No, Prime Minister: What roles does the House of Commons play in UK foreign policy?

This blog is reposted from Edinburgh University’s Politics & International Relations blog.

By Juliet Kaarbo and Daniel Kenealy

Following the recent UK drone attacks in Syria, the House of Commons may once again vote on the UK’s role in the Syrian conflict. This comes about one year after Westminster supported Prime Minister David Cameron’s military initiatives in Iraq against Islamic State, and two years after the stunning vote that stopped the Prime Minister from participating in strikes against Syria after a chemical attack in Damascus. In our new article, “No, Prime Minister: Explaining the House of Commons’ Vote on Intervention in Syria,” published in European Security and currently open access for downloading here, we examine in-depth the 29 August 2013 vote in the UK House of Commons that inflicted the first defeat on a prime minister over a matter of war and peace since 1782. Recalled to debate and vote on UK intervention in Syria, the Commons humbled the government and crucially impacted the development of UK foreign policy – and arguably U.S. and French foreign policy – towards Syria at that time.

This was an unusual case of a parliament defying a prime minister’s preference on a decision to deploy military force. This vote was unprecedented in UK politics and challenges conventional wisdom that Westminster, and parliaments generally, have little influence in security policy. The vote was also unusual since even though a majority of members of parliament actually voted for the use of force against Syria, but because their support was split across a government motion and a very similar motion sponsored by Labour, both motions failed to gain a majority. Taking the hint, Cameron, visibly surprised, confirmed that the UK would not participate in military action against Syria under any circumstances and that he had no intention of bringing the issue back to the Commons for further consideration.

Despite these unique features, this case also resembles instances of parliamentary influence elsewhere (such as the Turkish parliament’s vote in the Iraq 2003 war) and the factors that explain this vote are consistent with other cases. Our article places the August 2013 vote, and the developments leading to it, in the context of the role of parliaments in security policy and explores the relationships between parliamentary influence, leadership, intra-party and intra-coalition politics, and public opinion. From our analysis of leaders’ statements and parliamentary debate, we find a combination of intra-party politics and party leadership were most significant. The Conservatives and their coalition partner the Liberal Democrats were deeply divided on the issue. Cameron and his team seemed to misperceive the opposition on his own backbenches and underestimate the leadership required to secure votes. An additional factor – the role of historical precedent – was also important. The ‘lessons’ of Iraq, the ‘ghost’ of Tony Blair, and the lingering mistrust by parliament of the prime minister’s foreign policy claims clearly underlay parliamentary and public scepticism.

Our analysis explores the fluidity and interconnectedness of the various factors for parliamentary influence in foreign policy and offers directions for future theoretical development and empirical research. We also conclude that the Commons’ influence in this case did not derive from a deep, structural shift in parliamentary authority, but rather from several mutually reinforcing factors. These factors played out differently, and in Cameron’s favour, in the 2014 debate on intervention in Iraq. That parliament may weigh in on drone attacks in Syria is likely, but the fact that the government issued strikes without parliamentary approval (without giving the Commons an opportunity to say yes or no, prime minister) demonstrates this on-going fluidity in parliament’s role in UK foreign policy.

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Juliet Kaarbo is Professor of Foreign Policy and Co-Director of the Center for Security Research (CeSeR) at the University of Edinburgh. Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Government.

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