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West- Minster shaking

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Even as the Draft of the proposed new Constitution for St. Vincent and the Grenadines reaches the House of Assembly this week, there are some who continue to be not just skeptical of the process, but are encouraging public skepticism as well. Before the debate on the content of the Draft is complete, they are already advocating a “NO” vote in the referendum, mooted to be held in November. This would mean, of course, maintaining the Constitution bequeathed to us on the accession to independent status by the colonial power, Britain. That Constitution is based on the so-called Westminster Parliamentary system emanating from the hallowed British Parliament in Westminster, London.{{more}}

It so happens that just as we are about to enter into the crucial final stages of debate on our own made-in-SVG Constitution, Westminster itself is being rocked by a series of scandals concerning abuse of Parliamentary privileges which are having a profound impact on the very system itself which our sceptics and their “NO” call are, by default, urging that we should keep. Such is the seismic nature of the scandals that it has resulted in the first forced resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons (the symbol of “stability”), in more than 300 years. A number of other Parliamentarians and office holders have either had to stand down or to announce their pending departure from Parliament. Indeed, such is the sleaze, that it makes our own MPs, with all their imperfections, look like a bunch of “altar boys” and “choir girls”.

The details, as exposed by the ‘TELEGRAPH’ newspaper, can fill volumes. Some snippets will suffice to demonstrate what happens when you have a system where there is little public control over the actions of elected officials. They range from the sums which could be legitimately claimed for having a second home in London (for MPs from outside the constituency), but which ended up being falsified by Parliamentarians living with relatives while renting out the second home to ridiculous claims for petty expenses. There are Parliamentarians, for instance, who claimed for briefcase repair, pornographic DVDs, Demerara (brown) sugar to the tune of one pound, 40 pence, a wreath for Poppy Day, and a car phone aerial. The exposures, which came to light because of the Freedom of Information Act, have resulted in the milking of the Treasury amounting to millions of pounds.

The result is a veritable backlash against members of Parliament, the dominant political parties, and, crucially, against the very Westminster system itself. So incensed is the British public that polls conducted reveal that more than two-thirds of the electorate is in favour of the immediate dissolution of Parliament and the holding of fresh elections. In addition there is a groundswell developing against the beneficiaries of the two-party Westminster system, the ruling Labour and opposition Conservative parties. Those MPs exposed for abuse of the expense system are being hounded in their constituencies and the party leaders being called upon to deselect them from standing at the next elections.

Here are a few views of irate taxpayers on the issue:

“It is a question of morality and too many (MPs) don’t seem to understand what they’ve done wrong”(Parish Councillor).

“While my husband is now redundant, my MP has been raking in all this money from taxpayers” (IT assistant).

“People used to go into politics to do good. Now you get a sense that many of them see it as a good earner” (Executive)

“Why am I paying for my MP’s daughter to live for nothing? It’s a disgrace. I would call it treason” (Retired office worker)

The danger for British democracy is that such is the level of outrage that an immediate election might soothe anger but not solve the problem, for it could well result in all kinds of empty populists, opportunists and fringe lunatics (there is no shortage of these), being swept into Parliament without the underlying causes having been tackled. The proverbial baby may well be swept out with the bath-water. Already there are calls in the media to support a variety of personalities. However, it is clear that the political system itself has been rocked and, on more serious reflection, calls are being made for fundamental reform of the Westminster system-root-and-branch constitutional reform. Terms like “political revolution” are being bandied about and debate has started as to whether Britain should not now break with tradition and for the first time get a written Constitution.

Let me again treat you to a sampling of views as to possible solutions to the crisis of British politics:

“Our political system has been collapsing for the past few years. You need to fundamentally change the whole political structure. In my lifetime, almost every institution has changed drastically, but Parliament looks just the same.” (Greg Dyke, former Director General of the BBC).

“We have an unfair election system that practically guarantees a minority government…The system is dominated by three very similar parties. So instead of active public engagement with politics, there is widespread apathy and cynicism. We need a complete overhaul of British democracy-including a proportional elections system”. (Caroline Lucas, Leader Green Party)

“It is evident now that the control of parties is causing problems within our political system”. (Martin Bell, independent MP).

“We need a much more local system of government….The old system of representation is broken. The party system is broken.” (Marta Lane Fox, founder consumer website, Lastminute.com).

“We already say that 16 year olds are mature enough to pay tax, have children and get married. Surely they should be given the responsibility of voting, too. At the moment they do not have a say in who governs them.” Jo Swinson, LibDem MP).

“I would like to see a right to recall, so that MPs can be fired by the electorate in a by-election.” (Douglas Carswell, Conservative MP).

That is the kind of debate raging about fixing the Westminster system. We here in SVG are ahead of them. That is why for over three decades now, we have been advocating constitutional reform. That is why our own Parliament unanimously approved the march in that direction. Now that we are on the verge of sealing our mark on our own political history, there are those among us who can’t see the woods because of the trees, would have us turn our backs on our own process. Rest partisanship aside and let us debate our constitutional future openly and fearlessly. Even in Britain the Westminster system is not working. Why should we keep it?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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