Whether you are in favour of punitive strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, or against them, a Parliamentary vote on the subject will not help. There were Parliamentary votes on not a single one of the 124 wars waged by the UK since 1800. There was no vote on the First or Second World Wars, nor on the Falklands, nor Gulf 1. The Prime Minister kept Parliament informed - of course (s)he did. And he could not have gone ahead without a reasonable certainty that he had popular and political support for the war in question. If that were not the case he would not remain PM for very long. But there was no formal vote on them.
The first time that Parliament was asked either to approve or to prevent a military deployment was in 2003, when Tony Blair secured not one but three Parliamentary votes on his (very probably illegal) invasion of Iraq in 2003. That cannot give anyone- whether in favour or against a strike against Syria- much confidence that Parliamentary votes necessarily ‘get it right!’ There was a vote only after the strikes in Libya - again, perhaps not a great precedent. Parliament voted against bombing Assad in 2013 (and last weekend’s chemical gas attacks may well be a direct result of that decision); and Parliament voted in favour of bombing ISIS in both Iraq and Syria more recently. The point is that there is absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that politicising warfare by asking backbench MPs to vote on it, results in the correct decision being taken.
After all, we do not have the secret intelligence, the military assessments, nor the legal advice which is available to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. We do not know whether or not we could have precision strikes against Syrian military bases without ‘collateral damage’, or Russian casualties. We do not know what the Russian reaction would be. We do not know what the Americans and French are planning. We do not even know whether it was a chemical attack or not. We do not know those things – AND WE SHOULD NOT KNOW THEM. They are matters for the generals and intelligence chiefs advising the Prime Minister and Cabinet. And it is they who must take those terrible decisions either to go to war, or indeed not to do so, (the consequences of which may sometimes be even worse than a limited strike against an aggressor or war criminal.)
Not only all of that, but whipping backbench MPs either to support (or perhaps to oppose) a military action proposed by the PM and Government effectively hamstrings, even emasculates Parliament. For if we voted for the war - as we did in 2003 over Iraq, for example- we cannot then realistically criticise the Government for doing the very thing which we voted for. The same applies the other way round. It is hard, if not impossible, for MPs like me who voted against the strikes against Assad in 2013 now to admit that we may have been wrong, and then hold the Government to account for not doing something which we made them not do.
By insisting on a Parliamentary vote, we are making it a Parliamentary decision, not a decision by the PM and Executive. And by that very action we prevent ourselves from thereafter holding the Government to account and criticising what they have done.
So I very much hope that Theresa May either joins in with a US strike against, Assad, or that she does not do so for good military or intelligence or legal reasons. Either way round, she should not be shielding her decision by seeking a Parliamentary vote on the matter. She should not be allowed that political top-cover.
James Gray MP is a member of the Joint Committee on National Security (formerly of the Defence Committee); he is Chairman of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust and co-author of “Who Takes Britain to War. (History Press, 2015.)