ANALYSIS: EXECUTIVE POWER: Blair Has History on His Side but He Can Learn from Churchill ; L as MPs Return to Debate Military Action against Iraq, the Truth Is the Prime Minister Is Perfectly within His Legal Right to Ignore Them
Sean O'Grady, The Independent (London, England)
WHATEVER HAPPENS in the House of Commons today, there should be no doubt about the constitutional fact of life that will govern proceedings and any war against Iraq. The deployment of troops and the issuing of orders to engage in hostilities are undertaken through the Royal Prerogative alone. That is to say by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
There is no requirement in our constitution for Parliament to give its formal approval or permission for the use of military force, at home or abroad. The President of the United States is required by the constitution and by the War Powers Act of 1973 to gain the permission of Congress. The German constitution won't allow the Chancellor to send German forces on peace- keeping missions without a prior vote in the Bundestag. But in Britain there are no such niceties, and never have been. The greatest myth in the Iraq debate is that Mr Blair is in some sense more dismissive of Parliament than any of his predecessors when it comes to committing British forces.
There are many areas of policy where the Government does appear to view Parliament as a tiresome distraction but, on the question of using military force, Mr Blair can be said to have been as scrupulous as any of his predecessors. His failing is not a formal or constitutional one; it is a political, even a moral one, in that he doesn't seem to want to use Parliament in its broader role - as a sounding board, a way to gauge the mood of the nation, and to legitimise executive action. It is there that the historical precedents are the most revealing, and Mr Blair would do well to pay heed to them.
The power to declare war is a prerogative power, exercised by the Government on behalf of the Queen. Thanks to the "gift" of its absolute powers made by the monarchy in the settlement of 1688 this prerogative is now one that resides with the Prime Minister and Whitehall rather than Parliament. Of course that did not prevent individual monarchs from trying to exercise their influence on the armies that fought in their names. The most disastrous example was George III's choice of Lord North as the Prime Minister to save the American colonies before and during the American Revolutionary War of 1776 to 1783.
Real power has long resided not with the monarch or Parliament but the Prime Minister. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, this was reported to the House of Commons in what the Hansard of the day termed a "Prime Minister's announcement". A motion was made prior to the announcement by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, but this was procedural and related to the manner in which certain emergency legislation was to be considered. Other MPs responded to the Prime Minister's speech in a short debate, before the motion was put and carried. Our folk memory, of Chamberlain's grim broadcast ending with the words: "I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany" is the correct one. Chamberlain took us into a war on the wireless, and Commons approval and a declaration in the name of George VI were mere formalities.
The House of Commons came into its own after the declaration of war. The mass abstention of Conservative MPs during the famous Narvik debate of 1940 (when British forces had been sent to save Norway and then ignominiously withdrawn) finished Chamberlain and brought in Winston Churchill, who used the chamber of the Commons as the cockpit of his propaganda effort. Many of those inspirational phrases about our finest hour and our debt to …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: ANALYSIS: EXECUTIVE POWER: Blair Has History on His Side but He Can Learn from Churchill ; L as MPs Return to Debate Military Action against Iraq, the Truth Is the Prime Minister Is Perfectly within His Legal Right to Ignore Them. Contributors: Sean O'Grady - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 24, 2002. Page number: 15. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.