21 days ago

The beauty of Westminster government

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The Westminster form of government is often a surgical operation. And surgical operations are what efficient government is about. Governance is all about keeping the levers of government running in the interest of an entire nation.

It is a truism which has once more been reflected in the decision by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to sack Home Secretary Suella Braverman, whose unpardonable sin was writing an article for a newspaper and accusing the police of bias in their actions. She had the pro-Palestinian march of last Saturday in mind and cheerfully referred to the marchers as a mob who ought not to be permitted to spoil the observance of Armistice Day.

Braverman's mistake was in not obtaining clearance from 10 Downing Street for her article. Of course, there have been reports that No 10 suggested some edits in the write-up, which suggestion Braverman ignored. After that, it was only a matter of time before she would go out of government. And now she has gone, to sit as a backbencher in the House of Commons.

Britain will go for general elections in a year's time. Sunak obviously had that factor in mind when he decided his Home Secretary should be dismissed and replaced with James Cleverly, till recently the country's Foreign Secretary. And into Cleverly's place at the FCDO has come former prime minister David Cameron, which was a bit of a surprise. But clearly Sunak needs to focus on internal politics, given that his Tories are much behind Keir Starmer's Labour in the opinion polls. He would like to leave foreign affairs to the known quantity that is Cameron.

The beauty of the Westminster system is inherent in the form itself. Prime Ministers take swift action where appointments or dismissals of ministers are called for and where cabinet reshuffles are called for. In this system, ministers do not become entrenched in their positions but, more importantly, take their responsibilities on trust. Those who do not perform to the country's satisfaction are condemned to lose office or be sacked. Those who have been out of power may be called upon once again to serve in government. Cameron's is the latest instance of a lapsed politician called back into government.

Cameron's return to office, this time as Foreign Secretary, is a reminder of an earlier era when a former prime minister was brought back into government as Foreign Secretary. Sir Alec Douglas-Home succeeded to No 10 when Harold Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister in autumn 1963. In the elections of October 1964, his Conservatives lost to Harold Wilson's Labour. For the next six years, Home stayed in parliamentary opposition under his party leader Edward Heath. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1970, Prime Minister Heath appointed Home as Foreign Secretary, an office in which he served with distinction till 1974, when Labour came back to power under Wilson.

Under the Westminster system, therefore, opportunities remain for politicians to return and serve in government even after they have called it a day. At the same time, the system is unforgiving of politicians who make a mess of it. Liz Truss remains an instance of how to conduct government in a less than satisfactory way and then be compelled to walk through the exit door. At Westminster, there are the ways and means by which the ruling party, fatigued with the policies of a long-serving Prime Minister, will call forth the courage to demand the resignation of the head of government. Margaret Thatcher is the instance that comes to mind.

There are nations where governments every now and then declare allegiance to the Westminster form of government but without imbibing the lessons of governance as they are followed in Britain. Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) is a regular Wednesday feature which not only has the Prime Minister, ready with his facts, respond to questions from both government and opposition MPs but also engage in a battle with the Leader of the Opposition. And all of this is done in absolute politeness. No one gets angry, no one hits another below the belt, no one questions the other's patriotism.

In parliamentary government, a strong opposition keeps the government on its toes through raising questions on the issues of the day before the treasury benches. A significant aspect of the system is the preparedness of the opposition, from day one of the sitting of a new Parliament, to move into government at a future time. A shadow cabinet, with key opposition figures given responsibilities over matters relating to governance by the Leader of the Opposition, is ready to take charge on the morning after the election that the party looks forward to winning. Every new minister, having been part of the shadow cabinet, is ready to hit the ground running.

The Westminster form of government abjures sycophancy on the part of ministers toward the Prime Minister. In the opposition, lawmakers are free to take their leader to task over policy issues. In Parliament, the governing party and the opposition engage in focused discussions over policy, which in turn educates the public on the manner in which the issues are being deliberated on by the political classes. The system, from such a perspective, is a cardinal lesson on how politics, the practice of it, can lead to informed opinion becoming part of the public response to the handling of contemporary issues.

In the Westminster system, politicians learn humility. They remind themselves that they need to have a hands-on approach to local, national and global issues. It is not merely a matter of ministers doing their job or of ministers-in-waiting looking for the chance to step into the corridors of power. It is, in a fundamental sense, one of MPs spending time, preferably weekends, with their constituents, getting to know the problems they encounter and doing everything to neutralise those problems.

Ministers, opposition politicians and lawmakers generally stay away from photo-ops and focus on the work they were elected to do. They stay away from seminars and inaugurating conferences. They have little time or inclination to present themselves before the media, for they know only too well that it is on their performance in public life that their future at the next election depends.

The Westminster system makes for efficient government. It involves a continuity of parliament-people involvement. It recognises and acknowledges talent. It enables politicians to shape their visions of the future, all with the destiny of the people they serve in mind.

The system has given Britain such figures as William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, to name a few. It has done well. It is doing well.


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