Friday, May 14, 2010

Political Transformation of Britain

Britain is changing, for all purposes and intent, from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential one.

The process would have started some years back. One can't really pin it down to a particular event, though Tony Blair, with his gift of presence, largely initiated the process. His successor in office, Gordon Brown, accepted and continued the process, first by insisting on a mid-term succession, and then making the election, wrong-headedly, a referendum on himself.

In doing so, however, he lost; though not before a never before Leader's Debate on TV, where the three party leaders took carefully pre-selected questions from a carefully pre-selected audience and made their various political statements. Besides, the British Press intervened in the political process, as is the tradition, but this time, they were focused far more on personalities, particularly that of Gordon Brown, than on the parties.

The process of transformation into a Presidential system has only hastened after the election. In the immediate aftermath, the country was gripped by a sense of panic. If I learnt one thing about British life is that the strangers don't talk to strangers, and that includes some neighbours who lived in the house next to you for a decade, unless there is a calamity; a flood, a snowstorm, or England winning the football world cup. However, in the days after the election, there was lots of discussion about 'government-lessness', an idea created by the media, though in reality, the existing system works just fine and we are never without a government.

There was a huge, collective sigh of relief when an unlikely coalition was stitched up between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Some people I know only voted Liberal Democrats just because they did not want Conservatives in power, and it was a rather paradoxical outcome of their decision to do so. However, it did not really matter, because the transformation of Britain to a Semi-Presidential state will continue to undermine individual intent and the small-country feel of its democracy. The reason why such a coalition was even formed was, admittedly, to keep the bond markets happy. The newspapers and the voters at large were perfectly happy to get a government for, of and somewhat by the bond traders.

Besides, the current debate about fixed term parliament takes things even further. The idea is that the parliament can not be dissolved before its term expires unless 55% of the MPs agree; an extraordinary idea coming at the back of a general election where no party has got an absolute majority. The parties which propose this, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, were stoking up the collective fear of not having a duly elected government last week. One of the papers were calling Gordon Brown a 'squatter' because he was forced to stay on as a Prime Minister, by tradition, till a coalition was formed; the same paper is now entirely comfortable with the idea that a government may lose the confidence of majority of the MPs, which means 50% plus one, but may still stay in power because the parliament can't be dissolved before its turn without 55% of MPs agreeing.

I am not sure how to explain this twilight zone of democracy, the gap between the '50%+1' to '55%', the precisely area which defines the hungness of the hung parliament and collective panic that gripped us for a week. Our disregard for such nuances is a sign of our desire for a Presidential system, which in turn comes from, possibly, our deep bonding with America and our appreciation of movies like 'The Independence Day', at a time when our existence is getting threatened by faceless alien bond traders.

A presidential system may not work for Britain for a variety of reasons. Unlike America, the British Legislature, Executive and Judiciary are closely interlinked. Besides, though some devolution has happened, the British government still remains strongly unitary. There will be too much power in the hands of a British President, if there is to be one. Besides, Britain is a strongly class-based society, and a Presidential system will eventually throw up a loony, because we shall remain hostage, against our better judgement, to The SUN and other similar rags. Our celebrity obsessed culture may lead us soon to a Presidential Big Brother house, and as a way of revenge, we may succeed in exporting that format to America.

In summary, we are at a twilight zone of British democracy. The Prime Time TV, pointless celebrities, the bond speculators and no-holds-barred journalists are taking over one thing that this country can be really proud of - its parliamentary democracy. In this era of crumbling institutions, this may be one thing worth saving.

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