James Gray is a former Shadow Defence Minister, and is MP for North Wiltshire
The brutal murder of David Haines and Alan Henning, on top of so many others in recent weeks, more than justifies the House of Commons’ collective decision to launch air strikes against ISIS. But, given that they were murdered in Syria, why is it that we have authorised air strikes only in Iraq? And will we really defeat ISIS solely from the air? Why were those the only options offered to the House of Commons in the recent vote ?
The answer lies not in strategy; nor in compassion, nor in international diplomacy. The answer lies in brute politics. It’s not because David Cameron thinks that air strikes against Iraq are necessarily the right things to do, nor the only things to do. But, apparently bearing the scars of last year’s abortive vote on anti-Assad strikes, he concluded that they are the only thing he could do if he had to secure a majority in the House of Commons for it. He knew that the word ‘Syria’ is so toxic, and that ‘boots on the ground’ is such a no-no, that he had specifically to preclude them in the motion.
Yet it is pretty obvious that if ISIS are the enemy, then we must strike against them wherever they may be. And while no-one wants another ground war like Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan, there may well be a legitimate argument that we will not defeat ISIS without ground forces – at very least certain specialist troops under the right circumstances. There may well be a need for certain target acquisition or intelligence people – for example, special forces’ people to help with specific humanitarian problems; perhaps people to train the peshmerga troops how to use the sophisticated military equipment with which we are supplying them.
Nor did my colleagues and I who voted for the Government’s motion really have much of a clue about what end-game we are seeking, nor how we plan to achieve it. Some intelligent observers think that we are being suckered into a new crusade on the back of public outrage at the atrocities, and that this will simply act as a recruiting sergeant for ISIS. They may be right. Few of us understand the complex relationship between the Sunni neighbouring states or the nature of the generational Sunni/Shia war for which ISIS stands proxy.
These are complex matters on which the generals and the Prime Minister himself may well take a view. Some of them are properly secret. But they are not matters on which I as a humble backbencher (if there is such a thing),am truly qualified to decide. The Commons motion answered the general feeling that ‘my constituents hate these brutal executions, and therefore we must do something about it.’ But it did not (and it could not) consider strategic or tactical level matters, consider the secret intelligence on it, or be guided by the technical legal advice which is necessary before any military engagement.
These are matters quite beyond the ken of Commons backbenchers. They are quite properly the sole preserve of the Prime Minister, the military and intelligence chiefs and those advising them.
Not only are MPs ill-equipped to vote on these matters but, by doing so, we are also fundamentally misunderstanding our real – and extremely important – role in war-making. It is our job not to agree to wars; but to scrutinise what the Government and Prime Minister have done with regard to wars.
If we are suckered into supporting them in their military ambitions (as Tony Blair did famously over Iraq), we give up our right to point out when they get it wrong. By doing the Prime Minister’s job for him by voting for military action, we give him ‘top-cover’ for decisions which may or may not be the right ones. Surely when the Prime Minister accepts the seals of office, he is accepting the terrible responsibility of deciding on whether or not and how and when to go to war?
Since 1700 we have fought 124 wars; we have fought in 171 of the 193 countries recognised by the UN, and in only one year since the Second World War (1968) has no British soldier died in active combat. Yet only two of those conflicts have been approved in a vote in the House of Commons before their start – the two strikes against Iraq, in 2003 and now in 2014. Only twice has Prime Minister thought it necessary to seek Parliamentary approval for what he is doing with our armed forces. And the price he has to pay to do so is to circumscribe his actions to achieve popular support.
This is why I am strongly of the view that a Commons vote on going to war (which is a very recent and ill-thought-through convention) is exactly the wrong thing to do. It is wrong from a strategic and tactical standpoint. And it is hideously wrong from a constitutional hold-to-account standpoint. There is something chillingly wrong about a Government failing to have the power of its own convictions over warfare, and lacking the statesmanship and leadership which we can reasonably expect of it, feeling the need for the comfort of a supportive vote in the House of Commons.
It puts together a simplistic motion which it hopes will get support from all parties. The whips then force that motion through – the sheep baa-ing uneasily as they are herded through the voting lobby. And by this means, the Prime Minister delegates the awful responsibility of war-making to those least qualified to make that decision, and perhaps fatally constrains what he can then decide to do with our armed forces. We need leadership and statesmanship in war-making – not populism.
James Gray MP and Mark Lomas QC are joint authors of a recently published book Who takes Britain to War?