No, Boris, you don’t have the power to go to war
UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson has said it would be hard for the UK to deny a request from the US for help with military action in Syria. He argued that MPs would not need to be consulted on the action, and that the prime minister, Theresa May, agreed with him.
Taking the country to war is the most existential decision a government can make. This is not something that should be done at the whim of government officials. Johnson has spent the past two years of his political life campaigning to leave the EU, to allow the UK to become a sovereign nation that democratically decides its own future. Deciding to commit the country to war is a sovereign democratic decision. It seems that both Johnson and May are attempting to pick and choose when they want to invoke democracy.
Moreover, Johnson is constitutionally wrong. The executive — that is, the government — no longer has the authority to take the country to war. In the past, this was a power vested in the executive by Royal Prerogative. Over the past 10 years, however, a new parliamentary convention has emerged that gives parliament the power and authority over going to war. This was the reason David Cameron put a vote to the House of Commons twice over intervening in Syria. The first was in 2013, when the government wished to intervene against Assad and the House of Commons voted against the proposal. The second was in December 2015, when the House of Commons voted to authorise air strikes against ISIS positions as part of the US-led coalition forces.
After Trump’s bombing of the Syrian airbase, the defence minister Michael Fallon acknowledged this new parliamentary convention, and stated that parliament would have a say in any future military action.
So, Boris, you’re wrong. You don’t get to decide when and where you choose to believe in democracy, and, thankfully, you don’t have the power to go to war.
Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)