Had Parliament been consulted … ?
…What might we have learnt about consultation?
There was no parliamentary vote before British aircraft took part in the bombing raid against Syrian installations last week. For years, Governments relied on their prerogative powers to decide first and seek parliamentary approval (or acquiescence) later. Only in recent years has it become politically essential to consult Parliament first, and of course the spectre of the Iraq war’s miscalculation looms large. Unsurprisingly, when David Cameron sought approval for bombing Syria in 2013, the House of Commons said ‘No’. This time around, Parliament was in recess, and Mr Trump was in a hurry. The Cabinet met on Friday, and by breakfast on Saturday the deed was done.
But supposing there had been a debate? Media speculation was that any vote would have been too close to call. And who knows, therefore what impact this might have had on the action undertaken by the three participating countries. But then, there might not have been a vote. Academics have a real debate as to whether there has to be one, but all agree that, as a minimum, the current convention requires that Parliament ‘be consulted’. In 2013, Dr Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government commented on President Obama’s use of Congressional War Powers Resolution by noting that it was ‘further proof that political power to force a parliamentary discussion can be stronger than the constitutional right’.
What form of ‘discussion’? The kind of debate that might have happened last week would be one of those which commentators call ‘…the House at its best.’ It would have been full to bursting. All the heavy hitters from the big parties would have spoken, especially if they were ex-foreign or ex-defence secretaries. Middle-east specialists will have been heard and the odd back-bencher from constituencies with military bases will have caught the Speaker’s eye. The mood would have been serious – solemn even, and despite differences of opinion, debate would have been courteous and restrained.
But to what extent would it have been a ‘consultation’? Would this have been the real thing? Or just going through the motions? For professionals who, on a daily basis need to convince a sceptical pubic that the consultation was genuine and fair, how would a parliamentary occasion like this fare? Well, here is an attempt to guess – based on the four Gunning Principles.