To obtain power politicians tend to make a lot of promises. Most of them can hardly be kept, in a feudal society populism is simply a means to an end. A gullible populace can be faulted however for being taken for a ride again and again, and mostly by the same lot. For all its claims about democracy, the UK is no different.
The polls on Sept. 6 on the recent Scottish Referendum showing “Yes for independence” voters pulling slightly ahead of “Nos” for the first time panicked the three major UK parties into overdrive making a whole bunch of promises in the few days remaining till the Sept. 18 Referendum Day. The broad consensus hammered out between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals for considerable devolution of power to the Scots to fail the “Yes” vote unleashed a flurry of last minute pledges, going far beyond what had already been promised for a “No” vote.
Neither the pledges nor the general bonhomie prevailing between the major political parties lasted more than an hour after the results were announced. Welcoming the results around 7 am on Sept. 19, 2014 Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated that all the promises made would be kept. As an afterthought but clearly well-conceived, he simultaneously unleashed a storm of controversy by adding that the voice of millions of the English populace would now be also heard in denying Scottish Members of Parliament (MP) say over English laws to be voted in Parliament. Within minutes the Tory Commons leader, William Hague, seconded that strongly. Demanding the immediate recall of Parliament, former Tory Minister Owen Paterson all went even further, criticizing Labor leader former prime minister Gordon Brown (a Scot) for being allowed, with endorsement from the three major UK party leaders, to make rash promises in the final stages of the campaign without any mandate from Parliament for giving extensive new powers to the Scots.
More controversially, the potential threat to David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, demanded revising of the “Barnett Formula” devised in the 1970s by former civil servant Lord Barnett giving every head of population in Scotland £10152 for devolved public services compared to £8529 per head in England. Attacking the pledges made during the Referendum campaign as “reckless promises” to retain an out-dated system, he publicly urged the prime minister to renege! Under pressure from within his own party, Cameron on the other hand is under pressure from the Scots to deliver.
Scotland’s First Minister and Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) spearheading the independence campaign, Alex Salmond, said that the two that major British parties lost no time reneging on the last minute promises for further devolution. He said the people of Scotland would be “astonished and outraged”, particularly those who were swayed in the last few days in the Referendum to vote “No”. Labor leader David Milliband could find his campaign strategy for the next elections (in 2015) badly disrupted on this “English question”. Labor’s deputy leader Harriet Harman said that Cameron is looking to divide and outflank his opposition, both within and outside the Conservative party, seeking narrow political advantage instead of looking at the future of the country. Labour’s Douglas Alexander summed up the feelings among the populace, “the overwhelming emotion was “distrust and hatred” of politicians.
Given the intensive negotiations over the specifics of new powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to find some consensus before the general elections in UK due in less than a year, the pledges about the extraordinary constitutional change being completed by May 2015 looks impossible since it has to be approved both by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Imran Khan (Pakistan’s opposition leader) may be on the dot giving examples of British democracy pertaining to community governance at the grassroots level, however the fallout on the Scottish Referendum has shown that British parliamentary democracy is not only quite imperfect, it can be selectively unjust. The Scots may have lost their battle for independence, even if some of the pledges go through for further devolution they would have won the war.
To get their major objective of independence in 1947 the leaders of Pakistan had no option to shift away or even amend the British model. Once they got it, they had to persevere with it to consolidate the territorial and ideological boundaries of the new nation. We never got any respite, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto faced the same limitations after 1971 saving what was left of a truncated Pakistan. Straitjacketed into a system with hardly any relevance to the requirements of our population, the 1973 Constitution reflects that. Without governance at the grassroots level, democracy is abstract and meaningless at the Province and Federal levels. At the Provincial level, elected community representatives with the power of spending at their level must make up the composition of the Assemblies. The indirect elections electing representatives to the Senate is a joke. Fundamental electoral reforms are needed to get our democratic principles and mores in line with our needs, we must devise a more pragmatic and equitable system.
Modeled on the British system our present version of democracy is feudal and farcical, only selectively democratic. Magna Carta showed that it is in the DNA of feudals to make promises that can be easily broken without fearing any accountability.
The writer is a Pakistan-based defense and political analyst. He can be contacted at email@example.com