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After Brexit #11

War Without the People: The Political Void and Foreign Policy

Tara McCormack

9 April 2021

Since the Iraq War, the British government has resorted increasingly to covert means of intervention and warfare to evade democratic scrutiny and debate - with disastrous consequences. We urgently need to democratise foreign policy.

The UK government has now launched its long-awaited “integrated review” of foreign policy, entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”. Even before this, the Prime Minister had pledged to “end the era of retreat” in terms of Britain’s role in the world, announcing an extra £24bn in defence spending and plans for new offensive capabilities in cyberspace


But what has this so-called “era of retreat” actually involved? According to the investigative on-line website Declassified, the British military now has 145 bases in 42 countries around the world. Britain is playing a central part in war against Yemen, doing everything from training Saudi soldiers to advising where to bomb. Britain props up numerous unsavoury governments, from Brunei to Egypt and has supported anti-government militias in Libya and Syria financially, propagandistically and militarily.


We could debate the merits or otherwise of all of this. But we do not.  These important foreign policies are all “off the books”, pursued outside of the spaces of democratic debate and contestation. Indeed, nowhere is the political void between the electorate and the government deeper than it is in foreign policy. Britain’s war-making abroad is at present semi-secret and barely discussed at all in the democratic realm of contestation, debate and voting.


The irony is that this evasion of public scrutiny has arisen in the wake of the Iraq War: a foreign policy scandal that did more to undermine the political authority of British governments that any other in decades. The Iraq debacle drove de facto reforms to the constitution, requiring the government to seek parliamentary approval for war. But, in consequence, the government is now using covert methods to get around this, producing a vast expansion in covert operations not subject to democratic scrutiny.


War Powers in an Age of Diminishing Authority


During the Cold War, foreign policy remained in the realm of “emergency”, above political contestation, due to the supposedly overwhelming threat posed by the Soviet Union. British foreign policy was led by America’s foreign policy. With the end of the Cold War, however, British foreign policy was subject to continuous questioning in terms of both means and ends. A number of new guiding concepts were suggested, from “ethical” foreign policy, to the “end of foreign policy” and “foreign policy in a networked world”  (which also led to a number of disastrous changes in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), such as the creation of cross-departmental “themes”, undermining the coherence of country or regional specialisms).


This growing confusion about the purposes of British foreign policy reflected the broader erosion of governmental authority and legitimacy in the post-political era. As explored in Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void, from the 1980s onwards, politics in Britain and other Western societies was marked by a growing void between rulers and ruled. Political parties ceased to represent their traditional social constituencies, converging around a neoliberal policy set, fronting identikit candidates and retreating into the state. Citizens withdrew into private life, with membership in political parties, trade unions and civic associations, political participation, and electoral turnout all collapsing. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, political elites became increasingly conscious of, and alarmed by, this growing disconnect, which they experienced as a growing challenge to their authority and legitimacy.  


With respect to foreign policy, this concern centred on the status of the Royal Prerogative, a constitutional power with undefined boundaries that allows the executive to decide on areas of policy without parliamentary authorisation. One area that was seen as particularly problematic in an age of diminishing public trust in politicians was the potentially existential decision to go to war. The question of who should have the authority to make decisions about war became a serious topic of constitutional and political debate over the course of the 2000s and 2010s. 

The 2003 Iraq War played a pivotal role in this debate. The build-up to the war was hugely controversial, and then Prime Minister Tony Blair allowed parliament a vote on the matter. However, the vote was held a day after the American government had given the Iraqi government an ultimatum, making it was very clear that Britain and America were preparing an imminent attack. Parliament voted to support the invasion on 18 March  2003. But the war remained highly controversial, with a number of high-profile inquiries that kept the conflict in the public eye for nearly two decades. It became common knowledge, for example, that Tony Blair and George W. Bush had lied when claiming that the Iraqi government was working with Al Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction. As discussed in the memos released as part of the Chilcot Inquiry, such claims had been made in order to persuade, in particular, European publics, who were reluctant to support war. All this controversy is often said to have generated an “Iraq syndrome”: a fear among British policymakers of engaging fully in military intervention – just as Vietnam had haunted generations of US policymakers.


Post-Iraq, politicians of all parties pledged that, in future, parliament would be given a vote well in advance of any decision to go to war. Over the course of the 2000s, many observers argued that a new constitutional principle was emerging. In fact, however, it was only in 2013 that this pledge was actually fulfilled, when then Prime Minister David Cameron asked parliament for permission to join a planned American bombardment against the Syrian government. Parliament, after a long and in-depth debate, voted against. There ensued a lively debate, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from some commentators, for whom this vote signalled Britain’s “retreat from the world”.[1] Leading commentators argued that, whatever else, no prime minister could now go to war without asking Parliament. In 2015 Cameron again asked parliament to authorise joint UK-US airstrikes in Syria, this time against Islamic State, which parliament supported.

The exact nature of the limits on the British government’s war powers exists is still open to debate. When in 2018 Britain, France and America launched airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for the apparent use of a chemical weapons in Douma, then Prime Minister Theresa May refused to put the matter before Parliament. May argued that although there was certainly a new parliamentary convention, the circumstances were such that the convention did not apply. Then opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn called an emergency session that would have allowed Parliament to retrospectively assert its rights to vote, but his motion did not succeed.[3]

However, alongside this constitutional debate, there has been a significant and well-documented shift towards covert military intervention. Consequently, this constitutional debate, which focuses on overt and open engagement, does not actually address much of Britain’s post-Iraq foreign policy.  For British elites, one of the “lessons learned” from Iraq is not to stop engaging in military operations, or subject decisions about foreign policy to democratic debate. Rather it is to shift to using covert forms of military intervention, insulated from public debate and accountability, and ultimately from the consequences of the action, too. Below I briefly discuss three significant examples of this, at least two of which have been in conflicts with profound regional and global consequences.


Special Forces


Britain’s use of special forces occurs beyond parliamentary scrutiny. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has an explicit “no comment” policy, but what British special forces are up to is not entirely unknown. Periodically, the Government allows certain information to be made public. For example, based on selective releases, the BBC journalist Mark Urban wrote a lengthy account in 2012 on the activities of UK special forces in Libya. This makes clear that they were deployed to pursue ends that were authorised neither by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which had green-lit NATO intervention in Libya, nor by the British parliament.


The UN-authorised military intervention in Libya had a limited remit of “civilian protection” (of course, there is a legitimate debate to be had about any aspects of intervention but this is beyond the parameters of this piece). UNSC Resolution 1973 was passed on 17 March, and by 19 March Britain, France and America were already bombing Libya. Two days later, the British parliament voted to support the airstrikes under the UN mandate. However, the limited mission authorised by the UN did not fit in with British, French and American aims to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. As Urban explains at the start, special forces were deployed to help rebel forces achieve this end.

Post-intervention Libya is a disaster. Having deposed Gaddafi, the intervening states dusted themselves off and went home, while the ravaged country descended into civil war. Libya was briefly back in the limelight when ISIS-run slave markets were discovered by CNN in 2017, but it has scarcely been mentioned in Britain since. The Libyan intervention has had very significant regional consequences, not least allowing the Obama administration to begin a programme of shipping Libyan government weapons to jihadis in Syria. What is objectionable here is not just that the covert nature of the regime change operation means that the states involved are not held accountable for these outcomes. It is that the entire policy has occurred in secret, insulated from any democratic debate or scrutiny.



A second important example of covert intervention is Britain’s growing offensive operations in cyberspace after 2013. I would love to discuss what the government is doing in this field – but I cannot. Behind the walls of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain is doing all sorts of things that we can only guess at by looking at what other states are doing.


A very well-known example is Stuxnet, the massive American-Israeli program that disrupted work at Iran’s Nantanz nuclear facility, and was part of a wider programme of disruption, including the assassination of Iranian scientists. Edward Snowden’s revelations of America’s system of global surveillance and espionage is another well-known example.

Britain’s prime minister has pledged that offensive cyber will be at the heart of “global Britain’s” new role, and to this end has established a National Cyber Force that will draw together GCHQ, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the MoD and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down.

Certainly, cyberwarfare can be over-dramatised. However, several of its characteristics make it particularly dangerous, including lack of agreed rules, questions around attribution and so on. It is no longer science fiction but fact (and has been since the late 2000s) that states can inflict damage using online attacks whose effects approximate, for example, a traditional air raid. Moreover, since 2014 NATO states have designated cyber as an operational military domain. This means that, in principle, a cyberattack can be responded to in the same way as a traditional attack – i.e. that a cyberattack on one NATO member-state would trigger collective retaliation by the whole alliance. This potentially massive capability – one that can drag us into or rapidly escalate conflict – is something that is entirely excluded from democratic oversight or contestation.

Britain’s Covert War in Syria

Finally, Britain has played an important role in the Syrian conflict, as it has in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen (which was also not democratically authorised). What we know about this has emerged not from oversight and scrutiny in parliament, but through robust investigative journalism and government leaks.


The FCO has funded several front companies that have channelled money into various Syrian groups, including media, activists, and the White Helmets (funded by FCO via the organisations ARK and then Mayday, famously run by the late James Le Mesurier). In late 2020 a big leak of FCO documents detailed years of contracts, training programmes, media operations and so on through which FCO managed Syrian opposition groups and media. This covert propaganda war against the Assad regime created a situation wherein the BBC could have been reporting on information from apparently “independent” sources in Syria that were actually funded by the British state. Ian Cobain has written that a complementary MoD programme exists, too.


We also know that Britain has played a military support role in the ground war against the Syrian government. By 2013 vast amounts of arms were being shipped to anti-Syrian government militias, via the CIA and the Gulf States, with the knowledge and support of Britain. Subsequently, British military and logistical support to anti-government militias has increased hugely as part of the Turkish, Gulf, and US programmes.


All of this is in violation of the expressed will of parliament. Parliament was asked to vote on whether to join in a proposed American campaign against the Syrian government in 2013. It refused. In the debate preceding the vote, fears were expressed about support for so-called rebels that were indistinguishable from vicious jihadi groups. I dare say if the government actually asked voters if they would like to support Nour al-Din al Zinki (best known in Britain for filming themselves beheading a young boy and sharing the footage with like-minded jihadis) it would not get the answer it wants.


As with Libya, however, this has been a covert operation, and the British Government has neither had to make a public case for its decisions, nor face accountability for the consequences of its actions. Perversely, in fact, the most common narrative pushed by the government (and the White House) is that the Syrian conflict is a consequence of lack of intervention. In truth, we have been at the centre of the conflict from the start.


The consequence of the 2013 “no” vote was not, as militarist commentators feared, an end to intervention. Rather, it simply entrenched the post-Iraq move to covert modes of intervention that evade democratic debate. The government prefers this because its addiction to interventions is clearly at odds with public opinion. For example, in the build-up to the 2018 air strikes, public polls showed solid majorities against any military action. Nearly two decades of inquiries and fall out from the Iraq war have taught our political class one key lesson: never again do anything in public that you can do in private.


Taking Control of Foreign Policy

How do we begin to democratise foreign policy? The current trends are clearly not promising. The newly published Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy and related MoD papers and statements are notable for pledging even more international intervention. While the number of regular troops is to be cut considerably, the Government is set to prioritise special forces, cyber and other remote control methods that lie outside of the democratic realm of oversight and scrutiny. This is combined with a growing focus on MoD-led “narrative management”. That is to say, Britain will be expanding its intervention whilst the government hides it and works actively to control the way in which our foreign policy is discussed.


There is no easy answer here, but the starting point must be to expose government behaviour to far greater debate and scrutiny than is currently the case. This should begin with a sea change in the media’s approach. British media reporting on foreign affairs is almost exclusively devoted to reinforcing the government narrative and attacking those who question it, rather than holding the government to account. Since the Iraq War, the space in the media for those critical of government foreign policies has substantially narrowed. This urgently needs to change.


However, the media are unlikely to investigate or report foreign policy independently if parliament itself will not hold the government to account. Yet, time and time again, parliament has abandoned this crucial part of its job. Parliament’s current behaviour in the context of COVID-19 is suggestive of a delinquent legislature that is ever ready to abdicate its responsibilities.  In fact, rather than the retreat of the Royal Prerogative, it seems to have expanded to take in the whole of Government.


The slogan “Take Back Control” always told a half-truth about Brexit. The electorate could not take “back” control of policy when it had never really had much control in the first place. In no area is this more true than foreign policy. If we are to take control of Britain’s war-making in the future, we need first and foremost to a new debate what our foreign policy interests really are, and political representatives in parliament who are willing to hold government to account, and promote public debate.



[1] For overviews of this development of this constitutional debate see James Strong, “Why Parliament Now Decides on War: Tracing the Growth of the Parliamentary Prerogative Through Syria, Libya and Iraq”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 17(4): 1–19; James Strong, “The War Powers of the British Parliament: What Has Been Established and What Remains Unclear”, British Journal of Politics and

International Relations 20(1): 19–34; Tara McCormack, Britain’s War Powers, The Fall and Rise of Executive Authority? (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[2] See McCormack, Britain’s War Powers.

About the author

Dr Tara McCormack is Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester, and a co-founder of The Full Brexit.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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