For details on how to contact our editorial and commercial departments, click here
Anti-war vote reveals major power shift - Durham law expert
THURSDAY night’s vote against British military intervention in Syria revealed a significant shift in power, according to a North-East legal expert. Mark Tallentire reports.
THE result, for David Cameron, was a humiliation.
On the floor of the House of Commons, once again the focus of the nation, coalition rebels joined with Labour MPs to defeat a Government motion on the principle that military action might be required to protect Syrian civilians.
Humbled, the Prime Minister accepted Parliament’s will and ruled out UK involvement in any operation.
In the hours afterwards, fears have been raised over what the vote will mean for the so-called special relationship between the UK and her closest ally, the US.
But the Transatlantic partnership has survived tougher times than these. Perhaps of more lasting significance is the major shift in political power from Government to Parliament revealed by the historic vote.
Professor Gavin Phillipson, from the Durham Law School at Durham University, said it was the first time in modern British history where the House of Commons had prevented the Government from taking military action by a vote, previous votes on intervention in Iraq and Libya have set precedents which mean the Commons must be given a chance to debate and vote before military action is taken and, crucially, the precedents established a ‘convention’ and Thursday night’s vote shows it carries weight.
In short, if the Commons says no, the Government must obey.
“As far as I’m aware, this is the first time in modern British history in which the House of Commons has prevented the Government from taking military action by vote,” Prof Phillipson says.
“The fact that the Prime Minister acknowledged immediately after the motion was defeated that the Government would now not be able to take part in any attack on Syria is hugely important. It shows that the Commons now has real teeth – and is not afraid to use them.
“The legal power to authorise military action derives from the Royal Prerogative, which is a source of residual legal authority that enables the Executive to act without statutory authorisation. By a very long-established convention that power – which legally resides in the Crown – is in practice exercised by the Cabinet.
“But such powers were, up until very recently, exercised without formal Parliamentary approval – there was no convention that Parliament must be consulted. For example, no formal vote was held in Parliament before the military intervention in Bosnia by John Major’s Government or that taken in Kosovo by Tony Blair.
“However, a series of precedents since then, notable the votes on Iraq in 2003 and on Libya in 2011, have now established that a convention exists to the effect that, except in cases of unavoidable urgency, the House of Commons must be given the chance to debate and vote before military action is taken.
“What is striking and important about Thursday’s vote is that it shows the convention is real: if the House of Commons says no, the Government cannot act.
“Some people are saying that it is only a political reality that the Government had to abide by the vote. It’s not: it’s now a constitutional convention.
“Conventions are binding, even though not enforced by the courts. And they are key to the unwritten British constitution: it’s ‘only’ a convention, not a law, that the Queen must appoint as Prime Minister the person able to command a majority in the Commons – and that’s perhaps the most important rule in our constitution.”
Prof Phillipson is a qualified solicitor and has held a chair in law at Durham since January 2007. He is an expert in European and UK human rights law and has published three books and numerous journal articles.
Follow him on Twitter: @Prof_Phillipson
Comments are closed on this article.