By EI SUN OH
October 09, 2019
AS readers might have suspected, I am quite fascinated by the comparisons and contrasts between the American and British political systems, some features of both I have often commented on here. These comments are of course no mere academic exercise, for they not only bear importance to the ongoing political turmoil in those two supposedly mature and developed democracies, but also have implications for countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia, both former American and British colonies, respectively, which, more or less, inherited the major features of their somewhat dissimilar political systems from their former colonial masters.
Well, to start with, the United States itself is a former colony of the United Kingdom. The British set up over a period of nearly two centuries at least 13 colonies on the mideastern seaboard of North America, each with its own distinct “charter” from the British crown. At some point after the mid-eighteenth century, these 13 colonies came to be dissatisfied with what they perceived to be oppressive British rule. So, they banded together, fought the British colonial forces and won, and later formed an independent and “united” nation, as the new country’s name suggested.
The UK is often considered the “mother of modern parliamentary democracy.” The keyword in this somewhat vainglorious phrase is actually not so much “democracy,” but “parliamentary.” For more than a millennium, British (or English or Scottish, as ancient history might dictate) monarchs have often been at odds with their nobles, who were by no means average citizens (or “commoners” in British parlance), but rather often very serious contenders for the much-coveted throne. The nobles banded together to form the institution of “parliament,” at first as some sort of advisory council to the monarch, but soon as a rival power base to the latter. The famous signing of the Magna Carta, which is often held up as the democratic triumph of people over monarch, was in reality nothing more than a document forced on a king to sign such that some of his powers were transferred to the nobles.
The modern concept of a bicameral parliament (or congress with two houses) gradually emerged in Britain, ironically, not long before the American Revolution. In addition to the traditional upper House of Lords where the nobles sat, often by right of noble birth, a House of Commons was instituted as a lower house of parliament, with its members, at least initially, mostly minor nobles who were supposedly elected by the commoners, but in reality by narrow groups of landed gentry.
The concept of separation of governmental powers (into legislative, executive and judicial) so that checks and balances between the branches of government could hopefully forestall tyranny, first propounded by the Scot John Locke, was only just taking root in Britain then. The separation of powers was thus not rigidly constructed in the British political system. The British parliament, for example, until today still consists of not only the two houses, but also the monarch. Until recently, the Supreme Court of Britain was essentially a committee of judges who were ennobled (by the executive) to sit in the House of Lords.
In fact, the UK does not even have a written constitution like most of the rest of the world. What it has instead is a series of what have come to be called “constitutional conventions,” essentially laws passed by parliaments and traditional practices and, sometimes, even gentlemen’s agreements between the supposedly independent branches of government. Most egregiously, at least in my humble opinion, the executive branch (prime minister and Cabinet) of the British government is not separately elected from the legislative branch (parliament). Instead, the prime minister is usually a member of the lower house (though, strictly speaking, not necessarily so), who commands a majority of support in that house and is thus, in a sense, beholden to parliament.
Well, whom a majority of parliamentary members (from the lower house) supported to run the executive, a similar or different parliamentary majority could in principle also dismiss! And that is what is being attempted to be carried out in the British parliament at the moment. A few months ago, as former prime minister Teresa May stepped down due to the seesawing over the forthcoming British exit from the European Union (Brexit), Boris Johnson won the ruling Conservative Party’s leadership contest and thus in theory commanded the parliamentary majority, which propelled him to the British premiership. The flamboyant Johnson tried to stifle the expectedly raucous parliamentary debate over the imminent Brexit (by end October) by essentially delaying the parliamentary session. The move was unanimously ruled unconstitutional by the UK’s supreme court, testifying to the continued independence of the British judiciary.
But even then, there is no written British constitutional provision to compel Johnson to resign. Politicians and commentators alike could only resort to saying advisory things such as “the honorable thing for him to do would be to resign” and so on. What those parliamentarians who would like to depose Johnson can do, however, is introduce a so-called “motion of no confidence” against Johnson in parliament. Such a motion, in essence a parliamentary resolution, does not have to come with any formal reasoning as to why a sitting prime minister would have to be deposed, such as if he has committed any wrongdoing, although such reasoning would be more persuasive. Instead, the parliamentary members concerned — usually from the minority (opposition) parties, but sometimes from the majority or ruling party in rebellion against their own party leader — would have to muster enough votes in the lower house to pass the motion. Once such a motion is passed, it means that the parliament no longer has confidence in the prime minister, and by convention he would have to resign together with his cabinet. Of course, the prime minister of the day could also preempt a motion of no confidence by dissolving parliament earlier than its full term and calling for fresh elections. But at least in Britain, there is no statutory or written law to require two-third parliamentary majority to agree to do so. The catfight between Johnson and his parliamentary colleagues looks set to last at least until the ultimate Brexit date.
We will visit the American political saga next week.
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