- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007


This week’s column was originally meant to support three of President Bush’s policies regarding Pakistan, China and commuting I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s prison sentence. We will get back to the first two topics in future columns. However, an exceptional, indeed, tectonic and underreported event in London on July 3 intervened — Gordon Brown’s remarkable maiden speech and first question time before Parliament as prime minister.

Motivated by the absence of public confidence in the competence of British government and fierce opposition to the war in Iraq, the thrust of Mr. Brown’s extraordinary remarks was aimed at nothing less than “how to modernize the role of the executive in our system of government… to make both the executive and parliament more accountable to the people and to reinvigorate our democracy.” Wow. One could only hope that our president and Congress might be inclined to take a similar pledge.

If even a few of the explosive proposals presented in Mr. Brown’s address (and accompanied by a pamphlet entitled “The Governance of Britain” co-authored with the new Justice Minister Jack Straw) are carried out, politics and the British political system may not be turned upside down. But both will be profoundly changed. In essence, Mr. Brown borrows the wisdom of our founding fathers to attempt imposing a strong set of checks and balances on a parliamentary democracy largely unhindered by such constraints. So far, the British media has ignored the consequences of Mr. Brown’s bold and potentially revolutionary intentions.

Unlike the United States, Britain has no written constitution nor a printed bill of rights. The head of state is the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. The head of government is the prime minister. Parliament consists of the House of Commons elected by the public for terms not to exceed five years but with no fixed election dates as here, and the House of Lords. The latter is largely symbolic although Tony Blair, Mr. Brown’s predecessor, ended the tradition of hereditary peerages. Life peerages are awarded by the prime minister mainly as rewards for political allies or for distinguished public service.

The prime minister is selected from the ruling party, itself elected by constituencies where members of Parliament are not required to be residents, unlike in the United States. Power rests with the prime minister and his or her cabinet, not Parliament. And with a majority of 150-200 seats or more out of Parliament’s some 650 members, the prime minister is a benign despot in addition to having the power to declare war, make treaties, appoint bishops and judges and in general run the country with minimum interference from either house of Parliament. Former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Mr. Blair exemplified how much power could accrue to the premier, until such time as their colleagues demanded a change or revolted. John Major displaced Mrs. Thatcher in a coup, and Mr. Blair chose a dignified retirement.

An anecdote makes the point about the power of the British executive. The House of Commons Defense Committee, unlike its American counterparts in Congress, has virtually no power. Indeed, one of its former, senior members used to visit the Pentagon regularly to gain information about British forces that was routinely denied to the committee by Number 10 Downing Street and the Ministry of Defense.

Now, Mr. Brown would reverse much of that. Promising to make the British system of governance more “transparent,” the new prime minister wants to turn power and accountability back to Parliament and to its members. “The government,” says the pamphlet, “will seek to surrender or limit powers which it should not, in a modern democracy, be exercised, exclusively, by the executive.” Mr. Brown proposes that Parliament should have the power, or at least larger say, in declaring war, approving treaties, dissolving or recalling Parliament, appointing judges and other duties that have resided with the executive.

Furthermore, Mr. Brown believes that the British people should debate whether or not the time has come for a written constitution and a bill of rights. In the question time that followed his remarks, which should be mandatory reading for our politicians, there was general agreement on the direction that Mr. Brown was taking. But cynicism and skepticism about government run deep in democracies and the strongest blow Tory leader David Cameron struck in rebuttal questioned how Mr. Brown and the Labor party, after ten years of “stealthy government,” could be trusted to break ranks with the past.

That, of course, is the question. However, given Mr. Brown’s strong and public embrace of reform, it would seem politically suicidal for the prime minister to reverse course. And, if Mr. Brown proves successful, would it not be too far fetched to hope that at least a few of the eighteen declared candidates running for president here might emulate Mr. Brown’s bombshell and tell us how they would return checks, balances and accountability to our government?

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