Parliament and the Gulf War in 1991

In today’s guest blog, Teemu Hakkinen (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland), who has researched the royal prerogative in decisions to go to war in the UK, looks back on the debates about the First Gulf War twenty-five years ago this month…

Naturally, the 2003 Iraq War has received an enormous amount of attention because of its impact on so many areas, from life in, and the politics of, the Middle East, to the domestic politics of Britain and other western countries. The UK’s involvement was authorized by the House of Commons in a tense and dramatic vote on 18 March 2003. Those events have perhaps obscured the events twelve years before – and twenty-five years ago this month – when the Commons had similarly debated the decision to go to war against Iraq as a response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In 1991 Parliament had been less directly responsible for the decision: nevertheless the vote had seen an important discussion which would influence the move towards more parliamentary involvement in the future.

Britain had taken a special role in the 1991 intervention: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been closely involved in building the strong international consensus over the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait: she and her Cabinet in August 1990 embarked on the deployment of British troops to the Middle East in order to create barrier for any further Iraqi aggression. The clear support of the United Nations Security Council and the fact that Iraq had clearly violated international agreements helped to convince many MPs to support the military operation. As the deadline set in UN Security Council resolution 678 calling for Iraqi withdrawal – 15 January 1991 – passed, there was much concern within parts of the Labour Party about the possibility of military action. Yet the party leadership backed supporting the Security Council’s resolution with force, and opposition within the Labour Party had relatively little impact.

Parliament’s role in the build-up to the war had reflected the traditional assumption that foreign policy issues, and even the decision to go for war, were largely for the executive to decide, with Parliament to approve retrospectively. There had been an emergency recall of Parliament in summer 1990 (September 6 and 7) in order to debate the Iraqi invasion; there was broad and more or less coherent support for the government’s action, though a very vocal antiwar opposition; some MPs even traveled to Iraq in an attempt to negotiate with Saddam Hussein. But the government was in control, reporting its actions to the Commons in statements such as that on 24 October. The use of force was preceded by a vote, on 15 January 1991, the same day as the deadline to the Iraqi withdrawal ended; but crucially, it was on a motion for the adjournment, rather than on a specific motion authorizing the war. Only 57 MPs voted against the adjournment. Parliamentarians were not given a chance to vote on war on a substantive motion until the troops were in combat, on 21 January 1991.

Nevertheless, the debate on 15 January saw a demand for an enhanced role for Parliament. The deployment of troops on combat operations authorized by the royal prerogative and without prior parliamentary consent was described by Tony Benn as an “old feudal anachronism … wheeled out to bypass the House.” Benn had demanded a vote with a substantive motion prior to the use of force. Closely linked to a broader discussion on what were regarded especially on the left as the outdated aspects of British constitutional arrangements, the argument, though at the time it attracted few supporters beyond the left-wing of the Labour party, was important: by the next significant military conflict that involved Britain, the NATO operation in Kosovo in 1999, Benn’s demand that Parliament should not be left on the sideline in terms of approving military action had become more typical. The tense and dramatic vote on 18 March 2003 on the Iraq war, and subsequent votes on war in Libya and Syria can be traced back to the debates in 1990 and 1991.


Teemu Hakkinen’s doctorate on the royal prerogative in decisions to go to war in the United Kingdom was completed at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, in 2014. He is currently doing postdoctoral research on the establishment of the Council of Europe.

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