Sir Keir Starmer was interviewed by Andrew Marr yesterday on the BBC. Marr asked:
“Would you ever support military action if you were the Labour Leader in the House of Commons?”
“I would pass legislation that said military action could be taken if first the lawful case for it was made, secondly there was a viable objective and thirdly you got the consent of the Commons. I think that piece of legislation is much needed. But they would be the tests and it’s obvious from those tests that there might be circumstances in which they could be met.”
It may be his sincere view that a Commons vote should be required before any military action. Or it may be regarded as an expedient compromise in seeking to straddle public opinion and the prevailing view of the Labour Party membership. In any event, the approach is dangerously misguided.
The issue goes back to the Iraq War during Tony Blair’s premiership. Robin Cook resigned as Foreign Secretary, in March 2003, and told the House of Commons:
“From the start of the present crisis, I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war.”
The vote was held – which did, of course, authorise military action. But the headstone on Cook’s grave in Edinburgh includes the following quote from his memoirs:
“I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war.”
That is the legacy Starmer seeks to entrench and which many will regard as reasonable. Yet for hundreds of years before 2003 the Government had the power, under Royal Prerogative to take military action. It was a decision for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Parliament’s role was to hold them to account for their actions. That could mean bringing down the Government. But it could not bind the Prime Minister’s hands.
It doesn’t mean that MPs can not express their views. On April 3rd 1982 there was a sitting on a Saturday as the taskforce was about to embark for the Falklands. Passionate speeches were made. But the motion before the House said simply:
“That this House do now adjourn.”
As James Gray, the Conservative MP for North Wiltshire, wrote on this site:
“The truth is that if the use of military force is allowed to be political (which it must be if it needs a majority in a possibly marginal House of Commons), then it cannot be strategic. Should the Prime Minister be doing what is right for the peace and the people of the world? Or should he have primary concern for its popularity in Parliament? The former Chief of Defence Staff, David (now Lord) Richards was quoted in this weekend’s paper attacking Cameron over his actions in Libya and Syria – even going so far as to suggest that the current refugee tide may be linked to it. There may be some truth in that. The Government does seem to have got itself into a terrible tangle over the process by which we make use of our military.
“Giving Parliament the final say over warfare politicises the war; it means that possibly sensitive intelligence has to be made public; it removes any element of surprise, delays decision-making and, in a host of other ways, makes the effective conduct of military force extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible. Now even if you think all this may be a good thing, I would hope that you would agree it also has a devastating impact on our ability to project power for the good of the world. Diplomacy without arms is like music without an orchestra.”
Jesse Norman, the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, has made a further important point:
“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.”
The executive needs to have the flexibility to act quickly. The Government must be allowed the authority to govern and then to be held to account. The notion of the House of Commons – made up of 650 people – managing a war is absurd. Still more absurd than Sir Oliver Letwin attempts last year to empower them to conduct our Brexit negotiations. It also follows that passing laws that constrain the Government’s future management is misguided. For instance, over spending levels. The Conservative Manifesto pledge to make NHS spending rises legally binding might have been good politics but is bad for management of the country. The legal requirement to spend 0.7 per cent a year of GDP on foreign aid erodes the ability of the Government to adjust to circumstances. It might be more sensible for it be 0.6 per cent one year and 0.8 per cent another year. Equally, the net-zero emissions target for 2050 being legally binding shows the wrong mentality. I suppose in practice these laws could be changed fairly quickly or if the targets are missed the Minister just comes and gives a statement explaining what happened. But if these laws are mere gestures that is hardly a good argument for them.
Whatever you think about war, or Brexit, or the correct level of spending for different departments, the Government must decide and take the consequences.
I believe another future is possible – but we have to fight for it.
That’s why I’m standing to be leader of the Labour Party.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) January 4, 2020
Last week, I suggested that comparisons between Starmer and Neil Kinnock are unfair… to Kinnock. But there is a certain parallel. When Kinnock was standing to be the Labour leader in 1983 he did not immediately repudiate the Party’s left wing Manifesto in that year’s General Election. At that stage Kinnock defended the economic programme and unilateral nuclear disarmament – though he criticised the Militant Tendency and suggested that the proposal to withdraw from the Common Market be abandoned. His rival, Roy Hattersley, was more outspoken – and got trounced as through the summer we waited with baited breath as USDAW, the National Union of Railwaymen and others held their seaside delegate conferences.
So the dilemma for Labour leadership contenders is not new. Thus far though, they all seem to compare unfavourably to Kinnock. All are desperate to ingratiate themselves with the Corbynistas. Starmer’s campaign video stresses his credentials as an ally of striking miners and print workers in the 1980s. Jess Phillips, used her offering to mention that her grandfather was the cartoonist for Tony Benn and the Socialist Campaign Group – and in her childhood she made signs for the nuclear disarmament protests at Greenham Common.
The choice the leadership contenders are making is to ignore the dismay the electorate showed for Jeremy Corbyn last month. Instead they are devoting themselves to the Labour Party membership – most of whom regard Corbyn as a hero. Part of that will means some pretty dud policies are put forward. It makes it much harder for whoever becomes the Leader of the Opposition to establish any credibility as a responsible and patriotic statesman.