Aaron Wherry wrote a thoughtful blog post on the House of Commons and military deployments on Monday. His piece was partially a reaction to my arguments against having the Commons approve military deployments (articulated here, here and here.)
I was expecting Wherry to take a harder line in favour of requiring the Commons’ approval to deploy the armed forces, but it turns out that we share a good deal of common ground.
Wherry and I agree that the executive should be required to tell the Commons why it wishes to deploy the armed forces, what objectives the deployment will serve, what the expected cost of the operation will be, and at what point the government believes the mission will end. (Ideally, this should happen before the forces are deployed, but if Parliament is not sitting, my view is that it can wait until it is.)
He and I further agree that, if the approval of the House is required, it should not apply to all missions; it should not allow the Commons to terminate an on-going mission; and it should not give the House the power to deploy the military in spite of the executive.
Although Wherry does not seem fully convinced, he also appreciates the logic of making military deployment votes a matter of confidence. As he notes in his post, Dennis Baker made that case quite effectively on Twitter.
So far so good.
But, alas, we don’t agree about everything.
Wherry isn’t persuaded by my argument that having the opposition vote in favour of a military deployment undermines efforts to hold the executive to account for the decision. A couple of other Parliament watchers have expressed their skepticism, too. And I’ll freely admit that it’s a counterintuitive argument, particularly these days, when calls to limit executive discretion is a prominent part of our political zeitgeist.
I’ll offer two arguments to support my perspective.
First, we have the institutional argument. Accountability in the Westminster system of responsible government has traditionally functioned according to two precepts: 1) the government is given the responsibility to exercise executive power; 2) the opposition holds the government to account for the exercise of executive power. Responsibility begets accountability, and accountability rests with those who are responsible. The government governs and the opposition opposes it.
Now, when the opposition becomes a party to an executive decision, this dynamic is altered. If the opposition explicitly votes in favour of an executive decision, then the opposition has moved from holding the government to account to endorsing its actions. This is especially true if the opposition’s support is considered a prerequisite for the government to act. When this occurs, the government is arguably sharing its responsibility with the opposition. Once the opposition shares in that responsibility, it also shares in the government’s accountability. This then begs the question: how effective will the opposition be in holding the government to account for a decision it endorsed or was involved in making?
The easiest way to refute this argument is to make the distinction between a decision and its implementation: the opposition can support a military deployment, but hold the government to account for how the mission goes.
This bring us to the practical argument.
The opposition is best able to hold the government to account for defence policy decisions, not military operations. When governments have brought military deployments before the House for a vote recently, it has asked the Commons to approve the decision to deploy the armed forces for some overarching purpose. If the opposition votes to support the government, it is saying that it endorses the government’s policy. The opposition is accepting the need to deploy the military, as well as the objective that the deployment is supposed to achieve. (In fact, if the opposition isn’t voting in favour of that, then what are they doing exactly?)
Once the opposition has endorsed the deployment and the objective it seeks to achieve, opposition MPs will be harder placed to ask the very questions that they are best equipped to ask, and hold the government with, such as: Why is this deployment necessary? What are you hoping to achieve? Have you considered alternatives to armed force? Are your objectives realistic? Why these objectives and not some others?
In principle, the opposition can still ask about end dates and schedules, but recent motions have set deadlines, taking that option off the table. It’s also possible to scrutinize the composition of those forces that are deployed, though it would seem quite careless of the opposition to endorse a deployment, only to question the government on the size of the force afterwards. Surely this is an issue the opposition should raise before endorsing the deployment. And if it doesn’t raise it, then it suggests that the opposition didn’t really know what it was approving. (A credibility problem, it should be noted, that wouldn’t arise if the opposition wasn’t asked to vote on the deployment or voted against the decision.)
The opposition is still free to hold the government to account for how the military mission unfolds, whether objectives are being met and whether the armed forces are conducting themselves properly in the field. Yet, because most opposition MPs do not have security clearances, and those that do are not briefed on operational matters as a matter of course, they would be relying on open source accounts of how the mission is going. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage when questioning ministers and military leaders who have been briefed on the actually state of the operation.
One way around this problem is to give opposition MPs security clearances. But this then raises a further accountability challenge: opposition MPs would not be able to use secret operational information to publicly criticize the government or hold it to account, as this would compromise operational security. As happened with the Afghan detainee question, once opposition MPs were given the clearances required to look at classified documents, these MPs could not publicly disclose what they had learned. Unsurprisingly, the detainee scandal fell from view thereafter.
No matter how robustly the opposition tackles operational concerns, furthermore, they will be faced with a government which will remind them and the public that oppositions MPs voted in favour of the mission. In the end, the opposition is best placed to hold the government to account for the broader policy questions that surround a military deployment, the very questions they are ill-placed to pose if opposition MPs vote in favour of a deployment.
In conclusion, it’s worth recopying Wherry’s most eloquent paragraph:
A country’s decision to take aggressive action against another is fairly irreversible. Once the bombs start falling, it is already, in many ways, too late. Laws—which, of course, must be passed through Parliament—can be rewritten, and perhaps mercy taken on those who were mistreated in the interim, there is no taking back a bomb once it has been dropped on someone’s neighbourhood. Even something like the defeat of the government that initiated the bombing is likely to appease anyone whose home has been bombed.
I entirely agree with Wherry here. It is irreversible and one of the most serious decisions a state can make. But it is precisely for this reason that I want the responsibility for such decisions to be squarely focused on the government, forcing it to explain its actions, allowing the opposition to vigorously scrutinize the decision, and ensuring that the House can withdraw its confidence in the government if the executive erred. This is less likely to happen if the opposition is a party to the decision or has sanctioned it by voting with the government.
(Apologies for the typos).