Democracy now: Our perogative

The public and parliament must assert democratic control to ensure that Britain plays an ethical role in foreign affairs, writes Stuart Weir

January 30, 2008
4 min read

New Labour governments long ago abandoned the early promise of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy, but it is not forgotten by the public. An ICM opinion poll a year ago found that they believe overwhelmingly in the elements of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy, and that they want it to be democratic.

People were adamant that parliament as a whole – not the prime minister, his ministers and cronies – should decide international policies. There was a huge majority against arms sales to countries that violate human rights; another wanted the UK to press hard within the EU for trading practices that are fairer to developing countries. Two thirds wanted Britain to be more independent of the US, even if that meant being critical in public.

What’s happened in that year to meet what people want? Not much. Gordon Brown is essentially following the policies of his predecessor. So the UK continues to be actively engaged in the occupation of Iraq, colludes in Bush’s unwavering support for Israel and fails with EU allies to create a new approach to Iran. And while the government refuses to withdraw from Iraq and hold an inquiry, there is no prospect of regaining respect and influence for good in the global South.

It is vital that the royal prerogative, which gives Brown and his ministers the power to act independently of parliament, is reformed so that the people’s representatives in parliament can share fully in making foreign policies on war, treaties, development aid and trade, and so begin the process of making Britain’s role in world affairs subject to popular opinion. But MPs are as much responsible for the undemocratic nature of foreign policy as governments. They are rarely prepared to challenge government, do not demand the resources they would need to do so, and fail even to devote to the task the two under-used resources that they possess – namely, themselves and their time.

We have been working at Democratic Audit to analyse parliament’s failure to exert oversight or influence. We found that MPs are too ready to accept that they are incapable of influencing policy on major issues or even keeping the broad sweep of policy under scrutiny. We also found that the idea that they are good at the detail of policy and can have influence at this level is illusory.

In the last parliamentary session, the military high command and a growing majority of the public wanted the government to withdraw from Iraq, but still some 90 British troops there and in Afghanistan were killed and about 120 injured. The government agreed the new EU reform treaty while contemptuously refusing to engage in any dialogue with parliament about its objectives or negotiating position. The foreign affairs committee failed to get the government to end its silence over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the light of mounting evidence about the indiscriminate Israeli use of cluster munitions.

We had hoped, however, that we would be able to point to ‘successes’ at a more detailed level. We found just two issues where MPs did make a difference.

First, the foreign affairs committee mounted a tenacious campaign to persuade the government to abandon its use of cluster munitions and to reverse its refusal to back an international ban on their use. The committee’s MPs won a partial success, encouraging the government to back the treaty to outlaw their use and end the use by British forces of ‘dumb’ cluster munitions. However, there are as yet no plans to work to outlaw ‘smart’ cluster munitions: they remain in service with the UK armed forces, and there is plenty of doubt about their ability to disarm themselves.

Second, in the case of Britain’s complicity in the ‘extraordinary rendition’ by the CIA, MPs failed to make the government ‘come clean’ on its collusion in the US’s illegal policies. The most that can be said is that they made government ministers uncomfortably aware that they were at least under scrutiny.

In both these cases, pressure groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch played a significant part in informing MPs and their committees and keeping up the pressure. Here, at least, people who are concerned to ensure that Britain plays an ethical role in foreign affairs, and does not spread death, injury and misery through its own actions can join in exerting pressure on Gordon Brown and his government.

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