UK’s Conservative Party and the politics of Bangladesh

The writer says there is no accountability of our elected representatives and also of the process through which they emerge.

Mahfuz Anam

Mahfuz Anam

The Daily Star


Collage: Anwar Sohel

October 31, 2022

DHAKA – Many in Bangladesh laughed when Boris Johnson, who came to power after a massive election victory, was forced to resign because he broke Covid-19 restrictions and held a party – not in public, but in the privacy of his office. How can a prime minister, coming to power with the people’s mandate, be forced to resign for such a trivial (to us) matter?

When Liz Truss took over as prime minister on September 6, and resigned 44 days later on October 20, we really thought that the UK had lost her way. Our former colonial master was now incapable of forming a stable government and did not know whom to choose as their prime minister.

We couldn’t hold back our laughter.

And then Rishi Sunak came into the scene – at 42, being the youngest UK prime minister in 200 years – and we concluded that the original inhabitants of that famous island that ruled the empire, where the sun would never set, had become so depleted of talent and were in such a miserable state of political bankruptcy, that they were unable to find “one of their own” to rule themselves and had to seek one of Indian and Kenyan origin to do the job.

We held the UK up to ridicule.

In my view, our laughter on all these occasions was that of fools. We laughed because we have forgotten the meaning of elections. As voters, we have forsaken the duties and obligations of elected representatives and are no longer demanding of their moral and ethical accountability. We have abandoned our rights as voters and taxpayers.

We laughed at Boris Johnson’s resignation because we have long since moved away from any notion of moral and ethical accountability of public representatives at all levels, including and especially at the highest levels. What little of legal accountability still remains is confined to a mechanical interpretation of the law, detached from its moral values and ethical underpinnings. (Recall the election of January 5, 2014. The Election Commission accepted 153 MPs as “elected,” without voting, in a House of 300 – enough to form the next government. It did so on a narrow technical interpretation of the law, devoid of the far bigger requirement of ensuring public participation. In these 153 constituencies, not a single vote was cast. If election means – and it cannot mean anything else – voters directly electing their representatives by casting ballots for their candidates of choice, then the above cannot be termed an election. Where were the people [voters] in these 153 constituencies? Yet, the Election Commission saw no moral and ethical issues in this instance).

Simply put, there is no accountability of our elected representatives and also of the process through which they emerge. Our public representatives come before the voters every five years, and what they do till the next time around is beyond public review. That is why we found Boris Johnson’s resignation so strange, and a matter to trivialise. Johnson concluded, and so did his party, that he had failed the “ethical” accountability test. Will any of our leaders from any party subject themselves to such a test?

Let’s come to Liz Truss’ resignation. Here is another instance of accountability. She gave a “mini” budget and had proposed huge tax cuts, and was unable to show how the deficit caused by these tax cuts would be met. The market reacted sharply and the Conservative leaders and MPs, seeing the imminent prospect of losing public support and risking the image of instability and confusion at the top, forced the new prime minister to resign.

This is accountability to the party.

The recent leadership changes in the Conservative Party that led to three prime ministers being appointed in four months may appear very chaotic, but even in this unprecedented situation, everything functioned within – not the law of the land – the Conservative Party system. Johnson did not smell any “conspiracy” to oust him, Sunak did not take to the streets with his supporters when Liz Truss was made the prime minister, though he led in the party polls all through, and finally Liz Truss bowed to the party when she lost its confidence without claiming an “external” hand in all this.

What we need to learn here is that the system worked. In the parliamentary system, it is the party that people elect by electing its MPs. Who the MPs then elect to lead assumes the office of the prime minister, to be given up as soon as the party decides otherwise. So, though Boris Johnson’s charisma and ability to communicate and sway the voters are credited for the Conservative win in 2019, it was the party that got the mandate, not him.

This brings me to something that we have forgotten in South Asia – the role of the political party vis-à-vis that of the leader, the issue of the institution vs the individual. Most countries in the region follow the parliamentary system where the role of the party has become totally subsumed into that of the leader. They control the party with an iron hand where, leave alone challenges to leadership, a simple questioning policy is considered sacrilege. Such role of the party would be considered treason against the leaders, and the sitting prime minister would perhaps have the rebel MPs sent to oblivion.

What needs to be praised in Sunak’s coming to power is the mindset of the Conservative Party – by its very name it is conservative – to select a person of Indian-Kenyan origin and someone who is a practising Hindu (As chancellor of exchequer, he took oath on the Gita, though the official religion of the UK is Christianity). This is at a time when the US is turning “White supremacist” and Europe anti-immigrant, whose latest example is Giorgia Meloni, the far-right Italian prime minister with fascist party connection.

But the risk of a “Brown shaheb” being worse than the shaheb himself cannot be ruled out, especially in terms of the policies towards diversity and inclusivity, whose beneficiaries he and his family definitely are. The early signs are concerning, especially some of his appointments.

Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.

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