Eastminster: the Westminster model in British Asia

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The ‘Westminster model’ outside the British Isles tends to be associated with the former British settler colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In a new book the influence of British ideas on democracy and institutions across the Asian continent is examined. Here the book’s editor, Harshan Kumarasingham, discusses how the ‘Eastminster’ countries developed political systems with strong institutional and political resemblances to the British system, albeit with cultural and constitutional deviations from Westminster.

 Imagine the following:

  1. Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit. Theresa May has been unable to deliver Britain’s withdrawal from the EU or assuage those who wish the UK to remain closely connected with the EU, which has caused anarchic public discord where the Queen wants harmony. The Union risks being dissolved. The Queen sacks her without advice and asks the unelected 7th Marquess of Salisbury to be Prime Minister as a family friend.  Like the first Elizabeth the Queen has a Cecil to advice her and be responsible only to her. The public and establishment approve.
  2. Scotland decides to become independent, but the government are against this assertion despite historical legitimacy to Scotland’s claim and send in the army to subdue the errant Scots. Utilising dormant laws London suspends the Scottish Parliament and direct rule is imposed.
  3. Parliament decides to limit the prerogatives of the Crown but, before the bill passes both houses, the Queen dissolves parliament to prevent it for affecting her powers. The Queen then, through her supporters in the establishment, directs policy through an Order in Council, which does not require parliament’s approval.
  4. To pacify English nationalists legislation is passed in the Houses of Parliament removing the official use of Welsh in Wales. As the main political parties are desperate for English votes in the majoritarian system of Westminster they cooperate and remove the rights of the Welsh with a healthy majority.
  5. During riots in London sparked by draconian law enforcement and spurred by hateful rhetoric by populist politicians involving a potent cocktail of racism, poverty, discrimination, and the sense of being left behind a major breakdown of control occurs and the police are called in to restore order. The Prime Minister unwilling to take responsibility for tough actions against her natural constituency abnegates from the scene and leaves the Queen as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Head of State to restore order and provide safety for all citizens.
  6. Perhaps most shocking of all the cellars of government buildings are emptied and the Palace, Parliament and Whitehall are declared teetotal after the extravagance and alcoholic peccadillos of the previous era.

These six fantastical scenarios seemingly from the outer realms of political science fiction did in fact occur with different contexts and actors in Asia using the Westminster system following the end of British rule. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Nepal operated under institutions and conventions directly and openly derived from Britain’s Westminster system. Exported across the world more than any other political system the British parliamentary model remains more commonly associated with the British settler countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand if it is examined at all outside the British Isles. The situation described by Graham Wilson over 20 years ago, echoing Leon Epstein earlier still, remains largely true that for most British political scientists ‘far from seizing the opportunity to study the essentials of their system of government in different settings’ they instead ‘turned inward’ and most courses on British politics in British universities ‘are taught as if the Westminster model existed only in Britain’. Instead an analysis shows Asia in terms of scale and scope providing the most dramatic experiment of Westminster abroad.

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A tale of two Unions: can circles be squared by a new devolution settlement?

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In the wake of the EU referendum result there has been much discussion about the possibility of Scotland and Northern Ireland preserving closer relationships with the EU than the UK as a whole. Brian Walker writes that the idea that Scotland and Northern Ireland could be exempted from Brexit lacks credibility, but that demands for some sort of continuing relationship with the EU should be examined closely. Failure to take these suggestions seriously could have significant implications for the future of the British Union.

No one can have been surprised that fundamental political fault lines opened up again in the shock of the Brexit referendum result. As the Westminster government struggle to find a platform to stand on to trigger Article 50, in Scotland the issues are being treated with considerable caution and in Ireland with something close to despair. Viewed from Westminster, each is still a sideshow because a brutal binary choice between the continuing UK and continuing membership of the EU is one they are not ready to face. Indeed, since the referendum polling in favour of fundamental constitutional change has barely shifted.  In Scotland support for independence still scores a few notches under 50 per cent, well short of the SNP’s target of 60 per cent for calling a second independence referendum. In Northern Ireland, while Sinn Féin promptly called for a border poll, an Ipsos MORI opinion survey for the BBC released published in early September found 63 per cent in favour of the continuing UK, only two points below a similar survey three years ago, with a resounding 83 per cent claiming the Brexit result did not affect their opinion.

But it would be a mistake to believe that in the end the Scots and all kinds of Irish will tag along behind England’s lead. New thinking is emerging that might allow the ‘nations’ to preserve relationships with the EU which are compatible with an increasingly devolving UK that has severed its main institutional links with the EU at the centre.

Constitutionally, the argument that their Remain majorities might win Scotland and Northern Ireland straight exemptions from the overall referendum result tout court lacks credibility. The ‘reverse Greenland model’ has its attractions but the difference in scale and complexity with the British Isles makes it difficult to follow beyond the basic notion.

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Brexit and departmental restructuring: an unnecessary distraction?

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Theresa May’s new cabinet brought the first significant restructuring of Whitehall departments since 2008. In this post Peter Waller considers the pros and cons of these changes. He concludes that the downsides outweigh the advantages, suggesting that there were alternative options that would have allowed dedicated Brexit and International Trade ministers to join the cabinet without the difficulties involved in establishing new departments.

In announcing her new cabinet, Theresa May indulged in a certain amount of Whitehall restructuring. Two new departments were created – the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade.  To balance the books (at least in part) she abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change, transferring its functions to the Business department. The Business department (now formally the rather turgidly titled Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) in turn lost responsibility for higher education and science policy, which returned to the education department from where it had come almost a decade earlier.

The new Prime Minister thus made the first significant changes to the Whitehall infrastructure since 2008, when Gordon Brown created DECC. David Cameron, whether by design or lack of interest, had maintained the departmental structure he inherited. So the 2016 changes found Whitehall needing to set up new departments, something it had not done for half a generation.

So are these changes likely to prove worthwhile? What are the pros and cons of marking a national turning point – which Brexit undoubtedly was – with new departments with a new focus?  Writing as someone who spent a high proportion of my Whitehall career in departments whose boundaries were constantly changing, I rather sadly conclude that in this area decisive action by Theresa May is likely to be rather more troublesome than the benign neglect of her predecessor.

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Plus ça change – or déjà vu all over again: the proposals for new, and fewer, parliamentary constituencies

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Proposals for new parliamentary constituencies have now been published by three of the four UK Boundary Commissions. Ron Johnston examines the nature of those recommendations and their likely impact, on both individual members of the current House of Commons and their parties. The Conservatives are likely to gain significantly over Labour as a result of the changes, but there is much debate over the electoral data that the Commissions have to use, as laid down in the rules approved by parliament in 2011.

The Boundary Commissions for England, Northern Ireland and Wales have now published their initial recommendations for new parliamentary constituency boundaries. These are implementing the revised rules for such exercises introduced in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. An earlier exercise deploying those rules began in 2011 but was ended prematurely by parliament in 2013. That decision delayed the procedure by five years; the Commissions now have to deliver a final set of proposals for new constituencies by October 2018, which it is anticipated parliament will approve for use at the expected next general election in 2020.

Those new rules introduced two major changes to the United Kingdom’s electoral cartography, each with a potential substantial impact on the composition of the next House of Commons. First, the number of MPs is to be reduced from 650 to 600: England will have 501 compared to its current 533; Scotland’s contingent will be reduced from 59 to 53 and Northern Ireland’s from 18 to 17; Wales will experience the greatest reduction, from 40 to 29 MPs. The second change is that with four exceptions (two for Scotland – Orkney & Shetland and the Western Isles – and two for England – for the Isle of Wight) all constituencies must have electorates deviating by no more than five percentage points from a UK average of 74,769; all must therefore have electorates between 71,031 and 78,508.

The combination of those two changes accounts for the bigger cuts in Wales than elsewhere. Currently Wales has 40 constituencies with an average electorate of 54,546, compared to an average of 70,234 for England (excluding the Isle of Wight) and 67,416 in Scotland. Only one of the current 40 Welsh constituencies has an electorate within the specified range, and so the current map has to be completely replaced.

The Scottish Boundary Commission will not announce its provisional recommendations until mid-October, at the request of the political parties there.

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The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: lessons from Canada

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The Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster reported last week, recommending a full decant from the Palace. Attention is now turning towards the process of implementation. The Canadian parliament’s more advanced redevelopment programme, which will see MPs sitting in a temporary chamber from 2018, can offer some insights into some of the challenges likely to be faced. Oonagh Gay outlines the background to Canada’s restoration project and some of its more controversial aspects.

Following last week’s publication of the report from the Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, recommending a full decant from the Palace, attention is turning towards the process of implementation. The Canadian parliament at Ottawa is also undergoing its own programme of redevelopment and provides a useful comparator.

The Canadian parliament was established on Parliament Hill, an escarpment next to Ottawa river. Its grand gothic revival buildings were designed to dominate the horizon. Opened in 1876, the complex suffered a devastating fire in 1916 which led to major rebuilding. A century later the parliament in Ottawa faces many of the same problems as the Westminster parliament. A complete restoration project began in 2001, when a Long Term Vision and Plan (LTVP) was developed in order to direct change in the parliamentary precinct in the city south of Wellington Street. It was designed as a 25-year programme to upgrade dilapidated buildings and add accommodation to the site for MPs, officials and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

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We must be realistic about what independent regulation of referendum campaigns might be able to achieve

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In the aftermath of the EU referendum much has been written about the conduct of referendums in the UK, and whether changes to the way referendum campaigns are regulated should be made in future. The latest contribution is a report by the Electoral Reform Society, in which a number of recommendations are made. In this post Alistair Clark writes that we must be realistic about how much independent regulation might be able to achieve. During the EU referendum independent authorities did speak out against Vote Leave’s £350 million claim, but with no noticeable effect on the campaign, whilst existing experience with regulatory bodies in the UK suggests that political parties push back against regulation and exploit loopholes.

With sincere apologies to Edwin Starr, referendums, what are they good for? If you believe much that has been written since the fateful decision on June 23, not much. Except of course for those writing reports and comment about how they have been conducted, the present author of this blog included. The latest in a long and continuing series of commentary is the Electoral Reform Society’s It’s Good To Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote, published on 1 September.

This is a typically thoughtful and provocative report from ERS. It essentially highlights the egregious quality of debate in the EU referendum, with lies, half-truths and obfuscation at a level rarely seen in British politics. That this was possible was because of the generally ill-informed nature of political debate and the lack of reliable political information. Many PSA members, this author included, signed an open letter orchestrated by the Constitution Unit and published in the Daily Telegraph during the referendum campaign, highlighting the level of misinformation and its likely impact on the democratic legitimacy of the result.

The consequences of this misinformation are becoming clearer by the day, and the warnings of the much derided ‘experts’ about the difficulties involved with Brexit are also being underlined by events. The actual date of triggering Article 50, never mind Brexit itself, recedes ever further into the distance. No-one is any clearer about what a post-Brexit UK might look like, despite some of the more outrageous claims during the campaign and recent statements by the Prime Minister and her cabinet.

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The 2016 Labour leadership election in comparative perspective

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The Labour Party’s current leadership crisis is in part a product of its inclusive rules for leadership elections. In this post Scott Pruysers, William Cross and Jean-Benoit Pilet consider these rules in comparative perspective. Drawing on a study of more than 70 parties from 13 countries they show that the Labour Party’s leadership election rules are somewhat unusual in being highly inclusive, whilst also affording parliamentarians a special role as gatekeepers. Some members of Labour’s parliamentary party may regret not taking the gatekeeper function more seriously in 2015.

As a result of a landslide vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn among his parliamentary colleagues (172 to 40), the Labour Party is in the process of selecting a party leader for the second time in two years (a relatively rare occurrence in leadership politics). The results of what can be labelled as a ‘semi-open primary’ between incumbent party leader Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith will be announced on September 24.

The rules for the current leadership election, similar to those used to select Corbyn in 2015, are relatively straightforward. Corbyn, as the sitting party leader, is automatically included as a contestant in the leadership election. Challengers, by contrast, are required to be ‘nominated’ by at least 20 per cent of the parliamentary party/European parliamentary party (i.e., MPs and MEPs). Once nominated, voting is open to dues paying party members, affiliated supporters (members of an affiliated trade union or socialist society), and registered supporters. More than 640,000 party members and supporters are eligible to cast a ballot.

While there are some minor barriers to participation – registered supporters, for example, must pay £25 to be eligible to vote – the entire process is rather inclusive. Interested individuals need only pay their fee and register on time in order to cast their ballot for the Labour leader. How common is the UK Labour leadership selection method, and how open and inclusive is the selection process when we put it in a comparative perspective?

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