Democracy could get in the way of war if High Court Brexit ruling stands, warn generals

Britain's army chief General Richard Dannatt. © David Moir
Former senior military officers are afraid the High Court ruling which allows MPs to vote on triggering Brexit could set a precedent that would hinder future wars by undermining the government’s royal prerogative powers.

Two former generals – Sir Richard Dannatt and former admiral Lord West – say the High Court’s Article 50 ruling could bring into question the archaic measure known as the royal prerogative.

The powers effectively allow the prime minister to circumvent democracy in order to make quick decisions.

It includes a range of vaguely defined powers including those relating to the “control, organization and disposition of the armed forces.”

The generals fear the ruling could therefore force governments to hold a democratic debate before engaging in a war.

Dannatt told the Telegraph the judgment “should not be allowed to impact on the future use of the royal prerogative as far as authorizing military action is concerned.

I fear it might, but it is up to the government now to make it quite clear that that linkage is not legitimate and should not be made.

Former First Sea Lord West told the paper: “There are people who don’t like the ability to use the royal prerogative to react and go to war rapidly if you need to as a nation and I’m afraid they are wrong.

“There may an occasion where you have to take action because the time to act is so little. You can’t go and have a debate in Parliament about it.

Military forces have to move immediately and actions have to be taken immediately. Therefore I think one needs a royal prerogative or a similar mechanism to allow a government to take action,” West added.

In June a top scholar argued the military should have more of a place in UK politics.

Professor Hew Strachan wrote on the Conversation website the idea of a clear line between state and military is an American idea and needs to be done away with.

Speaking about a book recently published by a former British NATO general and a series of spats between senior military figures and the government, he warned the current administration in particular “appears determined to silence senior officers.

The expectation that soldiers should be silent is an import from the US, but one which Britain – like other democracies – has increasingly internalized,” he said.

It is somewhat bizarre that, as the probability of a military coup declines to zero, we behave as though any robust enunciation of military views challenges the core values of the state.