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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Britain's endangered breed


LONDON — British parliamentary democracy has developed over the centuries and is often seen as a model for other countries. At its best, the system works for the public good, curbs corruption and prevents tyranny by the executive.

But it is not without faults. The division between the party (or parties in power) and the opposition means that confrontation is built into the system.

Confrontation based on competition for power is not necessarily a bad thing. It forces those in power to justify their actions and the opposition to explain what they would do if they achieved power. But it only works well if the politicians in power and in opposition behave sensibly and reasonably.

Too often politicians, not only in Britain, behave like spoilt children bickering and quarrelling in the playground. The children shout and scream and make accusations impugning personalities as well as policies. This sort of behavior further lowers the prestige of politics and of Parliament, which has suffered much from the parliamentary expenses scandal.

Britain has had a bad bout of "Yah Boo" or playground politics recently. George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer, and Ed Balls, his Labour Party shadow and opponent, have exchanged particularly vicious insults in the House of Commons. These exchanges have done nothing for the reputation of either man, although Ed Balls has probably emerged better than George Osborne from their tiffs. Unfortunately policy differences have been overlaid by apparently visceral personal animosities.

Doubtless banking supervision was too loose, but the Conservatives when they were out of power took up the banker's plea for loose self-regulation.

The Conservatives do not want to accept blame for the present recession and want to show that Labour presided over a period of economic mismanagement. Labour is reluctant to admit its mistakes and point out that the policies of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government have left the country mired in recession.

Voters want politicians to concentrate on clearing up the banking mess and tackling the recession, such as by assuring that more bank lending will be provided to small and medium enterprises. Instead the two men have concentrated on trying to pin the blame for the present impasse on one another and their parties. It is pointless to shout like school children "It's all your fault, not mine."

We have had many earlier cases of personal rivalries in politics. Many of these have been within parties rather than across parties. The worst recent one was that between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The two quite clearly came to loathe one another and Gordon Brown became more and more unbalanced as the years went by.

Within the Conservative Party the animosity between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, his successor as leader of the party and prime minister, became legendary. This was as much personal as political.

The rivalry in the 19th century between the conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone had personal overtones, but policies at that time probably mattered more than personalities.

Politicians in the 19th century were also on the whole more gentlemanly and better trained in common courtesies.

The playground behavior of British politicians is not only shown in the exchange of insults on the floor of the House of Commons on the occasion of the prime minister's question every Wednesday when the house is sitting; it is also shown by the often childish way in which issues are debated and bills considered.

The most egregious example of this has been the debate on proposals to reform Britain's anachronistic upper house. All parties at the last election supported reform of the House of Lords. There seemed to be a general consensus that the majority of members of the upper house should be elected and that the present system of appointing peers selected by party leaders was out of date.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, who is deputy prime minister, was given responsibility for constitutional reform and his reform bill, which provides for an 80 percent elected chamber, won the backing of the government as a whole. But it now seems unlikely that the bill will become law in the present parliament.

Backbenchers in the Conservative party are disaffected by having to share power with the Liberal Democrats, who have acted as brake on the adoption of rightwing policies. They also see the Liberal Democrats in government as a barrier to their achieving ministerial office.

They decided that the reform bill was an opportunity for them to annoy their coalition partners. Seventy to one hundred Conservative members made it clear that they would join the Labour Party opposition, who also saw a chance of embarrassing the government, in voting against a timetable for the bill to pass the House of Commons.

Without a timetable, members opposed to reform will be able to filibuster and stop the bill's passage.

Many voters suspect that the opposition of Conservative backbenchers stems from the fear that an elected upper house will prevent their being elevated to the House of Lords with all its perks, when they lose their seats or retire at an election. Others see a Conservative Party that is increasingly out of touch with the realities of life in 21st- century Britain.

These are not the old-fashioned squires who represented the counties, but younger middle-class men and women who do not understand history or, as we say, "how the other half live."

The Labour Party may have lost its way and lacks a charismatic leader, but the Conservative Party has yet to show that it deserves to keep power after the next election. Playing politics in this childish way does them no good.

Consensus achieved in a Japanese way has its drawbacks. The decision process is opaque and can lead to the selection of the lowest common denominator between competing policies. But there are many areas of government in Britain that would benefit from cross-party cooperation.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain's ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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