Sunday, July 13, 2003
Under Scrutiny - 13th July 2003, 20.33

Parliament has rarely had a role in declarations of war or decisions concerning their strategy and outcome. The power of the House of Commons over war stems from its ability to halt funding for any military enterprise. Since a Prime Minister could go to war without a vote, Blair's decision to allow parliamentary approval may be viewed, in the long-term, as the key event when the Old Left smelt blood. As a short-term political strategy, there were sound reasons: demonstrating clear support for the war, shoring up public support and burnishing populist credentials to show that the administration did not act in a dictatorial fashion. However, in the context of fierce scrutiny that these decisions were taken, Blair has discovered that the House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs has acquired a more public role. The media have bolstered the committee's claim to scrutinise the foreign and security policies of this government. The Blair administration has no choice in cooperation since any resistance to the Committee's vetting would vindicate its opponents. The Guardian has noted these unique events and develops their constitutional significance:

Yesterday's foreign affairs select committee report is above all an advance for parliamentary accountability over British foreign policy...As its first sentence says, the decision to commit armed forces to war is the most momentous that any leader can take. In the past, parliament never had a role in such decisions. That changed in 2003, when Britain only went to war in Iraq after a vote by MPs. Now the war is over, parliament is pressing its advantage further. The select committee report is another important first - a sceptical public probe into the heart of the most important decision that can be taken in public policy. As it makes clear at the end of its report, the committee now wants wider and stronger powers to go further. This is as it should be.

Their analysis of the report focuses upon the scepticism in which most of the government's claims are held. It is clear that the political credibility of this government, amongst the public and its own backbenchers, was squandered in a frantic attempt to justify the conflict. What long-term damage results from this is a matter of domestic politics.

Blair let parliamentary light shine upon his foreign policy. His actions provided the House of Commons with an enhanced role: as a source of legitimacy through a vote for any future conflict. Whilst Donald Anderson may savour his status as the Chairman who called Alistair Campbell to account, an expansion in the influence of his committee remains unproven until the next war, due to the peculiar political circumstances of the moment. It is ironic that one of the most centralised administrations Britain has known unwittingly handed power back to the Commons: all for short term political advantage.


Post a Comment

Blog Archive