Crispin Black: Voters must decide when we go to war

Life and decisions are made by politicians who have seen no active service. A referendum should ratify any military campaign

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The British still know how to fight as the bravery of our troops in Afghanistan daily reminds us. But the British political elite have lost the art of going to war – as revelations at the Iraq inquiry last week show clearly. The most obvious reason for this is lack of experience. Our leading politicians wear no campaign medals as they stand at the Cenotaph or pose for photographs in the garden of remembrance at Westminster Abbey. Few of our MPs ever served in the armed forces. And sadly, David Cameron preferred public relations to soldiering as preparation for high office – despite Eton remaining the single biggest provider of officers to the Army. They understand little of what is involved, yet still feel entitled to make life and death decisions for others.

Even more alienating for the British public is the democratic deficit attached to our military deployments. Most glaringly this happens at international level – the real decisions about the deployment of British forces abroad since the Falklands are made in Washington (or Crawford, Texas). Scepticism about the "special relationship" took hold here thanks to a disdain for President Bush. But to be fair to him, Bush at least gave the appearance of involving the British in decision-making. Now that Mr Obama runs the show, the state-of-the-art video-conferencing suite underneath the Cabinet Office has gone silent. Obama may be more acceptable to the British public, but he seems to take our soldiers for granted. I doubt the British people will put up with this for much longer. Should we help the Americans in future, the basis of our political and military relationship needs to be transparent and formalised if it is to maintain popular support here. It is no longer acceptable for British prime ministers to negotiate informally and privately with US presidents over British military matters and then expect Parliament and people to take the whole thing on trust. It should not be beyond the wit of Parliament and our civil service to devise a set of public "riding instructions" that should govern our military assistance to the United States. It will do no harm for US presidents to understand that British military assistance always comes with conditions institutionalised and publicly promulgated by our democratic institutions.

More insidiously, there is a domestic deficit as well. Once military and intelligence matters are discussed in Whitehall what you might call the SofaPrinzip kicks into action. There is little or no ongoing discussion in Parliament. All the major decisions are taken by a small group of prime ministerial advisers insulated from popular feeling, oblivious to military advice and seemingly incapable of co-ordinating action across departments. It is astonishing, for instance, that despite the Government's determination to persevere in Afghanistan, the campaign was only designated the Ministry of Defence's main effort on 1 September this year.

Go to any military gathering and you will hear repeated General Sir Rupert Smith's celebrated description of most modern campaigns – "war among the people". But the people Smith and his serving colleagues are talking about are other people, the people among whom British troops operate. It appears that both modern Whitehall practice and military doctrine lock out the British people from influencing the wars being prosecuted on their behalf. As ministers and generals are finding out fast, the key consideration in a sustained military campaign is to make sure that your own people support it. And preferably make sure this is so before the troops are despatched into harm's way. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former ambassador to the UN, was spot on to suggest on Friday to the Iraq inquiry that popular support was one of the necessary components for a war's legitimacy.

After the débâcle of the Vietnam war, the US Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973, requiring presidents to seek the authority of Congress before embarking on military adventures abroad likely to last more than 60 days. The White House has never accepted the measure as constitutional and it was passed over President Nixon's veto. Nevertheless, it is a significant restraint on the powers of the executive. We need something similar here before the next war kicks off.

At first sight the UK already has an equivalent. It is possible for a prime minister to commit troops to war using the Royal Prerogative alone but in effect major military expeditions require the consent of Parliament. But Parliament rarely acts as a check on the executive because the executive controls Parliament, as we discovered in the run up to Iraq. General Sir Michael Rose, under whom I studied at the Army Staff College in the 1990s, rightly and furiously points the finger at MPs for "supinely accepting" the dodgy dossiers.The party whips control everything. Debate is rigged or stifled, particularly when there is cross-party agreement.

Away from the political elites, the British people collectively do still appear to have a sensible attitude to war. They backed the Falklands Task Force con brio and the first Gulf war with restrained enthusiasm. They were rightly suspicious of the whole Iraq adventure from the start. And now in Afghanistan the majority of people, as a survey in this newspaper showed clearly, want our troops to be brought back quickly from an "unwinnable" war that few understand. This is wisdom of the masses with a track record that puts Parliament's to shame. Why not return to them the powers that they have delegated to their MPs? Let the Government and Parliament deal with the day-to-day running of defence. Let the people decide whether we should commit troops and money to extended and difficult military expeditions half-way across the world – directly, in a referendum.

The public debate required by such a process would help to expose both lies (Iraq) and muddled thinking (Afghanistan). It would help government and armed forces with the first and most important principle of war. Sandhurst cadets are taught it on their first day – selection and maintenance of the aim. A yes vote would give the full authority of the British people to prolonged military action. Our enemies would know that whatever the difficulties and disappointments British troops had the ultimate backing and authority – that of their own people expressed in a nationwide referendum. We might go to war a little less than in recent years, but when we did we would be more likely to win.

Crispin Black is a former platoon commander of the Welsh Guards and an intelligence analyst

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