BY JAMIE FOSTER
Jeremy Corbyn is a pacifist. That is to say he opposes any military action taken by Britain or the United States under any circumstances. He is not a pacifist to the extent that it causes him to criticise Russia or Syria for their military action, but he does not want Britain or the US to take any military action at all. His statements on a potential war powers act should be seen through this lens. While calling for parliament to have the power to stop or support any proposed military action by the government, he is really calling for a power that can help to stop military action.
Theresa May was clear that British involvement in air strikes on Syria was the result of Assad’s chemical weapons attack on his own people. Hardly the ‘whim of a US President’ as Corbyn implied in his statement. The war powers act Corbyn is calling for would prevent military action being taken until parliament is consulted. This would remove the element of surprise from any military action. It would also mean that the likelihood of military action was more to do with the political temperature of the House of Commons at the time than the reasons on the ground for taking military action.
It is right, as Theresa May said, that parliament should hold the executive to account for any decisions to take military action that it makes, but it is also right that the decision to take military action should rest with the government. Some military action requires an expeditious response which going to parliament cannot afford. Sometimes military action is unpopular but necessary. It is a hard decision for a PM to make but ultimately it is a decision that should be made by a PM.
Jeremy Corbyn is not as one with his party on this issue. There are a number of Labour MPs who think Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, leading to the deaths of children and large numbers of civilians, is reason enough to take military action against him. Corbyn’s pacifism itself is an argument against a war powers act as there will always be some who stand against military action at all costs but pacifism shouldn’t be a reason that decides whether military action is appropriate in a given situation.
The question of whether the action taken against Assad will be effective is an open one. Air strikes in the past have not prevented his continued use of chemical weapons. However it could not be right that the West stood by and did nothing in the face of his blatant use of such weapons. Corbyn’s claims that Britain should not involve itself in military action are made to impress his supporters in the Stop the War Coalition rather than serious political statements.
Penny Mourdant pointed out another reason why a war powers act is not a good idea. Intelligence on which decisions on military action is based is not circulated to all MPs for obvious reasons. It is therefore not sensible to expect people to make decisions when they aren’t party to all the facts on which such decisions should be based.
There has been a convention that parliamentary approval should be sought where possible for military action. This seems to be a more sensible basis than a war powers act. This does open the question as to whether it would have been possible for Theresa May to have sought parliamentary approval for the attack on Syria. Clearly parliament could have been recalled to consider the issue. In the end, however, Theresa May appears to have got away with her decision to go ahead without parliamentary approval.
The idea of a war powers act will be debated in Parliament this week. Hopefully we will not go down the road of a war powers act, as it stifles the nation’s ability to properly defend itself on a world stage. We will always hear voices like Corbyn’s complaining in the aftermath of any military action. We end where we started. He is a pacifist. His comments should be judged accordingly.