The media, political commentators and the public seem to be enjoying a rare convergence of opinion. Everyone has been drawing on the similarities between David Cameron’s case for bombing Syria and the arguments of his predecessor, Tony Blair, in the run-up to Iraq War.
While everyone is correct to make the comparison of style and substance between two modern prime ministers, it’s incorrect to assume that either of them is the problem when making the decision for war.
Parliamentary sovereignty still reigns supreme, and the lesson to be learnt from the Blair-era is not that Britain shouldn’t combat evil, but that intelligence and information must be shared with Parliament without hindrance or preference to ensure the maximum accountability of the executive to the House of Commons.
Cameron is not the first, and most likely not the last, prime minister to stand implacably opposed to a foreign threat to the UK’s national security. His conviction that Daesh should be counteracted with force has not overcome his respect for parliamentary rule; all premiers must inevitably bring themselves before Parliament. There is no world war, there are separate bombing campaigns. The UK bombed Libya but lost the parliamentary vote in 2013 to support the US-led attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to deter the use of chemical weapons.
The mood of the country remains mixed. One poll placed 58 percent of Britons against sending warplanes to attack ISIS in Syria.
That there is no appetite for a repeat of the mistakes of the last fifteen years in the Middle East is not surprising. The Americans had their Vietnam Syndrome and so the UK has a post-Iraq reluctance to engage in the Middle East and they are not naïve enough to pretend that a bombing campaign is not a prelude to ground troops.
And it is the British and Vietnam, perhaps more than Blair and Iraq, that is worth remembering when a British prime minister is not only making the case for war but dealing with a perennial crisis that the UK public wants little to do with.
President Lyndon Johnson was ardently in favour of the UK supporting American troops. He put pressure on the UK Government to deploy troops on the ground and to this day there remains an urban legend that Johnson absconded Winston S. Churchill’s funeral in 1965 as a public rebuke to then Prime Minister Harold Wilson (it’s documented that Johnson told reporters that his doctors had advised him not to fly to London).
Wilson headed a Labour government that was remarkably more left-wing firebrand than the one under New Labour. Members held more power, trade unionists held sway and a prime minister not enacting their will would feel it much more than Blair ever did over his foreign policy.
Wilson was very publicly ambiguous with his support of the American foreign policy in Vietnam, but he refused to condemn it. But he understood the mood of the country and didn’t dare publicly contemplate sending armed forces to assist the US.
More controversially, here we have an issue that reverberates today. Doubt remains as to what Wilson knew about British servicemen resigning from their positions and enlisting in Australian or New Zealand fighting units.
It is estimated that as many as 2,000 Britons were on the ground in Vietnam. Some documents even reveal that SAS soldiers were recommended to be given civilian status in US units so as their British military identity was lost.
There is no record of Wilson denouncing it. That the UK Government supported the US with auxiliary resources is a matter of record, particularly with intelligence and jungle training.
That British citizens and soldiers, unofficially and seemingly of their own accord, resigned to join the fight in Vietnam is a matter that should be investigated fully. What happened to these soldiers? Did they return to service with the UK after the war ended? What were the fatalities involved and what UK government knowledge was there of these activities?
Cameron was accused of the very same thing, but it was a matter which quickly disappeared and will most likely stay unresolved with the recent Commons vote to approve strikes.
The difference today between Wilson and Cameron is that tracking the movements of citizens who go afoul and start taking foreign policy matters into their own hands remains a contentious but extremely visible issue. What both men share is that murky foreign policy conflation between the perceived mood of the nation, the will of Parliament and national security are a tricky triptych when one is looking at protecting British interests.
But what is ultimately the main issue is what Parliament did and did not know and whether or not a premier is ever obligated to share precisely what he knows about national security to the House of Commons. Is it realistic or acceptable to ask Parliament to vote for war if they don’t have all the facts?
The issue is complicated because since the 1950s and the advent of NATO cooperation, shared operations are part in parcel of a modern military; particularly one involved in an organisation such as NATO that relies on military exchanges and operational diversification.
So it begs the question – parliamentary will versus operational structure and command. Do the two conflate, should they and can it be curtailed?
Parliament in these matters often finds itself in the dark. Matters of national security can be shared by the serving government with fellow privy councillors, members of the Privy Council which includes the Leader of the Opposition and senior Opposition shadow ministers for occasions like this.
In his book, The Prime Minister, the office and its holders since 1945, the historian Peter Hennessy provided a list of issues since 1945 on which information has been shared with Opposition leaders on Privy Council terms including the Cuban missile crisis and Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
Tony Blair shared intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction with Opposition leaders on Privy Council terms, as did David Cameron about Syria in 2013.The Privy Council membership is a useful mechanism to share sensitive material beyond those in Government. Yet it still denies most members of parliament with the full picture before votes which will most likely result in the loss of life.
What Wilson and Vietnam, Blair and Iraq and now Cameron and Syria all share is that the burden of a prime minister is to balance national security on their shoulders and ask if it is a burden better shared. A stronger executive should not preclude the right of Parliament to debate matters.
During the Second World War Parliament regularly descended into private sessions. Parliamentary privilege stands whereby a member can say what they please without legal reprisal and private sessions are an extension of this with the essential lockdown of Parliament to ‘strangers’ whereby nothing can be recorded or noted. The last time Parliament did so was on 4 December 2001 when it was debating the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.
We must regain our faith in our MPs to be our conscience in the House of Commons and not just view them as members of a political party.
The UK is a representative democracy and MPs represent us. The big news is not that Cameron is like Blair or Blair like Wilson but that wars all begin the same: with the knowledge of what we are getting into as a country and as a moral debate. This requires all the facts.
Let’s trust our representatives; let’s trust Parliament and lets trust Parliament. Give them the facts, so that contentious debates, contentious votes and contentious decisions come from as informed a place as to make the moral investment of the public in Parliament just.