Second Innings at Lords


Readers will recall that in the last issue we reported the demise of Clare Short’s bill, which had been aimed at abolishing the royal prerogative in the case of war, making a full declaration of the legal case and a vote in the Commons obligatory before committing our forces.  The leader of the House, Geoff Hoon, no doubt acting under orders, talked out the proposed bill, allowing no time for a vote.  But in any case the bill was doomed for lack of numbers, insufficient MPs turning up to vote the bill through to the next, committee stage. 

Well, it seems that parliament is to be given a second chance to redeem itself.  An all-party committee of peers has set itself up to consider the matter.  The Lords select committee on the constitution aims to overcome legal and practical military objections to giving the right to authorise war to the Commons.

The approach of the committee has been admirable.  It has called before it to give evidence and explain, key players such as Clare Short herself, Tony Benn, General Sir Rupert Smith, former British commander in Bosnia, Lord Boyce, former chief of the defence staff, and Elizabeth Wimshurst, the only civil servant to resign on principle before the Iraq war, stating that the proposed conflict was illegal under international law.

The committee means business.  The chairman, Lord Holme, said: ‘The question has to be asked, whether in the 21st century it is really feasible to go to war with legitimacy without a mandate from the electorate through parliament.  The issue is not just legal, but also whether the troops will be as effective and morale sufficiently high without such a mandate.  It may be important for the troops to know the country is behind them.’ 

As reported last issue, Gordon Brown is behind this measure, believing it important in restoring trust, badly shaken by the Iraq war, in the political process.  Tony Blair is, of course, against, as he would be against any new legislation devolving power to the Commons from the prime minister.

The Lords committee will command attention.  As reported in the Guardian 27/12/05, one peer commented that ‘It is much more likely the government is going to accept something following an inquiry by a group of peers than if it comes from Clare Short.’  True, and it is also more likely that members of the House will be more likely to turn up for the next debate.

It is an extraordinary situation when members of the unelected House of Lords are trying to force more democracy upon the reluctant Commons!  Truly, the ways of our political process are strange to behold.