The danger of fighting an unpopular war

Without wholehearted public assent, it is hard for soldiers to summon up their last reserves of daring

Share

Parliament can now, if it wishes, provide the missing legitimacy for war in Iraq. And it can do so only in a particular manner, which I will later describe. As matters stand, legitimacy has been drained away by two developments: the lack of full support from public opinion, and concerns about the legality of the enterprise under international law. This is why thousands of posters carried in the great peace march bore the slogan: "Not In My Name".

Parliament can now, if it wishes, provide the missing legitimacy for war in Iraq. And it can do so only in a particular manner, which I will later describe. As matters stand, legitimacy has been drained away by two developments: the lack of full support from public opinion, and concerns about the legality of the enterprise under international law. This is why thousands of posters carried in the great peace march bore the slogan: "Not In My Name".

To see why legitimacy matters, put yourself in the boots of our troops gathering on the Iraq border. Their spirits, their comfort of mind, their willingness to face death and not turn away depend upon their bond with their fellow citizens at home.

Are they fighting for something they can believe in? We provide that. Are we willing them to victory or are we not? If public opinion is doubtful and the legality of military action in question, it is hard for soldiers to summon up their last reserves of daring and will power. I would go further and say that it is dangerous, and the result may be tragedy if we ask our troops to fight without our wholehearted assent.

This uncertain situation stands in sharp contrast to earlier times. Whenever we have sent such a substantial proportion of our armed forces into battle, the reason has commanded near universal acceptance, if not enthusiasm. The troops who went off to the Continent in 1914 were cheered at railway stations as they departed for the Channel ports. In 1939 there was no joie de vivre but instead a general acceptance that a grim duty had to be done. The Falklands War was a popular cause.

In this regard, the position of the American troops massing alongside our forces in the desert is quite different. They can tell themselves that they have come to avenge the attack on the twin towers in New York. Some 3,000 people were killed on American soil. They can make the argument that war in Iraq is the first stage in rendering their country safe again. Indeed American public opinion as measured in the polls is much more supportive. No member of the US government is threatening to resign. For American troops, waging war in Iraq can be seen as their patriotic duty.

For British troops the situation is much more ambiguous. How can this be resolved? By Parliament. The most important fact about Britain's constitutional arrangements is that all power, actual and latent, is contained in a single chamber furnished with green benches, the House of Commons. The two Houses of Parliament will debate the rights and wrongs of an attack on Iraq before the action begins, which means perhaps as soon as tomorrow. The Government is to be applauded for making this opportunity available, if indeed events do turn out in this way.

However, one break with precedent would have to be made if the debate is to release its full potential. There must be no instructions from party leaders as to how MPs are to vote. There must be no activity by the party whips. The vote must be free. Free? The political establishment will be aghast at this proposal. Their system depends upon party discipline. The more important the subject, they think, the more necessary it is for the Government to assert its will. Except that whipped votes no longer carry full conviction outside the Palace of Westminster.

In the same way, to take a different example, the manner in which the US tried to bully or bribe the uncommitted members of the UN Security Council to support a second resolution would have had the effect of weakening its force even if it had obtained majority backing.

Imagine the two possible outcomes under my proposal. In case one, an unwhipped House of Commons gives its support to the Prime Minister's policy. There would no doubt have been Labour dissent on quite a large scale. Most of the Conservative Party would have backed Mr Blair. The Liberal Democrats would have voted against the motion. But a majority would have been obtained and with it full, unarguable legitimacy.

This would be parliamentary democracy in its purest form – an informed electorate represented by members acting in what they conceive to be the public interest. In these circumstances, war would be truly "in our names". I think case one would be far and away the most likely outcome.

But case two? There is no majority for war. The Prime Minister must resign. British troops are stood down. The Americans go it alone. Meanwhile a new Labour government is formed.

Yes, a dreadful political disaster, but nonetheless legitimacy would have been maintained. Parliamentary democracy would have been immeasurably strengthened. The nation would review its foreign alliances and in the end, I believe, emerge all the stronger.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas