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The Lawmaker’s Holiday

December 30, 2010

For me, one of the most welcome pieces of news from the Middle East this week comes from Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News. The GDN reports that the Bahrain parliament might not assemble next week because there is nothing for them to discuss. Good for them!

I have a long-held desire to vote for a political party that promises to implement no legislation during its term in government. In the United Kingdom, where I come from, when the Queen opens parliament, by tradition she delivers a speech to the assembled members of both Houses of Parliament. The speech is written for her by the government. Essentially, it’s a statement of the aims of the Government during the forthcoming session of Parliament.

Britain has over 600 members of the House of Commons and over 700 members of the upper house – the House of Lords. They are supported by an army of secretaries, clerks and researchers. To carry out Parliament’s will, thousands of civil servants, many of whom are employed specifically to present options for new policies to the Government, draft new laws and then implement them once they are passed by Parliament.

What if the Queen stood up at the opening of Parliament and delivered a speech along these lines?

“My Government believes that we have more than enough legislation. There is therefore no useful purpose to be served by introducing any new laws in the forthcoming session. My Government’s policy will therefore be to concentrate on making our existing laws work.

Apart from legislation to renew existing regulations, and any emergency measures required in response to a national crisis, there will be no legislative program for the next three years.

As a result of this reduction of Parliament’s duties, my Government estimates that the workload of Members of Parliament will be reduced by 50%. MPs will therefore have a choice. Either they can accept a voluntary reduction in salary, or they can offer their services at no charge to industry or the public sector in order to understand better the challenges faced by both sectors in the coming years. Civil servants whose workload is similarly reduced will have the same choice.

In short, my Government’s policy for the future will be less law and better governance.”

Unlikely, I agree. Parliamentary democracy is a self-perpetuating legislation factory. Politicians need new laws in order to justify themselves to the electorate. They sell themselves on the basis that the other lot screwed up, so they need to fix the mess they inherited. Senior civil servants, eager to hold on to their jobs, encourage programs of “change” because they know that the workload involved in drafting and implementing new laws will keep them and their departments perpetually busy.

But what if the hamster’s wheel were to stop? Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change if politicians devoted their energy towards making what’s currently in place work more effectively? When times are hard, ordinary people by necessity make do with what they have. In developing countries, when things break, people repair them rather than chuck them away and buy replacements. Even in the wealthy economies, when recession bites, people hold on to their cars, laptops, fridges and washing machines for longer. They improve their homes rather than buy new ones.

Governments, however, tend to keep their legislative programs grinding away regardless of economic circumstances. Yes, they make cuts, scrap missile systems and abolish redundant public schemes. Yet they insist on filling the vacuum with new schemes and new laws to suit their ideological bent. Even if the net result of the changes is reduced costs, governments rarely count the cost of the engine that generates the changes.

I have no political tub to thump here. I don’t subscribe to movements that seek to “take back” their countries. In my world, tea parties are for old ladies and mad hatters. But I do believe three things about government.

Firstly, great ideas are one thing, but proper execution is another. Governments thrive on new ideas, new initiatives. When they fail, they try to divert attention from that failure by launching yet more initiatives. Perpetual motion is not the same as effective government. By slowing down the conveyor belt of new laws, politicians would need to find other ways to justify the trust placed in them. Improved scrutiny of public programs. Fixing what is not working without having to resort to new laws. And spells in the paddy fields for politicians and desk-bound civil servants – in the form of regular and direct engagement in the lives of the people they govern – would do more to re-establish popular trust in politicians in my country than yet another byzantine system for controlling expenses racked up by Members of Parliament. It might even help them to make better decisions.

Secondly, change that improves the lives of the many for the better tends not to come as the result of legislation thought up in policy think tanks. It comes as the result of groundswells of sentiment among large segments of a population. Lyndon Johnson would not have been able to end a century of institutionalized discrimination in the United States had it not been for the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, a coalition of black and white activists given voice and inspiration by Martin Luther King.

And the example of Martin Luther King leads me to the third point. Political change rarely happens unless there are leaders who articulate, inspire and organize. And these days, governments are rarely the first to provide that leadership. Whatever our opinion on their personal philosophies, religious leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sayed Qutub of the Muslim Brotherhood paved the way for political change in Southern Africa and the Middle East respectively. Secular dissidents, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov chief amongst them, provided the catalyst for change in the Soviet Union. Businessmen like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates can do more than most governments to help the lives of the impoverished by devoting large slices of their wealth to medical research. And politicians out of office, like Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela, can often achieve as much positive change as they did when in office.

No doubt the lawmakers of Bahrain will find plenty to do in the forthcoming months. But while they enjoy their unexpected break, and governments around the world ease off for the festive season, perhaps it would help us all if politicians took time to reflect on the proposition that lasting change comes from the heart rather than the statute book.

From → Middle East, Politics, UK, USA

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