Having written in preceding weeks about the thorny issue of Brexit, I turn today to the related subject of parliamentary representative democracy in Britain.
As one of the world’s oldest democracies and former imperial power, the nation pioneered the Westminster system of government which goes back for centuries and has been widely adopted elsewhere in the world including in most English-speaking Caribbean countries. It was for this reason that Westminster became known as the ‘mother of parliaments’, and one comedian has now suggested the current political chaos in London has brought disgrace on the family.
In essence, it is a system of laws, conventions and precedents developed over the years which forms Britain’s unwritten constitution and, with various checks and balances, provides procedures for a bicameral legislature. Unlike a presidential system in which considerable power is vested in a directly-elected head of government, the executive is drawn from, and is accountable to, Parliament. So a prime minister must be a Member of Parliament, while in the UK the Head of State is the hereditary monarch who no longer has political power but remains a symbol of national stability and unity.
Against this background, Britain has been generally admired and respected for its political equilibrium and stability together with its respect for the rule of law, its pragmatism, plain commonsense and that indefinable quality which the French fail to translate but, rather, call ‘le fair play’. It is, therefore, all the more shocking and disheartening to watch recent developments at Westminster in connection with Europe.
Since polls have all too often proved unreliable, one way of gauging public opinion is to study people’s comments published online in response to UK newspaper articles. These can often run into thousands of individuals discussing in writing a single particular issue covered in the press. The evidence is clear. There is growing incredulity, concern and anger among the general public that nearly three years since the 2016 referendum resulting in a narrow majority to leave the EU – and two years after the House of Commons voted to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which set a departure date of 29 March this year – Brexit has still not happened.
For years, the British political class and the civil service have been respected for their knowledge, expertise, negotiating skill and all round professionalism. But many believe Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has been outsmarted and outmanoeuvred by EU negotiators who have been delaying and even obstructing the talks in order to deter other member states from leaving. Faced with complex negotiations in a difficult environment, she and her colleagues have been criticised for incompetence and a lack of understanding of the issues in pursuing the will of the people. There is deep concern the UK is allowing itself to be battered into submission by Brussels and is being humiliated and ridiculed in the process.
It was clear from an early stage that a majority of MPs at Westminster did not want the nation to leave the EU and were willing to disregard the result of the referendum. This is despite former Prime Minister David Cameron’s public undertaking to honour its outcome, and the separate commitment to do so in the manifestos of both the Conservative and Labour Parties at the time of the 2017 General Election. MPs are seen now as using every stratagem in the book through parliamentary motions and amendments to slow down the process or to stop completely Britain’s departure from the EU.
One notably bizarre incident should have been prevented by the Speaker of the House of Commons who has been accused of favouring Remainers instead of maintaining strict neutrality on all issues as he is required to do. A Labour MP, who was released early with an electronic tag from a three-month prison sentence for perverting the course of justice, was allowed - despite technically still serving her custodial sentence - to return to the House of Commons in order to vote on a Bill to change the law so that Britain would be prevented from leaving the EU without a deal. The result was the Bill was passed by a majority of one. This has outraged many who have lost faith in the whole parliamentary system. As they say, one couldn’t make it up.
The blame for the current chaos is correctly being laid at the door of MPs who are patently failing to carry out the people’s wishes. Their collective reputation has been declining since the recent expenses scandal that resulted in prison terms for the worst offenders. It is likely some will not survive the next election or could be ditched first by their local constituency associations. However, some people still claim the current crisis has been precipitated by a hung parliament and that we are witnessing democracy in action. I find it hard to agree with that and I fear the damage to the UK’s reputation may already be irreparable. The future looks bleak, but everyone will surely hope there is no repeat of the violent poll tax riots in London in 1990 which – even though Margaret Thatcher’s government was forced to abandon a thoroughly unpopular policy – contributed to her political downfall later that year.
A boat race to savour
People in Britain know that, by the time the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race on London’s River Thames comes around, spring has truly arrived after an endless grey winter and with the joys of summer and its long, light evenings just around the corner. This ancient rivalry between England’s premier universities is regarded in Britain as the pinnacle of amateur sport. Both men’s and women’s races on Sunday were won by my alma mater Cambridge. Hooray!
It’s not just about money, Mr President
To follow up a brief report in The Tribune last week about the 70th anniversary of NATO, it is worth examining further the current political context, with a US President apparently giving less weight to the historical importance of the organisation - as well as its current and future role - than to how it is funded.
Arguably the world’s most important alliance of 29 nations, NATO was established after the horrors of the Second World War in order to stand up, in particular, to the new threat from an expansionist Soviet Union. It has been successful over the years in creating a shield against aggression towards Western countries and in preserving peace and safeguarding freedom.
Mr Trump has been accused of being anti-NATO as a result of his calls for larger financial contributions by its member states. His demands that they should increase their respective defence spending may well be justified on the grounds the US has been forced to bear a disproportionate share of the costs over many years. But any reduction of American involvement in NATO as a response to other members of the alliance refusing to pay a higher share would be disastrous because the US’s participation has been the key to its success in deterring aggression.
There are fears the White House is not seeing the bigger picture. In 1961, President Kennedy, pictured right, is reported to have regarded the Berlin crisis as perhaps the most dangerous moment for a nuclear conflict since the onset of the Cold War though this assessment was, of course, overtaken by the Cuban missile crisis the following year. What is clear is there is now a real threat posed by a resurgent, more assertive and newly expansionist Russia, which annexed Crimea and is occupying eastern Ukraine while also building up a military presence on its borders with the Baltic states. So it was timely that the NATO Secretary General should deliver a major speech last week to a joint meeting of the US Congress on the theme of ‘NATO: good for Europe and good for America’ in which he made clear its important role in defending all its member states and keeping its citizens safe. According to reports, this speech was well received by US legislators and policy makers. The rest of us can only hope they realise that helping to keep the peace in Europe is in America’s own interests and that financial considerations, while important, ought not to be the overriding determinant of policy.