No, Prime Minister? What Role does the House of Commons Play in UK Foreign Policy?

By Juliet Kaarbo and Daniel Kenealy, University of Edinburgh

Following the recent UK drone attacks in Syria, the House of Commons may once again vote on the UK’s role in the Syrian conflict. This comes about one year after Westminster supported Prime Minister David Cameron’s military initiatives in Iraq against Islamic State, and two years after the stunning vote that stopped the Prime Minister from participating in strikes against Syria after a chemical attack in Damascus. In our new article, “No, Prime Minister: Explaining the House of Commons’ Vote on Intervention in Syria,” published in European Security and currently open access for downloading here, we examine in-depth the 29 August 2013 vote in the UK House of Commons that inflicted the first defeat on a prime minister over a matter of war and peace since 1782. Recalled to debate and vote on UK intervention in Syria, the Commons humbled the government and crucially impacted the development of UK foreign policy – and arguably U.S. and French foreign policy – towards Syria at that time.

This was an unusual case of a parliament defying a prime minister’s preference on a decision to deploy military force. This vote was unprecedented in UK politics and challenges conventional wisdom that Westminster, and parliaments generally, have little influence in security policy. The vote was also unusual since even though a majority of members of parliament actually voted for the use of force against Syria, but because their support was split across a government motion and a very similar motion sponsored by Labour, both motions failed to gain a majority. Taking the hint, Cameron, visibly surprised, confirmed that the UK would not participate in military action against Syria under any circumstances and that he had no intention of bringing the issue back to the Commons for further consideration.

Despite these unique features, this case also resembles instances of parliamentary influence elsewhere (such as the Turkish parliament’s vote in the Iraq 2003 war) and the factors that explain this vote are consistent with other cases. Our article places the August 2013 vote, and the developments leading to it, in the context of the role of parliaments in security policy and explores the relationships between parliamentary influence, leadership, intra-party and intra-coalition politics, and public opinion. From our analysis of leaders’ statements and parliamentary debate, we find a combination of intra-party politics and party leadership were most significant. The Conservatives and their coalition partner the Liberal Democrats were deeply divided on the issue. Cameron and his team seemed to misperceive the opposition on his own backbenches and underestimate the leadership required to secure votes. An additional factor – the role of historical precedent – was also important. The ‘lessons’ of Iraq, the ‘ghost’ of Tony Blair, and the lingering mistrust by parliament of the prime minister’s foreign policy claims clearly underlay parliamentary and public scepticism.

Our analysis explores the fluidity and interconnectedness of the various factors for parliamentary influence in foreign policy and offers directions for future theoretical development and empirical research. We also conclude that the Commons’ influence in this case did not derive from a deep, structural shift in parliamentary authority, but rather from several mutually reinforcing factors. These factors played out differently, and in Cameron’s favour, in the 2014 debate on intervention in Iraq. That parliament may weigh in on drone attacks in Syria is likely, but the fact that the government issued strikes without parliamentary approval (without giving the Commons an opportunity to say yes or no, prime minister) demonstrates this on-going fluidity in parliament’s role in UK foreign policy.

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The year in review…a selection of our publications from 2014-15

One theme dominated politics in Edinburgh this year — the Independence Referendum and its implications for Scottish Politics. James Mitchell’s The Scottish Question – one of the Independent’s books of the year 2014 – set the stage for many of these discussions, putting debates on the rise of modern Scottish nationalism and the independence referendum into a wider context and challenging misconceptions and mythologies that have grown up around Scottish politics. Mitchell also co-edited After independence with Gerry Hassan which brought both pro- and anti-independence perspectives to bear on the question of the referendum. Mitchell then went on to analyse the implications of the Scottish vote in the 2015 General Election, with a chapter in Britain Votes 2015. Nicola McEwen and Bettina Petersohn also move the debate on, looking at the challenges of shared rule after the referendum.

Andy Thompson ensured that Scotland’s innovative approach to healthcare would not be neglected. In a chapter co-authored with David Steel, he sets out how Scotland’s emphasis on partnership working and mutuality between citizens and the State, and opposition to markets and privatization differs from that of our neighbours.

Energy and public engagement in policy-making occupied several of our colleagues. Oliver Escobar’s research explores how we can better involve citizens in decision-making.   Focusing on the issue of onshore wind farm development in Scotland, Escobar’s report provides detailed proposals for how to involve communities in public deliberation. Elizabeth Bomberg took a different angle on controversial energy policies in her article examining competing political discourses surrounding shale extraction in the UK. She argues that the anti-shale coalition in the UK has been effective in getting its message across: firstly, because the pro-shale coalition lacks trustworthy messengers; secondly, because shale opponents have successfully expanded the debate beyond economic or environmental concerns to include potent issues of local power and democracy. Elin Royles & Nicola McEwen explore emission reduction programmes and renewable energy in Scotland and Wales in an Environmental Politics article. They conclude that constitutionally provided powers only partially explain the nations’ ambitions, while civil society and territorial distinctiveness also shape their policy goals.

Immigration and asylum policy were also significant issues on the public agenda this year. Christina Boswell’s article in Public Administration shows how asylum targets designed to steer public administration were overly technical, and failed to resonate with the public. On the other hand, politically designed targets created huge pressure on the Home Office to deliver unfeasible outcomes. Shaun Bevan also published in Public Administration with an article that provides a new avenue for research on bureaucracy by approaching it as a unique policy-making institution. Further abroad Julie Kaarbo explores how the ‘grand’ theories of international relations are increasingly incorporating domestic politics and decision-making factors. In a June 2015 article, she proposes that a foreign policy analysis perspective challenges some of the assumptions in these theories.

Ewan Stein produced a series of publications that look at the intellectual trends in the Middle East and an exploration of how the term jihad is used and what it means in the twenty-first century, as well as an article in Democratization with Frederic Volpi on ‘Islamism and the State after the Arab Uprisings’.   In a Current History article, Sara Dorman explores how nationalism in Africa can be both a bottom-up and a top-down process. While in an article on urban removals in Zimbabwe, she explores how ideas about urban planning reflect and shape notions of citizenship and representation.  In a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies, Dorman argued that citizenship in Africa must be understood as more than simply the ‘politics of belonging’, while Xavier Guillaume argued that it is more fruitful to think of citizenship as a ‘regime’ rather than an ‘institution’ or a formal status, through consideration of the French ‘veil’ debates.

In December 2014, Fiona MacKay and Georgina Waylen published a co-edited Special Issue on ‘Gendering “New” Institutions’ in Politics & Gender. Drawing upon cases ranging from the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) innovative gender mandate, to the involvement of women in peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and South Africa, the Special Issue aims to improve our understanding of the gender dynamics of institutional change and reform.   Claire Duncanson’s article in Men and Masculinities theorises how more positive gender relations might come about, drawing on research on militarised masculinities.   Andrea Birdsall’s article “The Responsibility to Prosecute and the ICC: A Problematic Relationship?” formed part of a symposium on the ICC and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which was published in Criminal Law Forum. It addresses the links between the ICC and the R2P and the implications of their developments in the context of Libya and Syria. It argues that the principles of ending impunity and holding individuals accountable for their actions are not questioned by the international society, but that the main problem is how this can be done in a politically sustainable way. Carmen Gebhard and Simon Smith also look at questions of institutional co-operation in their article exploring how the EU and NATO co-operate in practice, at the operational level off the Somali coast, despite having no formal links.

Textbooks are also on our agenda, with Andrew Neal co-editing and contributing to a guide to Critical Security Methods. This text, which also includes a contribution from Xavier Guillaume, challenges scholars of critical security studies to consider how the practices they study (surveillance, data mining etc) are themselves research methods, while also seeing their own research methods as practices that intervene and interfere in those sites of security and insecurity. Meanwhile, Charles Raab and co-authors, Richard Jones and Iván Székely explore the relationship between surveillance and resilience in the context of counter-terrorism. They suggest that surveillance, introduced in name of greater security, may itself erode social freedoms and public goods such as privacy, possibly instigating societal resilience, whether precautionary or in mitigation of the harms it causes to the public goods of free societies.

John Peterson further developed his well-known co-edited textbook on the European Union, with the 4th edition of The European Union:  How Does it Work? which includes new and updated coverage of the EU’s response to the Eurozone crisis, the Ukrainian crisis, and the possibility of the UK’s exit from the Union. And in Parochial Global Europe:  21st Century Trade Politics, Peterson and co-author Alasdair Young provide a new analytical framework that helps explain why the EU seeks to be a global trading power but often ends up acting parochially in defense of its narrow economic interests.  Meanwhile Chad Damro’s article in the Journal of European Public Policy looked at how trade power could be conceptualized and integrated into analysis of the EU and its international influence. While in the Review of International Political Economy Kristen Hopewell’s article “Different Paths to Power: The Rise of Brazil, India and China at the WTO” examined new players on the world trade stage with an examination of the differences between how Brazil, India and China have taken their places at the WTO. Jana Hoenke also cast a critical eye at the Business for Peace agenda, highlighting the unintended consequences and negative effects that come with top-down, centralized approaches.

Liberal values are universal values?

Tim Hayward

Today I started to read an article. It began by way of a preamble stating the author’s ‘commitment to universal liberal values’. I stopped right there. My train of thought went off at a tangent to the author’s.

I assumed he didn’t mean values that are universally held amongst liberals only, rather than by subscribers to other creeds, for that would be a misleading use of the term ‘universal’.

I thereby found myself pondering: If we suppose there are universal values, and if we accept that not everyone is liberal, then we know that those values are recognized not only by liberals.

So wouldn’t it be inappropriate to attribute to liberals intellectual property in those values?

Even if we grant that there are values that liberals were the first to conceive of – which I think is a lot to grant but I’ll grant it for the sake of argument…

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Our sterile quantitative debate on immigration needs to be humanised through stories and images

Politics, Knowledge & Migration

The body of a small boy, 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. This was the tragic image that captured mass media attention, and galvanised responses from a number of EU leaders including David Cameron.

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