When seeking election, both David Cameron and Barack Obama promised to seek a vote before going to war. Until an hour ago, it seemed that the Prime Minister was as good as his word but the president was not. His decision to follow Cameron’s example and consult Congress has stunned Washington, not least because popular support for a missile strike is even lower in America than in Britain (about 20pc). So what helped shift opinion in Washington? Obama did not attempt to disguise it. Those asking him to recall Congress, he said, were…
“undoubtedly… impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action.”
Of course, there is no British law compelling Cameron to call a vote (this Commons briefing paper (pdf) explains it). Which is why the very existence of a debate last week can be credited to Cameron. It springs from a speech he made in 2006:-
“While there was a vote on the decision to go to war in Iraq – albeit very late in the process – there was no vote on the action in Kosovo. If elected, I am determined to lead this country as a democratically accountable Prime Minister, and to abandon the personal, Presidential style that has taken hold under New Labour… Giving Parliament a greater role in the exercise of these powers would be an important and tangible way of making government more accountable.”
That speech launched the Democracy Task Force which recommended abolishing the Royal Prerogative and requiring the Prime Minister to seek a vote before war. Cameron did so. The irony is that his team lacked the extra organisation this demands: to be closely in touch with the backbenchers and have a method for persuading doubters. If they decide on war and peace, they need to be properly informed.
So while Cameron’s defeat is a deep embarrassment for him, it is a vindication of the kind of democracy he wanted Britain to be. Abroad people will be struck by the extent of democratic power in Britain. Imagine: grubby, low-rank MPs able to halt a government’s march to war! As Spectator columnist Matthew Parris argues in The Times today, Cameron struck a blow for democracy last week. Sure, he bungled the vote. But that fact that he took the risk, and gave Britain the debate that so many Americans want, does him much credit.
As we now know, Cameron’s decision to call vote also strengthened the hand and voices of Americans who wanted to apply same democratic principle in Washington – as Obama has just belatedly said in the Rose Garden. (Interestingly, he hasn’t said if he’d be bound by a ‘no’ vote, as Cameron was.)
Interestingly, Obama seems to have learned from Cameron’s omnishambles. He won’t rush the vote, waiting until Congress returns, and will now launch a massive charm offensive to make his case to Congressmen and women. As he put it:-
My administration stands ready to provide every member [of Congress] with the information they need to understand what happened in Syria and why it has such profound implications for America’s national security. And all of us should be accountable as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.
In recent years, British Prime Ministers have been accused of blindly following America. In Britain, we have a Prime Minister who is actually one step ahead. I still don’t see how a missile strike intended not to remove Assad would help, for reasons explained in the magazine’s leader this week. But as Cameron (in 2006) argued: the point of such debates is to test the strength of the argument for war.
In conclusion, talk of the death of Britain’s influence in the world is a wee bit exaggerated. Tonight, that influence does seem to be alive and well.
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