By Edmund Ranasinghe Parliament has outlived its historical role. History has seen to it. From the arena of the freedom struggles it has been reduced to the theatre of antics, inanities and senseless drama. The battleground of the brave, the patriot and the wise, it has degenerated into the sanctuary of the witless and the [...]


When parliamentary democracy is against people


By Edmund Ranasinghe

Parliament has outlived its historical role. History has seen to it. From the arena of the freedom struggles it has been reduced to the theatre of antics, inanities and senseless drama. The battleground of the brave, the patriot and the wise, it has degenerated into the sanctuary of the witless and the godless. 

“An Introduction to Contemporary History” by Prof. Geoffrey Barraclough tells us “that the impact of organised parties has transformed not only the infrastructure but also the substance of the Parliamentary System”.

It has also been said that Parliament has become a docile instrument of a governing clique. And that Parliament today is little more than a meeting place in which rigorously controlled party delegates assemble together to register decisions already taken elsewhere.

Parliament needs reforms — reforms fit for the present age. Here we have an ally in R.H.S. Crossman when he says that democracy must always be on the attack, always on the side of change, always critical of established institutions and codes. In the absence of these, human society will fall back into oligarchy and injustice.

We are in a way in a situation akin to that England found itself at the end of the 18th century. We may refer to this situation as given in “the Government of Mankind” by J.A. Spender. This is what he says, “For a large part of the eighteenth century Parliamentary Control was mainly that of a hundred and fifty eight families, who through their proprietorship of close boroughs or purchase of “rotten” boroughs, were able to ensure a majority in the House of Commons and prevent the return of the Stuarts. ….. Corruption was standardised, recognised and condoned by all the factions. In practice the government was of a small landed-oligarchy for whom the world outside scarcely existed.”

Parliament, a privilege to some, has had an eventful history since its beginning. It was born of the aspirations of the powerless having acted as the safeguard of freedom. History has now drained it off its usefulness.

We must not forget that Parliament is the creation of the Western man. His thought, beliefs, convictions, courage, initiative and creative powers were the factors that gave life to Parliament. This is particularly so with those generations of Englishmen who loved compromise, gradualism and freedom. They created many devices of democracy and governance. Democracy, we are told, is not a static entity that degenerate and entrap man into slavery.

R.H.S. Crossman, a political leader and writer and Parliamentarian, tells us, “The modern democrat confounds Parliamentary Government with democracy and assumes that every critics of the one must necessarily be an enemy of the other. He forgets that parliaments were forged for specific purposes under specific historical conditions and that the instruments of freedom can become under changed conditions the instruments of oligarchy. And so he fails to realise that defence of parliamentary government as such may, in certain circumstances be completely undemocratic.”

To quote Crossman a little more, “Democracy (because it is founded upon the infinite possibilities of human nature) must always be on the attack, always on the side of social change always critical established institutions and social codes. It knows that without the dynamic of its faith, human society will fall backs into oligarchy and injustice.” How illuminating are Crossman’s remarks! More of his remarks, “But democracy, just as it is tied to no particular institution, it is tied to no eternal philosophy. Democratic thought must always remain a searching for truth and the democrat can never cease to be the man who knows that he knows nothing.”

According to him democracy has always to be on the side of change — always critical of established institutions and social codes.

If this line of thought is carried further we need not be surprised if we find that Parliament too has gone the way of change, and become irrelevant and a hindrance to progress. Its skeletal form and substance needs examination and reform.

Change, as we know, is the wheel of history. Parliament came into being centuries ago in Europe. Some background knowledge on the British Parliament may help us understand our own Parliament. H.S. Blackham writing an epilogue to J.B. Bury’s “A History of Freedom of Thought” says, “Parliament, and particularly the British Parliament, has long been the hope and home of freedom. Here the nation freely settled the common affairs by open debate.

Here Ministers of the Crown took responsibility for all that their subordinates did under the law in the administration of public business. Here authority could be challenged and everything dragged into the light of day. Here the initiatives of government had to pass through the mill of jealous scrutiny and informed criticism. Here individual grievances and private proposals were voiced and heard. Generations of reformers and even agitators lived by faith in a fully representative Parliament.”

He goes further, “The ordinary man even if he feels that he is adequately represented in Parliament probably does not feel that his representative has only opportunity of being party to the big decisions by which his destiny is ruled, which he will suspect are not taken openly on the floor of the House but behind closed doors by representatives of powerful financial and industrial interests.”

Here we might take note of a reference that Blackham makes to another author Graham Wallas who in his “The Great Society” wrote “a scathing account of the factitious character of a debate in the House of Commons. “The Locus of power that is of effective decision has shifted from Parliament to the party caucus or as Prof. James Burnham will have it to the bureaucratic controllers of industry.”

In these observations, we see the beginning of changes that began to affect the functioning of Parliament. Decision making was shifted away from the floor of the House. Parallel to this development we also see efforts to revive and encourage independent thinking. 

Three changes emerge in the process. 1. Debates have become factitious. 2. Effective decision making has shifted to party caucuses. 3. MPs lost their place in decision making.

The overwhelming character of Parliament makes it important that we spend a little more time on this subject.

Prof. Barraclough has some illuminating comments to make in his ‘Introduction to Contemporary History’. “The essential point is that ultimate control, which during the period of liberal democracy was vested in Parliament, has slipped or is slipping from Parliament to party – at different speeds and by different routes in different lands, but everywhere along a one-way road.”

“… What we still think of as a parliamentary state has, in fact, become a party state, and the parties are now of the ‘most central and crucial of all the institutions of British Government’, as indeed, of governments everywhere.”

“It is clear that we are in the midst of developments leading away from the supremacy of Parliament and towards some form of plebiscitary democracy, expressed in and through the party system. Parliament today, it has been said, is little more than ‘a meeting place in which rigorously controlled party delegates assemble together to register decisions already taken elsewhere, in committees or party conferences.’ What has happened is that the place of Parliament in the constitution has shifted substantially, both in relation to the head of the government and in relation to the electorate.”

To the discerning, views expressed by Prof. Barraclough may not come as a surprise but his views concretises the position into a strong theory. The talk about representative democracy is all bunkum. Let us face it and acknowledge the truth. We are a party state under oligarchy rule.

Prof. Barraclough tells as that “as late as 1929 the term party was described as an ‘agreeable fiction.’ So far as France was concerned and even so distinguished an inter-war parliamentarian as Andre Tardieu repudiated the notion of party attachment. “I belong to none of those mystifications what people call parties or leagues.”

Do we want to persist blindly in this terrific illusion or face the facts — the situation as it is? Naturally this is not a task for the masses but for the learned. 

This country is in deep crisis. No one denies that. But the answer to the question depends on one’s knowledge, erudition and experience; above all one’ relations with powers that be. Whatever be one’s answers the crisis will work out itself in a way no one could guess.

In this situation the comprehensive analysis that Prof. Barraclough has given may help one to get a grasp of what is happening. Therefore it is necessary that we go a little more deep into his analysis.

“The result of the changes of the last fifty years has been a steady and in some instances calamitous decline in its standing with the disappearance of the solid core of independent and independent minded members; Parliament’s role as a check and control on the executive has in ordinary course of events become a fiction. …. Parliamentary debates have lost their earlier constitutive character and it is not surprising that they rarely arouse popular interest…. Speeches in Parliament are no longer intended to sway the judgment of members, but are aimed at the elector outside Parliament, with the object of impressing him and confirming his faith in the party.”

We wonder whether Prof. Barraclough had this country in mind when he began writing this chapter in his book.

We may have to take his advice: “… if party government, like all other political systems, is open to abuse, the remedy is not to decry the system but to improve its operation, above all by strengthening democratic control and counteracting the tendency inherent in all political parties everywhere to develop a rigid top heavy oligarchic apparatus.”

This country since the beginning or thereabout of the second half of the 20th century had not seen lively intellectual debates or discourses on issues of national or international politics. We are in times now when issues that we face should wake us up to an “intellectual spring”. Some time ago we heard of an “academic spring.” What happened to that? Could anyone enlighten us?

Edmund Burke that great English thinker, statesman and Member of Parliament once declared that the “People are the masters and employers of Parliament and its natural Lords”. Parliament is, in other words, the servant of the people.

Decades ago, even in this country the politicians looked upon themselves as servants of the people. However, this concept appears to have undergone a metamorphosis. May be, it is another miracle. Who knows? Today the politician, it appears, has become a divine being; the source of all material and spiritual benefits; a divine benefactor; a demi god. 

This brings to mind an incident involving the “First Servant” of the people. This happened decades ago on the assumption of premiership by Dudley Senanayake. This is what he said on that occasion:

“I have thought very deeply during the last few days of the duty I owe to the people of Lanka. Only some of the ideals for which my father worked have been achieved. In the achievement of these, I have no doubt, he gave his life. I have been invited to carry on the work interrupted by his death. If I am to be finally chosen to do so, I feel that I should give the people an opportunity, at this most important moment in Sri Lanka’s history, of expressing their own wish through the exercise of the right which belongs to every citizen of electing those who will administer the affairs of the country on their behalf. As you are all aware, Parliament need not be dissolved till the end of this year. Though I have the promise of cooperation from a majority of the Members of Parliament as well as the good wishes of the country, I feel it my duty to obtain a mandate from the people at the earliest opportunity.

“I have therefore advised His Excellency the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and to announce a day for the nomination of candidates for election to a new Parliament.

“If it be your wish that I should act as the first servant of the people, I pledge myself to honour to the best of my ability, just as my father did when he was entrusted with similar duties, the trust reposed in me. (Memories of a Cabinet Secretary, Bernard Percival Peiries, with permission from Sarasavi Publishers.)
The echo of Edmund Burke’s dictum that the people are the employers and masters of Parliament seems to resonate in Dudley Senanayake’s address to the people of Lanka. He insisted that hwase is their “First Servant”. Other examples of humility in great men could be quoted. An incident mentioned in H.A.J. Hulugalle’s “Sri Lanka’s First Prime Minister – DON STEPHEN SENANAYAKE” is worth quoting. Hulugalle says:

“D.S. essentially was a humble man and those who think he was vain, speak without knowledge. G.E.P. de S. Wickramaratne former editor of Hansard, … remembers a day when he was waiting his turn for a hair-cut at Gabriel’s Saloon at Kollupitiya, Colombo. This is situated close to Temple Trees the Prime Minister’s official residence. Senanayake who could well have got Gabriel to Temple Trees turned up at his barber’s shop for the same purpose. Though, being a busy man, he could have broken the queue as it was late in the evening. He asked for a newspaper and sat down to read it. When Mr. Wickramaratne’s turn came he offered it to the Prime Minister who declined it, saying “you were here before me, carry on”. 

A half a century later, politicians roar down highways in luxury vehicles with security forces escort. How best could one describe such affairs?

The controversy surrounding the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake has given rise to more controversies over relations between the three branches of governance — the Executive, the Legislature and the judiciary. 

We are being harangued endlessly by politicians and their hangers-on on the Supremacy of Parliament. Let us take this issue about the Supremacy of Parliament. Countries that emerged from the British rule have adopted carbon copies of the British Parliament – in some cases with certain changes to make them hybrids of the British, American and French systems.

A careful perusal of the views expressed by Prof. Barraclough and H.J. Blackham who wrote an epilogue to J.B. Bury’s History of Freedom of Thought would help us understand what this concept of supremacy sovereignty of Parliament is. How and why did Parliament become a sovereign body? History has all the answers only if one would care to read the above named writers and many others who have written on this theme. If, by a trend of events, the power of Parliament has shifted to party caucuses, Members of Parliament have become voting machines operated by party managers, the role of Parliament as a check and control on the executive has become a fiction, where lies the sovereignty of Parliament.

(To be continued next week)

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