateurs in the way a war is fought will make success less likely and will further damage morale.

War Powers for UK parliament
Yes because...

Britain’s international commitments need not be damaged by a change in the power to declare war. Mo...

Britain’s international commitments need not be damaged by a change in the power to declare war. Most of our allies and partners already have a version of the proposed war powers act, and it does not hamper them from committing troops in support of their international commitments. But equally, we should not go to war just because of personal and secretive commitments between individual leaders, but because our representatives judge that it is clearly in the UK’s interest to do so. The expectations of our allies and the international consequences of refusing to commit troops will always weigh heavily on MPs when they consider military action, as they do with the Prime Minister now. In fact, there is a strong argument for also removing the prerogative power to sign international treaties from the Government and placing that in parliament as well. In that way our allies could be confident that Britain’s commitment to any alliance or possible military action really did command widespread domestic support.
No because...
Britain’s multilateral commitments may be undermined by this proposal. When the UK joins an alliance or a coalition of states today, its partners know that its government is able to deliver militarily on its diplomatic commitments. This brings the UK great respect worldwide, as well as greater influence with its foreign partners when great decisions are to be made. Potential enemies are more effectively deterred because they know that our threats are not empty. All this will change if war powers are taken from the executive and given to parliament – everyone will always wonder if the Prime Minister will really be able to carry their commitments through in parliament. The problems of relying on other European countries for effective troop deployment in Afghanistan points to the dangers of giving elected representatives too much say in operational matters.

War Powers for UK parliament
Yes because...

Often military action would benefit from much greater thought about definition of objectives and pri...

Often military action would benefit from much greater thought about definition of objectives and priorities. At present military commanders regularly complain that their political masters have failed to set them clear aims, or that the resources made available to them are not adequate for the mission they have been given. The process of parliamentary debate would force the Government to identify and justify Britain’s real aims in a potential conflict, and focus public attention on the extent to which the armed forces are being supported in pursuit of those aims. If the government changed its aims, then it should have to return to parliament for a fresh resolution in support of that new policy.
No because...
In theory giving war powers to parliament sounds a nice idea, but in the real world it would be disastrous. It is impossible to arrive at neat legal definitions of different sorts of military action. In fact, the last time Britain actually declared war was in 1942 (on Siam, now Thailand, for allying with Japan) – but British troops have fought major operations on numerous occasions in the last sixty years, including four times under Tony Blair. On the ground a reconstruction mission can quickly turn to peace-making (e.g. Sierra Leone); a peace-keeping exercise can rapidly become active warfare (e.g. Bosnia, perhaps Darfur). Should the commander on the ground wait for fresh orders as the situation deteriorates?


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