The prospect of UK military action against the Assad regime has returned to newspaper front pages. In light of parliament’s 2013 decision to block similar strikes, some Conservative MPs have argued that the Prime Minister should avoid a House of Commons vote, and rely on her authority under the Royal Prerogative to order British involvement. In this short post, I consider the different options available to May from a domestic politics perspective. I don’t touch on the strategic and legal difficulties with intervention against the Assad regime, but suffice to say these are considerable and largely unchanged since 2013.
Bypassing MPs is certainly an option, but it is not a straightforward one. A tentative convention has developed since MPs authorized the Iraq War in 2003 that parliament should sign off on the use of military force. It is recognized in the Cabinet Manual and has been endorsed by May’s own spokesman since she entered Downing Street. Many MPs do not even realize that their involvement in decisions on military action in Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013 (which they vetoed), Iraq in 2014 and Syria in 2015 derived from convention rather than law. Ignoring them would have political costs. May should not take this path without accepting that it might further undermine her shaky position in parliament, and without being willing to risk consequences up to and including a motion of no confidence.
Asking MPs for prior approval before joining US-led strikes also looks like a problematic option. It would be consistent with the War Powers Convention. But it seems highly likely that the government would struggle to win, just as David Cameron did in 2013. The government lacks an overall majority. While the DUP has supported military action in the past, it is not bound by the terms of its confidence-and-supply arrangement to support it in future. Its MPs have consistently argued that any use of force must be focused on upholding the national interest, and there is no direct British national interest at stake in Syria, at least as far as the Assad regime is concerned. The main opposition parties – Labour and the SNP – are likely to oppose further intervention in Syria. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has a strong track record of voting against military action – he was, for example, one of just thirteen MPs who opposed intervention in Libya. Though Labour split over action against Da’esh in 2015, with Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn leading 60+ Labour MPs in supporting the government, the party looks more united now and the moral case for action is weaker.
May could order the use of force, then seek retrospective approval from MPs. David Cameron did this over Libya in 2011 and in authorizing a UAV strike on Syria in 2015. MPs do not, as a rule, like it when governments take this route. Cameron argued it was sometimes necessary, in light of an imminent threat to national security or humanitarian disaster, to act first and ask permission later. It is difficult to see how May could claim either exception to join US strikes against Assad. British national security is not directly threatened, and the humanitarian situation has largely remained unchanged for seven years.
May could, finally, restrict British participation in action against Assad to non-combat roles, such as providing surveillance and logistical support to its US and French allies, or by deploying Special Forces. Neither non-combat actions nor Special Forces operations presently fall under the War Powers Convention, meaning May retains discretion to act as she sees fit. Opponents of further engagement in Syria might, however, push back against this – they managed to prevent the Cameron government offering military support to opposition groups, for example, and one of the benefits of having a War Powers Convention instead of a War Powers Act is that MPs can demand more power over situations they particularly care about.
In sum, therefore, the May government’s best political option is probably not to join direct military action in Syria. Instead, it should offer its allies indirect support, perhaps including the use of Special Forces for reconnaissance purposes. That would enable it to demonstrate a degree of usefulness at a difficult diplomatic moment, without risking either holding, or visibly bypassing, a parliamentary vote.
I was very pleased to see a full house turn out for a special panel discussion event at LSE on 27 April marking the publication of my book Public Opinion, Legitimacy and Tony Blair’s War in Iraq (Routledge). In particular I am grateful to guest panellists Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London and Professor Juliet Kaarbo of Edinburgh University, and to my colleagues Professor Toby Dodge for chairing the event and Sophie Wise for organizing everything. A podcast is available here but I’ve also reproduced the text of my talk below. This isn’t quite what I said – turns out I’m not that good at reading – but it’s what I meant to say.
Public Opinion, Legitimacy and Tony Blair’s War in Iraq
Democracies are not supposed to fight unpopular wars, but Britain did just that in Iraq. Professional politicians are not supposed to court career disaster by ignoring what the public wants. Tony Blair did exactly that when he ordered British forces to help overthrow Saddam Hussein despite hostile opinion polls, critical media commentary and both the largest parliamentary rebellion and the largest street protests against any government, ever.
In this book, I ask how it was possible that Britain wound up fighting a war in Iraq that so many British people considered illegitimate. It’s a complicated question. I begin by asking why public opposition failed to prevent the invasion, and show how, from a foreign policy analysis perspective, it wasn’t that surprising. I then consider how the arguments ministers made in the pre-invasion period constituted the legitimacy deficit that followed. Finally, I look at the consequences and implications of what very much deserves to be known as Tony Blair’s war.
In the first part of the book, I present what I call a ‘holistic’ account of British public opinion towards the prospect of war in Iraq during the period between January 2002 and March 2003. My holistic approach combines traditional survey methods – opinion polls – with an original content analysis of 2,115 newspaper comment pieces, 333 parliamentary speeches, participant accounts and the treasure trove of detail and documentation released by the Chilcot Report.
I argue that a holistic approach better reflects the goals of a foreign policy analysis study. As a foreign policy analyst, I’m not really interested in what public opinion objectively was. I’m interested in how political elites contested and constructed a certain idea of public opinion, and how that affected decision-making.
I also argue that a holistic approach helps compensate for some of the shortcomings of survey methods. Echoing critical analyses by Herbert Blumer and Pierre Bourdieu, I argue that opinion polls unreasonably assume that every citizen has a prior view on every foreign policy question, that they weight every individual equally when in reality some are more influential than others and that they reflect the concerns of elites with the resources to commission polls. In short, I argue that the latent views of the passive mass matter only when they are likely to be activated across the board – like when a referendum is proposed. Otherwise, I argue it is the active, elite public that really counts.
I still use opinion polls – they both reflect and shape elite discourse, and do affect decision-makers too. Slide 1 shows aggregate poll results in the pre-invasion period. It makes clear that for most of the build up to war, most poll respondents opposed the use of force in Iraq.
These results didn’t stop the war for two main reasons. Firstly because, in Douglas Foyle’s classic terms, Tony Blair was an “executor” – he thought public support was desirable, but not necessary. Ultimately, he thought it was his job to lead rather than follow public attitudes. Secondly, and relatedly, because Blair predicted that people would ‘rally round the flag’ if it actually came to war. It is well documented that support for war spikes once the fighting starts. People don’t want to look disloyal, and many resign themselves to the inevitable. Blair was right. In the final week before the invasion support went from 38% to 54%.
As Slide 2 shows, most British newspapers also predominantly opposed the invasion of Iraq.
The picture was not actually as negative as this slide suggests, however. For one thing, it combines editorial lines and the views expressed by commentators. The Observer, for example, printed more anti-war than pro-war commentary, but its editors ultimately broke with their counterparts at its stablemate the Guardian, and supported the invasion. More crucially, the papers that most strongly supported the invasion sold more copies than those that opposed the invasion. During this period the strongly pro-war Sun, for example, sold fifteen times as many copies as the anti-war Independent, nine times as many as the Guardian and 1.7 times as many as the Mirror. On average pro-war publications sold 1.88 million copies and anti-war publications 1.24 million copies. Compounding this advantage still further was that the government’s most vocal supporters were the right-wing publications that traditionally opposed Labour governments, and its main critics were the left-wing publications that traditionally supported Labour.
As slide 3 shows, finally, the government also enjoyed the support of Conservative Party MPs in the House of Commons, while the small Liberal Democrat party offered the most consistent opposition and the government’s own back-benchers also took a more anti-war than a pro-war stance. This meant the government did not need to worry about being punished by voters for ignoring their opposition – it would make no sense to switch from Labour to the Conservatives over Iraq given the Conservatives supported the war. Combined with the massive size of Labour’s 2001 election victory, it also ensured the government could survive back-bench rebellions fairly comfortably. Tony Blair then capitalized on this advantage still further by threatening to resign if MPs voted against him. Forced to choose between their most successful leader ever and Saddam Hussein, many Labour MPs backed Blair.
So from an FPA perspective it makes perfect sense that British domestic opposition failed to stop the war in Iraq. A holistic approach also allows us to consider how the direction and the intensity of public attitudes interacted. How much public attitudes matter depends on how much public actors care about the issues at stake. Slide 4 shows what share of the source material investigated during this study came from each month during the pre-invasion period.
As we can see, there were three increasingly significant spikes in public interest, around March and April 2002, September 2002 and then early 2003. The first was driven by President Bush’s condemnation of Iraq as part of an ‘axis of evil’ during his first State of the Union speech in January, and Blair’s subsequent visit to his Texas ranch in April. The second was driven by widespread debate in Washington during August 2002 over the prospect of war in Iraq, by the Blair government’s failure to respond sufficiently quickly to media demands for more information and by the speculation that followed. The third was driven by the UN inspection process, the deployment of troops and ultimately the start of the war.
Slide 5 combines data on the direction and intensity of attitudes in polls, parliament and the press. It shows spikes in opposition in March 2002, August 2002 and February 2003 followed by a rally effect across all three source types in March 2003. Crucially, what the holistic approach shows is that the first two spikes declined largely because the government released more information that calmed speculation. In April 2002 Blair made clear publicly that he supported confronting Saddam Hussein but that there was no immediate prospect of military action. In September 2002 Bush promised to work through the UN while Blair released the now-notorious ‘dossier’ on Iraqi WMD. In February 2003 Blair successfully blamed France for scuppering the UN process while the inevitability of war bred resignation among opponents.
This observation – that the government’s communications efforts changed few minds but lowered the salience of Iraq as an issue – then plays into the discussion of legitimacy in part 2.
Tony Blair tried to argue his way to war in Iraq. He made set-piece speeches, held press conferences and published information dossiers. He took questions from MPs and live television audiences. He led five major House of Commons debates in addition to his weekly question time grilling. He even appeared on MTV. He claimed he wanted a full, open and well-informed public debate on the prospect of war in Iraq, and on the surface he appeared to act that way. Surface appearances can, however, mislead.
In the second part of the book, I discuss how both the content and the form of Blair’s arguments in the pre-invasion period constituted the legitimacy deficit surrounding the war. I define legitimacy as a discursive construct, as a product of public debate. Echoing debates amongst scholars of legitimacy between advocates of political definitions – in which legitimacy derives from public consensus – and normative definitions – in which legitimacy derives from abstract principles, I present two ideal types of communicative legitimacy. At the political end is a model derived from the social theory of Michel Foucault – though I claim no particular expertise in Foucault’s work. From this Foucauldian perspective, legitimacy reflects political consensus and political consensus reflects power. Legitimacy is, in other words, simply a product of power, lacking any distinct normative value. At the normative end, meanwhile, is a model derived from Jurgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action. From this Habermasian perspective, legitimacy derives not just from political consensus, but from a consensus achieved in the right way. For Habermasians, legitimacy emerges from a public debate based on truthfulness, openness to everyone looking to participate, and flexibility on the part of all involved.
I argue that the main driver of the legitimacy deficit surrounding the Iraq War was the clash between the Blair government’s explicitly and repeatedly professed commitment to seeking deliberative legitimacy in Habermasian terms, and the much more manipulative, Foucauldian reality of how it actually behaved. Though I find that ministers generally did not lie outright, they were often economical with the truth, especially when discussing the evidence underpinning their beliefs. Though Blair in particular engaged in a range of communication exercises, he still sought actively to control the timing of debates and who participated in them. Even members of the Cabinet found themselves shut out of key discussions, and Blair took certain fateful decisions alone. Finally, though some individuals like Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and (in particular) Attorney General Lord Goldsmith showed some willingness to revisit their views in the face of new evidence, most ministers and officials stuck resolutely to their established positions regardless of developments.
I further highlight a range of more specific shortcomings in the government’s communication campaign that further undermined its arguments. In particular, I talk about the claims that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of UN Security Council disarmament obligations that threatened British national security, that there were good grounds in international law for invading Iraq in March 2003, that overthrowing Saddam was the morally proper thing to do and that the Blair government possessed sufficient political authority to make that decision in the first place. I find each claim problematic – both in terms of Habermasian criteria, and more prosaically in terms of how persuasive they were.
Threat and WMD
By making clear pre-invasion statements about the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme, the government both undermined its claim to legitimacy in Habermasian terms and set itself standards it later struggled to meet.
To begin with, the government got key judgements wrong. MI6 failed to spot that one of its sources based his description of Iraqi chemical weapons on the movie The Rock, starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. It was slow to admit as much. More generally, the Joint Intelligence Committee fell victim – admittedly, in line with several allied intelligence communities – to groupthink. Having repeatedly underestimated Iraq’s WMD capacity in the past, the JIC interpreted new intelligence as the tip of the iceberg. It also failed to update its assessments as new information came in – for example, treating the fact that UN inspectors found no banned material as evidence that Iraq was successfully concealing an active WMD programme and not considering the possibility that there was no programme to hide.
More damagingly, ministers drew conclusions that went beyond what the JIC advised. Blair wrote in his foreword to the dossier that Iraq’s WMD posed a “current and serious threat to the UK national interest”. Chilcot concluded that Blair did indeed believe that, but that the JIC did not. Indeed, MI5 advised Blair that Iraq lacked the capacity to threaten Britain directly and that it had showed no sign of intent. Blair similarly wrote that “I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt” that Iraq was developing WMD. Again, Chilcot concluded that Blair did indeed believe “beyond doubt”, but the JIC thought differently. Jack Straw summed up the issue. He told Chilcot that “all the little bits of information, however patchy and sporadic, all pointed in one direction”. The problem, however, was that – as the JIC advised both Blair and Straw – the information available was indeed “patchy and sporadic”. Indeed, Chilcot found that MI6 had no sources with first-hand knowledge of either Iraq’s capabilities or its intentions during this period. Blair described the evidence as “extensive, detailed and authoritative”. He seems genuinely to have believed it was. It was not, and he was in a position to know it was not.
Finally, the WMD dossier itself conflated the sort of neutral information exercise Blair claimed it represented – the sort of exercise required of a government seeking legitimacy in Habermasian terms – and more Foucauldian policy advocacy. Though Lord Hutton’s inquiry concluded there was nothing intrinsically wrong about the fact that the JIC consulted Alastair Campbell on the wording of the dossier, since the JIC didn’t accept phrasing that didn’t fit the intelligence, there is still a difference between publishing intelligence assessments – which are usually balanced, nuanced and uncertain – and publishing the dossier, which was clearly designed to make the case for war. One particular element that later proved controversial was the claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so. Journalists interpreted this as a claim that Iraq could attack Britain in that sort of timeframe. But the JIC’s assessment referred specifically to battlefield weapons, which don’t have that kind of range.
The government, in other words, was neither entirely truthful in presenting its case to the public, nor flexible in the face of contradictory information. It wasn’t that ministers lied about what they believed – it was that they believed things that were wrong, and failed to publicise how weak the evidence was on which their beliefs relied. To some extent, this worked. Though critics challenged the dossier, and it changed few minds – polls suggested just 4% of respondents shifted stance after the dossier came out, mostly anti-war to undecided – it did dampen damaging speculating over the summer of 2002. At the same time, however, the dossier established unrealistic criteria. Had the government said “we don’t really know what’s going on in Iraq, but it doesn’t look good” it would not necessarily have looked dishonest later on. But it would probably have faced much stronger opposition.
An independent commission famously described NATO’s intervention in Kosovo as “illegal, but legitimate”. Britain’s UN Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock later described the Iraq war as “legal, but of questionable legitimacy”. Chilcot refused to comment on the substantive question of whether or not the invasion of Iraq was in fact legal, but described the process by which ministers took legal advice as “far from satisfactory”. As Philippe Sands QC, a leading international lawyer, put it – “far from satisfactory” is “a career-ending phrase” in civil service language.
Part of the problem lay in the “deliberate ambiguities…necessary to get a consensus” on UN Security Council Resolution 1441 – as British ambassador to the US Christopher Meyer put it. Part of it lay also in Blair’s refusal to involve Attorney General Lord Goldsmith in negotiations surrounding the resolution, fearing either that involving him would lead to leaks, or that he would set legal standards impossible to reconcile with the political realities. As a result, Chilcot concluded that the British government voted for SCR 1441 despite the fact it “didn’t really know what it was voting for”. It took Straw and Blair until a week before the invasion to agree an interpretation. Blair clearly believed Iraq would quickly be caught refusing to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors. When that did not happen, he had to disparage an inspection process he worked hard to establish, and then search for ‘smoking guns’ he knew were unlikely to be found.
More damaging, still, was the fact that Blair believed both that Britain should uphold international law and that it was morally proper for powerful states to use force to overthrow regimes, like that in Iraq, that abused their own people. Blair believed in regime change, and he believed his own moral judgement was superior to that of those who criticised him – even the Pope himself. He never acknowledged, let alone resolved, the clash between what international law actually allowed and what he personally believed it should allow. That meant he had to downplay his strong commitment to regime change because it clashed with his equally strong commitment to acting within the law. This led to contradictions – he railed against the injustice of leaving Saddam Hussein in power and promised to do just that if Saddam complied with UN inspections. He described his “enthusiasm” for regime change and called it a “myth” that he sought it in Iraq. Blair was not truthful, in that he downplayed how strongly he believed in regime change, and failed to discuss the clash between his legal and moral positions. He was not open, in that he tried to exclude the Attorney General from policy discussions. He was not flexible, given he repeatedly rejected legal advice that did not match what he felt he could negotiate in Washington and New York, and ignored moral counsel that contradicted what he personally thought. No wonder his Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell accused him of having a “messiah complex”.
The claim that France prevented agreement on a ‘second’ UN Security Council Resolution failed all three Habermasian criteria but, interestingly, did not lead to punishment after the invasion. It was a rare example of how normative and political legitimacy can play out differently.
Then International Development Secretary Clare Short later described this claim as “one of the big deceits” of the entire pre-war period. As Ambassador Greenstock told Chilcot, Britain never secured the minimum nine votes needed to pass the ‘second’ resolution – so France’s threat to veto it was not decisive. As Blair told Bush in a private letter on 11 March 2003, however, French President Chirac’s clear determination to take a stand did “provide some cover” for Britain’s failure at the UN. Ministers and officials actively blamed France and encouraged press and parliamentary critics who echoed that blame. They continued despite frantic French efforts to clarify Chirac’s 9 March statement that “whatever the circumstances, France will vote no”. When French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told Jack Straw that Chirac was still open to compromise, Straw ignored him and insisted that he “read the comments differently” – as if his interpretation of French foreign policy carried more weight than that of the French foreign minister. British ambassador to Paris Sir John Holmes wrote to London that “our position can hardly surprise the French, nor the fact that we are using Chirac’s words against him…he did say them, even if he may not have meant to express quite what we have chosen to interpret”.
No-one in Britain suggested taking France’s position – that military action might yet be necessary, but that it was not justified yet – seriously. That betrayed a lack of flexibility. Ministers maintained that France had closed off all room for compromise, despite French officials insisting the contrary. That reflected a lack of truthfulness. Finally, the government tolerated suggestions – mostly from public commentators – that France did not really deserve to have a say – that its objections were unwarranted in some way. Blair’s insistence that he could legitimately ignore an “unreasonable” veto at the Security Council underpinned this stance. This showed a lack of openness. Despite these shortcomings, the argument worked. YouGov found 70% of British voters rejected Chirac’s stance. Labour MP and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Donald Anderson attacked France. A series of Sun editorials compared Chirac to “a cheap tart” and a “worm”, contrasting his “arrogance and greed” with Blair’s “highest moral principles”.
On 28 July 2002 Blair wrote to Bush “I will be with you, whatever”. Cabinet neither discussed nor even knew about this letter. In public, Blair maintained “no decisions have been taken”. At the end of October he formally offered British ground troops to the US for planning purposes. In mid-January 2003 he privately gave up on the UN inspection process and approved invasion plans. Again, Cabinet was not told. It is true that the government faced widespread and at times unreasonable press hostility. It is true that some Cabinet ministers leaked everything they heard about Iraq to the press at the earliest opportunity. It is true that some parts of the government’s argument could not have survived a full, frank, open and flexible public debate.
But the Blair government, and Tony Blair in particular, repeatedly claimed they sought a proper public deliberation. In making that claim, then failing so dramatically to meet it, they created the conditions for the legitimacy deficit that followed. At the same time they made inconsistent, irreconcilable and incorrect arguments that became impossible criteria for success.
That the Stop the War movement failed to stop the war made a good deal of sense. That it nevertheless wound up widely regarded as illegitimate made sense, too. Ultimately the approach the government took proved neither properly deliberative nor persuasive.
What we learn from all this is simple. How governments talk about foreign policy matters. It influences public debate, though more by raising and lowering the salience of an issue than by persuading people to adopt a different view. It determines both the political and the normative legitimacy of a decision. It establishes criteria for success. The clash between deliberation and persuasion in the Blair government’s case for war in Iraq explains a good part of the legitimacy deficit surrounding it. Shortcomings in the specific arguments made explain the bulk of the rest. It would perhaps have been better not to have talked so much after all.
In this series of posts, I hope to try to think sensibly about Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Too much of the debate remains dominated by mad shrieking about ‘enemies of the people’, by a post-truth paranoia about elites undoing the referendum result that simply isn’t borne out by evidence or events. We can and must do better than this if we are to do justice to the competing demands of Britain’s divided voters, while delivering the best possible outcome for the Brexit process overall.
I want to begin today with a fundamental point. Brexit means Brexit, as Theresa May regularly says. It is true that May’s rather gnomic comments on the subject deliberately downplay the range of ways Britain could leave the EU, the complexity of doing so and a great deal of uncertainty about what happens next. But the critical dimension is crystal clear. Britain held a straightforward ‘in-out’ referendum on its continued EU membership, and the majority of voters voted ‘out’. Britain is going to leave the EU.
Much of the argument around the pending Supreme Court verdict on parliament’s involvement in triggering Article 50 centres around failures on both sides to accept this statement as true. Some ‘remain’ voters hope MPs, the majority of whom backed ‘remain’, will reverse the outcome of the referendum. Many ‘leave’ voters, who make up a majority of the constituents of a majority of MPs thanks to the clustering of ‘remain’ voters in the cities, fear exactly the same outcome, and cry foul. There are two points worth making here.
First, the Supreme Court is likely to rule in favour of Gina Miller’s challenge, upholding the High Court’s verdict that the government must allow some sort of parliamentary vote before notifying the rest of the EU that it intends to exercise the right enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty of member states to leave. Miller’s case is straightforward. Triggering Article 50 takes Britain out of the EU after two years whether a deal is done or not. Leaving the EU will deprive British citizens of a series of rights currently enshrined in British law but derived from Britain’s EU membership, including specifically the right to vote in European elections. Though an elegant solution in other ways, the government’s so-called ‘Great Repeal Act’, which rather than repealing anything will in fact transpose the entirety of EU law into UK law so parliament can choose which bits to keep and which to repeal rather than having to start from scratch, does not get the job done on this front. While the power to make and unmake treaties remains vested in the government through the ‘royal prerogative’, it is a principle of English law that royal prerogative cannot be used to remove statutory rights from citizens. That, to be clear, is probably a good thing. The government has argued that involving parliament necessarily restricts the operation of the prerogative in an area that falls very much within the usual ambit of prerogative powers, but realistically the court is likely to come down on the side of the citizenry in this case.
Second, MPs are unlikely to prevent the government from triggering Article 50. One thing we have learned from the gradual growth of parliamentary powers in the realm of military combat deployments is that MPs are actually willing to judge individual cases presented to them on their respective merits. Despite lingering (and justified) concerns about the merits of military intervention left over from the disaster of Iraq, they are still willing to approve the use of force to meet clear objectives, as part of a multinational coalition and without incurring unnecessary risks. MPs are acutely aware of the fact that most of their constituents voted to leave – Zac Goldsmith’s defeat by a pro-EU Liberal Democrat candidate in Richmond notwithstanding. They know they will be challenged by UKIP at the next election if they fail to respect that balance of views. But they also know that, as I have said, there are multiple ways of leaving the EU, the process is complex, and reaching an outcome acceptable to many, if not most, British people will be hard. They will vote for Article 50 provided the government sets out a reasonable plan, giving some indication of its preferred end result, negotiating priorities and approach.
This is not an unreasonable thing for MPs to request. Most ‘leave’ voters, if they think about it, are likely to agree that the government should come up with a plan, identifying desired outcomes and deciding which areas to prioritize. We can probably come up with a rough approximation of what the government’s negotiating objectives are likely to be. This is my best guess:
Britain would like to retain maximum access to the single market and is willing to accept that will mean following rules set by the other EU states and making a financial contribution to the EU budget. In practice this is likely to look more like a third-party free-trade deal than the so-called ‘Norway model’. That means it will involve sector-by-sector agreements rather than unfettered single market membership. EEA membership may offer an acceptable transitional model on the economic front, but will be acceptable only subject to the next point about immigration.
Britain must have the right to impose restrictions on immigration from within the EU, and will give up single market access if necessary in order to secure that right. It will accept the loss of British citizens’ rights to live and work freely elsewhere in the EU. It may explore the possibility of some sort of system of exemptions, perhaps allowing more liberal arrangements for people under the age of 26, or for a limited period of time (e.g. along the model of the Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme visa).
Britain would like British citizens resident elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens resident in the UK at the time of the referendum to retain their respective rights to live and work where they are. It would also like to minimize the costs associated with moving between the UK and EU for both work and pleasure in future.
Britain would like to continue to work in close partnership with the EU in areas of mutual interest, including trade, international development, environmental policy, counter-terrorism, policing and international security. It is more than willing to pay its way, and it has considerable expertise available to contribute.
There will be challenges associated with these objectives. Negotiating them will not be straightforward. Personally, I would push for an early reciprocal deal on citizens in situ at the time of the referendum, and a clear statement of continued co-operation in areas like security, as a way of re-establishing a degree of goodwill and getting the negotiations off to a positive start. I also like the idea of having different rules for young people, most of whom voted to ‘remain’ and who are disproportionately disadvantaged by the loss of the right to live, work and study freely elsewhere in Europe. Again, it may be possible to negotiate a more limited form of free movement on these terms provided it is seen as a truly reciprocal arrangement rather than a ‘special deal’ for Britain.
Stating objectives like these does not make negotiating them more difficult. In fact, securing parliamentary approval for triggering Article 50 on the basis of an explicitly stated set of negotiating objectives arguably strengthens the government’s hand. Firstly, it tells the rest of the EU what Britain wants. There has been a great deal of frustration in the other 27 capitals about Britain’s failure to clarify this point. Doing so should at least let everyone know where they stand, and help the EU27 to clarify their own objectives. This should shift the debate away from emotion and towards simple politics, where there is more scope for compromise. Secondly, it sends a signal that Britain wants to minimize the disruption caused to the rest of the EU by its departure, and to continue to work together positively in future. As Boris Johnson said in response to the referendum result, Britain will remain a European power after Brexit. Though the shock of departure, and the slap in the face the British electorate has given the rest of the EU, will make relations frosty for a period, there is no reason why Britain should not in time become a valued partner of the EU. Finally, it sets clear limits to what Britain can accept, especially in the area of immigration, while leaving open the possibility of favorable outcomes for the EU27 in other areas. A deal that met some of the government’s publicly-stated negotiating objectives while moving towards others would probably be acceptable in Britain. That would allow the government to make credible commitments in areas where the disagreements between London and the EU27 are fewer. None of this means a deal will actually emerge. Emotions continue to run high, and there are a number of areas where Britain’s interests conflict with those of the EU27, and where the EU27 are internally divided, with free movement chief among them. But it would establish a clear, coherent and legitimate set of objectives to get the process moving.
Brexit means Brexit. Britain is going to leave the EU. Involving MPs will force the government to come up with a sensible plan, will give it credibility in Brussels and should obviate the need for a referendum on the final Brexit terms that the government would struggle to win. It will also begin the process of restoring sovereignty to parliament that many ‘leave’ voters voted for, and will fit nicely into the ongoing trend towards MPs gaining a greater say over British foreign policy. Making the government’s objectives clear and transparent will neither prevent it achieving them nor ensure it can do so. But it is a necessary first step. It should not have been necessary for Gina Miller to go to court at all. The legal position is fairly clear, and the government is probably going to lose, with the added risk that it may wind up forced to consult the devolved administrations more directly. Ministers should never have tried to exclude MPs from the process. Getting them involved will not mean annulling the result of the referendum. It should, however, help ensure it is upheld properly.
Parliamentary opposition has forced the British government to water down a motion seeking approval for military action against the Assad regime in Syria. This is a big deal, given in theory Parliament has no role in decisions about the international use of force. As the BBC’s Nick Robinson put it, “It is without modern precedent for a prime minister to lose control of his foreign policy, let alone decisions about peace and war. That, though, is what has happened in the past 24 hours”.
It reinforces a growing shift in the constitutional balance of power that began when Tony Blair was forced to allow a vote before the Iraq invasion in 2003. Cameron saw no downside copying Blair over Libya in 2011. The Libyan action was backed by the UN Security Council, so Parliament voted unanimously to support it. By treating Blair’s unusual act as a precedent, however, Cameron helped cement a new convention. Since the entire royal prerogative, from which the authority to direct the use of force stems, is a conventional power, it changes when the conventions around it change. It doesn’t matter that promises by Gordon Brown, William Hague, and Cameron himself failed to result in new legislation guaranteeing Parliament a vote on any future military actions. As Cameron’s u-turn over Syria shows, he is bound by the new norms of British foreign policy making whether he likes it or not. What we have witness over the last 24 hours in British politics is nothing short of the birth of a new parliamentary prerogative.
Even with legal advice confirming any strike would be in line with international law, and the JIC stating it is highly likely there has been a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime in Damascus, it is unclear MPs will back the use of force. In which case, Britain simply won’t be able to take part.
In some respects, the decision to recall Parliament to approve what David Cameron calls a “clear motion” authorising action in Syria is unsurprising. William Hague promised the Andrew Marr show on 9 June that any intervention would be signed off by MPs. The government would have struggled to back down from Hague’s unambiguous statement without suffering considerable political opprobrium. At the same time, it is hugely significant. Through debates and substantive votes over the Iraq war, the Libyan intervention, and now Syria Parliament has gradually gained a conventional right to veto the international use of force. The power, previously part of the royal prerogative and reserved to the Prime Minister, has been gradually given away and ultimately yoked to parliamentary support. No future leader will be able to row back from precedents set in 2003, 2011, and 2013. Against the weight of convention now established, the absence of a formal change in the law remains odd but insignificant. MPs will always get a vote in future. The government retains only the freedom to decide the timing.