• Patrick Cox

Syria: does parliament get to decide?

Updated: Feb 10, 2019

Whose decision is it whether the British military is sent to intervene in the Syrian civil war?

Theresa May is not taking parliament seriously enough

There is credible evidence that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has used more chemical weapons against the town of Douma. This has led to renewed calls from many British journalists and British politicians to take military action in Syria. This also brings back into the spotlight a question central to the exercise of democracy in the UK: is it the government or parliament who declare war?


The Syrian war is a terrible and evolving crisis. The many, many horrors brought about as a result of the conflict should be brought to an end. There should be concerted and careful action in order to end the suffering and bring peace. I am personally unconvinced that the arguments for bombing by the RAF are any stronger than they were the last time this was seriously debated in parliament.


The rehearsing of the arguments over Syrian is also bringing a purely British political question into focus. David Cameron's failure to secure parliament's backing  brought an effective end to the convention that the Prime Minister could declare war alone, using his or her prerogative powers. Just as Theresa May unstitched Cameron's changes to the electoral timescale of the Fixed Term Parliament Act by calling a snap election, so she may be tempted to revert to the earlier practice of not seeking parliamentary approval for military action.


Were Mrs May to succeed in bypassing parliament - and thereby the views of the electorate - it would be a significant reversal. It would demonstrate that checks on executive power under the British constitutional system are not set in stone once made. Or more importantly, that the slow bleeding away of powers from the executive branch, which characterised the British constitutional system in the C20th, is under threat. It was largely a matter of democratic progress that government influence over parliament itself, as well as the military and judiciary, had been on the wane. For the sake of expediency, and out of a desire to avoid scrutiny of a decision to move to bombing raids, Mrs May might make a significant retrograde constitutional step.


It is also worth noting that were the Conservative government under May to succeed in side-stepping parliament and affirming executive control it would be doing so with a barely credible mandate. It would be deeply ironic, and hugely troubling, if Mrs May's desire to avoid embarrassing and - for her government - fatal defeat led to the ultimate exercise of elective dictatorialness. It would also betray a complete lack of principle from the Prime Minister (though that hardly comes as a surprise).


Whilst arguing that Brexit is being carried through in the name of parliamentary sovereignty, a unilateral decision to send British planes to Syria without the Commons' consent would be to ride rough-shod over that same sovereign authority - the will of the people.


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©2018, Patrick Cox