British MPs say no to Syria attack

Earlier in the day I was listening to much of the UK Commons debate on whether to attack Syria. I could not help but feel it buttressed the general consensus among most of us in political science who study executive-legislative politics that a parliamentary system is just so vastly superior to America’s presidential one.

And I thought that even when I assumed Cameron would get his wish at the end. Wow, this is a stunning development. In the Guardian’s running commentary on the debate and vote, there is a statement from Philip Cowley (who studies parliamentary revolts) via Twitter in which he says:

Not seen division lists, but that gvt rebellion must be bigger than the one that brought down Chamberlain in 1940

And I am not sure folks will continue calling Ed Miliband (Opposition leader) politically weak anymore! He forced Cameron to consider amendments, and, combined with considerable lack of support for attacking Syria even within the PM’s Conservative Party, Cameron lost a big one.

See also Steven Taylor.

9 thoughts on “British MPs say no to Syria attack

  1. Bear in mind that in most Westminster systems, war is declared in terms of the royal prerogative without any reference to the parliament at all. In 1939 the prime minister of Australia simply announced that Britain was at war and therefore Australia was at war. Not all parliamentary systems are equal.

    This is another case where the ‘inherent powers’ of the US president bear a striking resemblance to the prerogatives exercised by George III.

  2. Taylor makes one (out of several) very good points in his essay, though he sort of rushes past it. The U.S. Constitution is at heart a very 18th century document, and the people who worked on it in the late 18th century seemed to make some assumptions that obviously turned out not to be the case, in some cases in their lifetime. Taylor is the first political scientist that I have seen is that one assumption was that the federal government would normally not maintain a standing army. Another assumption, that has been noticed by other political scientists, was that there would be no political parties operating across state lines (political parties did exist at the province/ state level in the late eighteenth century, so the assumption was less that there would be no political parties, as no national political parties).

    In fact Thomas Jefferson tried hard to reduce the armed forces available to the federal government during his administration, with unfortunate consequences during the war with Britain that his foreign policy led the United States into. But its not so much that the 18th century framer’s assumptions were unworkable, as that they didn’t make any provisions for what would happen if politicians who didn’t share their world view didn’t come to power. If they didn’t want a standing federal army or a large federal bureaucracy they should have banned them in direct language in the document. Once they gave the federal government power to issue direct taxes -itself the justification for junking the Articles of Confederacy and probably the only possible response to the bankruptcy of the 1780s- things like standing federal armies and federal bureaucracy was at least highly likely.

    For example, the framers could have turned the Presidency into an occasional instead of permanent institution, providing for Presidents only during national emergencies. In the Electoral College they actually had a mechanism for this, and there was ample precedent in the Roman concept of dictatorship (and the framers were very mindful of Roman precedents). If they had done this presidential war powers would have looked and been used quite differently.

  3. To be fair to the eighteenth century framers, the British constitution also functioned very differently than now in the 1770s and 1780s, with the American War of Independence itself providing an important precedent when Lord North persuaded the King to finally accept his resignation after the no confidence vote following Yorktown. But the British seem to have been more adaptable with their institutions in the intervening centuries.

  4. We have two heads of government submitting war decisions to their legislatures and both claiming the right to act independently of the legislative outcome. I’m not sure it’s a dramatic example of the advantage of parliamentarism over presidentialism. It may be a dramatic example of flaws in the two particular constitutions.

  5. I will admit that my “advantages” argument does not look as strong as it did before Obama’s weekend decision. However, I would still argue for it.

    Cameron almost certainly called for the vote precisely because his own party was divided over the issue, and Labour was not willing to give him a life line. In other words, the very organizations to which is is accountable had signaled he would be risking his position by asserting prerogative. That would not be the case in a presidential system.

    Obama, according to the item I linked to in my previous comment, was influenced by the House of Commons events. He likely would have gone ahead without a vote had the event at Westminster not happened. In fact, it seems that there was far less demand from the legislature or his party for a vote than Cameron faced. Congress is typically quite happy to duck–or “cower“–and let the executive take the flack. Such legislative behavior is far more typical of presidentialism than of parliamentarism.

    Cameron said immediately that he would abide by the vote. Obama’s aides have already said they would not be obligated to do so (though, in reality, I think the odds they would act even after a no vote are low).

  6. UK Tory MP Jesse Norman offers an argument for a legislative vote on military action to be advisory only, and not legally binding on the executive:

    > … He [Norman] is all in favour of debates, questions or statements on military action; he thinks them vital; but he objects to the emerging rule that ‘a prior authorising vote’ should be required. ‘The plain fact is,’ he said, that in matters like this, ‘members of the House are inevitably far less well informed than ministers who follow and reflect on the issues every day. We do not have the same access to officials and advisers; we are not privy to diplomatic traffic or secret intelligence; and we are not briefed by, and may not demand briefings from, our armed forces. As a large corporate body, we lack the capacity to react quickly and without warning to fast-­changing events. The result is delay and a loss of agility and surprise, which ill serves our forces in the field.’ Norman’s second argument was that a Commons authorisation, once made, ‘binds members in their own minds, rather than allowing them the opportunity to assess each government decision on its own merits… Ministers can always take final refuge in saying, “Well, you authorised it.”’…

    – Matthew Parris, “The speech that could change your mind about Parliament and war”, The Spectator (4 October 2014)

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