There are several significant angles to last night’s Commons vote on Syria. Foreign policy experts look at Britain’s role in the world and our relationship with the United States; domestic politicos look through the prism of party politics, asking who came out better between Miliband and Cameron. Meanwhile, Syria continues to suffer and we can only now hope that inaction is the lesser of two evils.
But amid the fallout, easily obscured by the more obvious issues of the day, is a seismic shift in the British constitution, an evolution that has crept up quietly but which serves to empower Parliament and constrain the executive.
While the Prime Minister officially retains the Royal Prerogative to declare war, it is clear that this power is now tempered by the convention that Parliament must vote on the matter beforehand.
Previous votes on Iraq and Libya, while contentious, saw the government of the day validated by the Commons. Before this it had been understood that the executive had a right and duty to declare war as it saw fit. The real test of this innovation was whether a government convinced of the need for military action would respect a vote that opposed it.
The fact that Cameron had to promise the House that it would have a second vote, the fact he has now changed course so dramatically – while retaining the right to declare war – shows that votes like this are not simply rubber stamps but have become a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government. Read more ›