5 March 2019

The decision to deploy Britain's Armed Forces has historically derived from the Royal Prerogative and was therefore a matter for British governments to determine, with parliament only offering approval on an ex post facto basis. However, since 2003 Parliament has on several occasions been invited to authorise Government proposals for the use of force – this has become known as the war powers convention. 

The convention has come under strain in recent years due to the changing character of warfare, and a shift in the way the UK is choosing to engage militarily overseas. This means that a growing amount of military activity is increasingly falling outside the purview of the war powers convention which nominally only applies to “combat” deployments. 

The submission makes the following key arguments:

Role of the War Powers Convention

  • The WPC has demonstrated both a symbolic and practical shift in the relationship between Parliament and the executive – even demonstrating it can be a good check on bad strategy, as was the case with the 2013 vote on military intervention in Syria.
  • However, in many contemporary theatres we are seeing UK troops deployed to support local forces who do the bulk of the frontline fighting against groups such as Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda. This approach to warfighting relies heavily on military capabilities that are more secretive and are either regarded as “non-combat”, such as: the use of intelligence-sharing, the deployment of drones for Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). And those exempt entirely from the WPC, such as the use of UK Special Forces (UKSF).
  • We advocate for expanding the mandate of parliamentary select committees, in place of introducing a war powers law. This is because of concerns that rather than empowering the legislature, it could potentially reduce the circumstances that Parliament would be asked to vote on the use of military force.

Expanded Role for Parliamentary Select Committees

  • Parliamentary Committees have become increasingly assertive and influential in the past decade, with growing trust being afforded to committees like the Intelligence and Security (ISC), to oversee matters of the greatest sensitivity to UK national security.
  • UKSF are the only part of the British defence and intelligence community that are not subject to parliamentary scrutiny of any kind
  • The lack of parliamentary oversight increases the risk that politicians will choose to deploy UKSF because they can do so without scrutiny, rather than because they are the best tool for the jobs they are undertaking.

You can read the full submission here.

This submission was based on research conducted by Liam Walpole and Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen, both based at the Oxford Research Group, which was published as part of a report called: “Britain’s Shadow Army: Policy Options for the External Oversight of the UK’s Special Forces”.


Image credit: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons.