Today, MPs have been recalled from their summer break to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Parliament’s direct involvement in foreign affairs has always been rather smaller than in domestic policy; the business of negotiating with foreign states is a closely-defended aspect of the royal prerogative. Nevertheless, MPs have often wanted to discuss and debate overseas events, and as we saw yesterday, can still have a large impact. Before the 20th century, the crown frequently needed Parliament’s financial support in order to wage war, and so inevitably Parliament was drawn in to diplomatic matters (for more, see our Explore: Diplomacy & War section).
In modern times, the government has the power to ask the Speaker to recall Parliament if he considers it to be in the public interest. Since this procedure was formalised as a standing order in 1948 there have been 26 recalls, and 11 were directly related to foreign affairs; from new defence legislation introduced during the Korean War in 1950 to the now infamous recall on 24 September 2002 to discuss Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Given that, unlike for example the US Congress, Parliament has no official role to play in foreign affairs, why have recesses been interrupted for crises abroad so often?
In some cases, Parliament intended simply to formally condemn an event. In 1968, for example, Parliament was recalled after the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia to prevent the government’s liberalisation measures known as the ‘Prague Spring’. Both Harold Wilson’s government and Ted Heath’s opposition realised there was little to be done but to condemn Soviet actions. Wilson asked Parliament to do so with ‘a clear and, I believe, united voice.’ Heath agreed that the House was in ‘complete unity’. Both party leaders praised the ‘immense bravery’ of the Czechs, and expressed frustration that little could be done to help them [Hansard 26 August 1968]. The UN, of course, would not intervene as the Soviets had a veto on the Security Council. Indeed the role and, often, weakness of the UN looms largely in many of these debates.
The House was also recalled to debate dangerous situations. Over several days in October 1961, Parliament debated Soviet nuclear testing, the war in the Congo, and the ongoing Berlin Wall crisis. In this case Parliament had not been recalled immediately (the border between East and West Berlin was sealed in August 1961). Then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, did not want the recall to be a ‘kind of panic measure’ but acknowledged that both sides of the Commons wanted to debate these vital matters before Parliament was due to sit again in November [Hansard, 18 October 1961]. Again, in the complicated case of Berlin there was little that Parliament could do, but the recall allowed the British government to demonstrate to the Soviets and Germans its determination to stay in West Berlin.
The desire for governments to gain support for their policies did not always meet with great success. On Saturday 3 April 1982, Parliament was recalled after the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands and a British naval task force was preparing to leave for the Pacific. The Commons did join Margaret Thatcher ‘in condemning totally this unprovoked aggression,’ but Thatcher’s government faced criticism for allowing the surprise invasion to take place. The leader of the opposition, Michael Foot, condemned the government for its lack of preparation [Hansard, 3 April]. Despite Thatcher’s defence of her government, her foreign secretary, Peter Carrington, resigned over the crisis. In his interview for our oral history project, he explained his decision:
In the first place I was the Foreign Secretary and therefore responsible for foreign affairs and you must take responsibility. But I think more particularly, if you’re going to war…it’s a great mistake to go to war with the great British public squabbling about who is responsible for it…I think it really cleared the air.
On other occasions the recalled House was even more fractious, such as during the Suez Crisis in September 1956. The Egyptian leader, Colonel Abdel Nasser, had just rejected diplomatic moves to place the canal under international management. Prime Minister Antony Eden asked the House to back the government’s policy of diplomatic and military pressure on the Egyptian leader. During the debates Eden drew parallels with the appeasement of the 1930s: ‘In these weeks I have constantly in my mind the closeness of these events with those of the years before the war.’ He gained no support from Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour party, however, who questioned several aspects of the government’s policy, and particularly the threat of British force to take back the canal. Gaitskell wanted to know how far force would have to go to be successful, where the intervention would end, and why the UN had not been consulted [Hansard, 12 September 1956].
Unfortunately for Eden, when his government later decided to use force to retake the canal in collusion with the French and Israelis, it was a military success but a diplomatic disaster. The Canal Zone was retaken by British and French troops but the move was condemned by the United States, who threatened to remove financial support from Britain unless a ceasefire was declared. This was seen at the time as the end of Britain as a great power, and the impact this had on some MPs is demonstrated in this extract from our Oral History interview with former Ulster Unionist MP Robin Chichester-Clark available on our website.
Eden later resigned the premiership, and was proven afterwards to have lied to Parliament about the relationship with the French and Israelis. Even though Parliament may have no official role in foreign affairs, it can be unwise for governments to ignore it!