The Guardian
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United Kingdom’s enduring parliamentary system




QUESTION Time in the Commons is one of the widely watched parliamentary sessions in the world. It, indeed, has more viewers in the United States than in the United Kingdom, where this practice has existed for centuries.

The plenary session provides opportunity for members of the House of Commons to ask the Prime Minister questions on national and international issues.

The Prime Minister in turn uses the platform to project his/her party and government. What makes it more interesting and appealing even to casual observers is the incessant interface that usually takes place between the Prime Minister, front-benchers, shadow cabinet members and opposition leader.

Even though it takes the form of a debate, the issues raised and the passionate way they are discussed go a long way to show that politicians are individually and collectively responsible for their actions.

Thus, the Question Time In The Commons, in large measure, has brought to the fore the practice of parliamentary system and why it has endured for so long and become the envy of many countries. The system presupposes that for you to be a minister or cabinet member, you must first of all be a member of parliament. The Prime Minister, who is also a member of parliament, is only first among equals.

In other words, the government is formed by members of the party with the largest seats in parliament. In this respect, accountability is largely a collective one and not individual. Once a government is unpopular, the cabinet would have to collectively bear the cost and a vote of confidence would be tabled before the parliament.

If the outcome is negative, the government will resign and call for new election. If however the outcome is favourable, it will reinforce the powers of the Prime Minister and he might as well leverage on it by restructuring his cabinet and government.

In modern times, the Prime Minister has become more powerful that some are comparing it to imperial presidency in the United States. Tony Blair, a former PM was so powerful that most of his policies were hardly challenged.

Some attributed this to the landslide victory that brought him to power in 1997, while others argued that it was due to his adroitness and savvy in handling matters of state.

Hitherto, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, could not be said to be that powerful, largely because of the way he came in.
He had to form a coalition with Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats five years ago to be able to govern. And as the country was again going to the polls, there were signs that there was not going to be a clear winner. In fact, some pundits said it was likely going to be a Labour government in coalition with one of the smaller parties.

The race was largely between the Labour and Conservative parties. Cameron won but Labour’s candidate, Ed Miliband, surprised many with his resurgence in the polls. Issues that dominated the campaign ranged from immigration to Britain’s involvement in the European Union; from pension to minimum wage; from the economy to climate change. 

Observers had expected Cameron to have an easy re-election, although there was a lot of disenchantment among the voters, most of who are not happy with the widening gap between the rich and poor.

For someone who has been following this system for so long, it came as a surprise that unlike the American presidential campaign, where there is so much blitz and razzmatazz, British politicians are less fuzzy and still very conservative in their approach to selling their messages to the electorate.

There is less noise; even TV commercials are measured. It’s even unlikely that a first time visitor to London noticed that election was taking place on May 7. The atmosphere did not suggest that there might be a new Prime Minister by the weekend. It all re-enforces the truism that this is the society where democracy has its roots.

But it appears this traditional way of doing things is what is endearing a system (described as first-pass-the-post) to many countries, those colonized by the British and others that saw it working and not so expensive to operate.

While Canada, Australia, India, Pakistan among others, have not deviated from this path, Nigeria, Ghana and some others have shifted their focus to the presidential system.

Thus, as the British went to the polls, the world was watching the event closely, but credit must go to an electorate that, even though there is no written constitution, have put those in authority on their toes, by making sure they are accountable for their deeds.

•Aruna, Managing Editor, Upshotreports, was in the UK to cover the elections.      

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