Empire strikes back: Raj lessons for Westminster democracy

Screaming headlines declare a hung parliament, a uniquely British expression that captures so eloquently the dilemma posed by the fractured mandate thrown up by the recently concluded election. And this impasse as good as any to revisit Westminster — the mother of all parliaments.

By Kp Ravi

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Published: Fri 14 May 2010, 11:15 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:27 AM

Indeed even this famous mis-quote of John Bright, the radical liberal politician-cum-orator makes for interesting comparisons with other expressions in common use like the oldest democracy, the largest democracy etc.

Before we wade into serious issues like proportional representations [PR], first past the post system [FPP], the inherent in stability of coalition politics etc, it would be worth doing a short rewind of history to give some context to the contemporary debates. Like in all such discussions the out of the ordinary would always grab one’s attention and the more serious but pallid and colourless facts get left behind. India claims to be the largest democracy and even asserts that it is the oldest, older than even Greece. These endless and pointless arguments are best left behind and let the debate on PR, the challenges of reconciling seemingly unbridgeable visions of policy, take centre stage.

These spats and confrontations are best seen through the prism of the European experience particularly Germany, the on-going dialectics in the US on health care and the Indian altercations on caste etc. Ironically it would appear that the oldest kid on the block here, Albion, the patron saint of all things English will need a lesson or two from the youngest and nosiest of all the Parliaments. India which until very recently was used to single party majority rule has fashioned a way around this problem. Similarly the dreaded Hun may have to teach the Tommie’s the basics in coalition building. Among European countries Germany is a prime example of how to string a consensus to deliver good governance.

PR is the crux, the crucible on which the entire wheel of British electoral politics is likely to turn and all this is the very antithesis of FPP, which has been the bedrock of British politics from the very beginning. The traditions and the legacy of the MOP rest on this and therefore a switch will not be easy or painless. The crucial question is will the Lib-Dems and Clegg bite the bullet and insist on PR even if it means walking away from sharing power. Foregoing an opportunity that has comes its way after a very long time and perhaps may never come again.

The biggest drawback of PR is the inherent instability, horse-trading and compromises on key elements of a party’s manifesto. Something that the British public is averse to particularly due to their innate sense of keeping things simple and uncomplicated. Decision-making should not be hampered by slow agonising debates, as timing is everything in politics. The British public seems to forget that Churchill fought and won the Battle of Britain under a coalition government: Their Finest Hour came under a regime of two archrivals, the Tories and Labour.

What about the US and India. What has been their track record? How have they managed or mis-managed governance under a system which necessarily brings in its wake shady compromises. A mixed bag of success but nevertheless gives some pointers for the way forward. Though Indian realities are far removed from the European sensibilities it may be worth visiting. Since 1990s coalitions have been the only game in town, the Congress Party has had to kow-tow to regional parties, fringe players and the fragmented Left as well. PR is something that was once hot among the chattering classes in India, not so now. But CMP is now an acronym that is par for the course for every ruling coalition and the Kargil War and every other succeeding crisis, military or economic has been fought under the ambit of common minimum programme.

May be the MOP needs to go back to the Raj, the Empire strikes back.

KP Ravi is a senior marketing and advertising executive based in Dubai

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