August 1, 2022
BEIJING – Once hailed as the “mother of parliaments”, by virtue of the spread of the parliamentary system to many post-colonial territories, the days of the British Parliament as an exemplary political system embodying consensus, legitimacy, effectiveness and stability are numbered.
After Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving British prime minister in the 20th century, was overthrown by her own party members in 1990, no British political leader has emerged who can reverse the country’s secular decline.
Thatcher’s strong leadership was rivaled by charismatic Labour leader Tony Blair, who led his party to electoral success in three general elections. However, Blair’s reputation and place in history were irreparably sullied by the 2016 Chilcot report on the invasion of Iraq, which found Blair to have led his country into a costly invasion on flimsy evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Britain’s leadership — and hence governance — problems are the inevitable outcome of the formation of a political class of aspirants who excel in electioneering, but lack skills and real-world experience in solving the real problems of the people. Riding on the appeal of a reshaped “New Labour” philosophy, Tony Blair became a popular prime minister in 1997 at the age of 43. Edward Miliband and David Miliband, two political stars in Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government, rose to Cabinet positions at the age of 37 and 40 respectively, and then fizzled out. David Cameron became prime minister at the age of 43. They all have similar educational backgrounds and career patterns — studied law or “Philosophy, Politics and Economics” at Oxford; served in research or other prized positions within their parties; won a parliamentary seat, and then rose quickly to ministerial or shadow-ministerial positions on the coattails of their party leaders.
The narrowness of experience of such politicians is compounded by the fact that House of Commons parliamentary seats in the United Kingdom, of which there are 650, are small, comprising no more than 80,000 voters roughly. They are much smaller than Legislative Council geographical constituencies in Hong Kong. Members of Parliament (MPs) are typically elected with 20,000 to 30,000 votes. Compared to Hong Kong lawmakers who contest in much larger and polarized constituencies, their “popular mandate”, a favorite metric of the credibility of popularly elected politicians, is small.
Prime ministers in the British system are elected in a two-step process — first by the 650 MPs, and then by members of the party, which generally number no more than 200,000. Theresa May was elected leader of the Conservative Party unopposed with 199 votes in 2016, and became prime minister. Her highest vote count of 37,718 in her Maidenhead constituency was recorded in the snap general election in 2017. Perhaps because she had never been sufficiently tested in large, fractious constituencies before elected prime minister, May’s governance style was dogged by indecisiveness, poor leadership and judgment.
Boris Johnson, May’s successor, who was elected prime minister in 2019, thought he could repeat his success by continuing his clownish, crowd-pleasing tactics and parroting the United States’ anti-China stance. His administration was riddled with scandals. Johnson was the first British prime minister who admitted lying to Parliament and received a fixed penalty ticket for flouting COVID-19-related social distancing rules. The last straw was his appointment of MP Christopher Pincher as deputy chief whip despite prior knowledge of Pincher’s sexual misconduct.
Johnson could justifiably claim to have clinched a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. Yet this achievement is being called into question by the Johnson administration’s breach of the customs clearance agreement under the Northern Ireland Protocol. Instead of carrying out customs inspections in the Irish Sea, the British government introduced “green lane” and “red lane” arrangements for exports to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, thus breaching the land-based customs-free arrangement enshrined in the Northern Ireland Protocol. The British government’s breach of an international agreement has led the European Union to launch at least five infringement procedures against the United Kingdom.
Now that the Conservative Party leadership contest has been whittled down to two candidates — former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — an intensifying slugfest between the two finalists is heating up. Sunak, who was initially honest in issuing warnings about an impending “national emergency” (quite rightly so, given the likelihood of Britain facing a winter of discontent arising from raging inflation, anemic growth, and a food and fuel shortage), had switched to wooing Truss’ supporters by playing up the “China threat”. Instead of putting forward down-to-earth, workable solutions for the country’s myriad economic and social problems, both have sought to blame others for their inability to turn around their country. Blame China for Britain’s irreversible decline into a second- or third-tier power. Blame the EU for long delays in customs and immigration clearance at Dover. France rightly retorted — who wanted to exit the EU?
These candidates are behaving increasingly like compulsive liars — telling their voters that they can tame inflation, lower taxation, and increase welfare at the same time, just as Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers had told their constituents Britain would be great again, recover its sovereignty and reinvigorate growth after losing access to the European market. To further sink the credibility of the British political system, the 1922 Committee of backbenchers and the Conservative Party Board have changed the rules for the September leadership election to allow a second vote and non-British party members to vote. That is brazen rigging of the electoral system to give possibly Rishi Sunak an advantage. The change of rules has been described as a “distortion of democracy”.
I cannot see how democracy in whatever form can be sustainable if key players seek to win by subverting democratic institutions. This is happening not only in Britain but across many states in America. Last year, more than 100 renowned American democracy scholars issued statements of concern about changes of electoral laws in many states that would result in interference in elections, “partisan gerrymandering, dark money and voter suppression”. Solving domestic problems has apparently become so difficult in a system riven with internecine rivalry and divisions that candidates have to resort to lying to their voters or blaming others, or both, to win. The sun has not only set on the British Empire; it is setting on its once-proud political system.