Monday, July 25, 2011

Dubious History: Saunders on parliamentary democracy

Doug Saunders, the consistently interesting Globe & Mail writer on international politics and much more, explores the implications for government of the Murdoch scandal here.  As he says, "not only is the British crisis rooted in the structure of the country’s government and media, but so is its solution."
The unravelling of this scandal, the explosion of revelations and sackings and confessions, all were produced by powerful critical voices within the very political and media system that was subject to the scandal. This is a country whose public and popular institutions are not a closed loop of self-justifying uniformity.
Britain, in other words, is not Libya.  But then he goes on to say, no, actually Britain's parliamentary system was not able to cope with this challenge, that really it was some American importation that has saved the country.  The fact that parliamentary backbenchers put pressure on Murdoch and his allies on government and in law enforcement and finally created the parliamentary select committee that exposed them last week -- all this, he declares, "was a set of institutions and practices largely imported from the United States."

Frankly, from a smart guy, this is bonkers.  Saunders, for all his experience of the world, continues to express the bone-deep innocence about parliamentary democracy that is endemic among Canadian experts and intellectuals. Canadians rarely grasp even the possibility of parliamentary government as a system in which the elected representatives of the people hold government to account.  If they do see MPs wielding authority, it must be a "coup" or an importation of American values.  Imagine a British Parliament in 1940 dismissing Prime Minister Chamberlain and putting Winston Churchill in power?  Could not happen.  Backbenchers dismissing Margaret Thatcher in 1989?  Only Americans would do that kind of thing.

I find myself going back to Adam Tomkins, the British writer on parliament.  Parliamentarians, Tomkins declares, must not “allow loyalty to party to obscure or even to obstruct loyalty to Parliament’s constitutional function of holding the government to account.” Parliamentary democracy, he argues, depends on the essential dynamic “between Crown and Parliament, between front bench and back, or between minister and parliamentarian.”  Like what happened last week in Britain, that is. (My longer take on Tomkins here.)

I know. As a practical matter, this never does happen in the Canadian parliamentary context.  But it is sad to see smart, savvy Canadians like Doug Saunders conclude that it cannot happen in a parliamentary system -- even when they see it happening in front of their eyes.

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