Sunday December 05, 2021

Is parliament relevant?

September 11, 2020

On a January afternoon in 1642, the Stuart King of England, Charles I entered the House of Commons. This was not a scheduled entry of the monarch to parliament.

He came with a heavily armed guard to arrest five parliamentary leaders who had dared resist his policies. On the occasion, however, the five members, had slipped away and thus avoided arrest.

Westminster was never a model parliament. The building originated as a residence to absolutist monarchs and after a tempestuous history of assaults, struggles, dictatorship and even a royal execution it is now styled the ‘Mother of parliaments’.

When I visited Tynwald, the parliament of the tiny Isle of Mann, at the head of a parliamentary delegation in 2016, it was pure delight to see how they honoured their 1000-year-old history. The members assemble each year on an ancient hillock which is said to be the original meeting point of Tynwald. Yet it is also a functioning modern and efficient parliament. I was even more impressed when I witnessed the proceedings of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. Over a five course lunch that included fish, salads, dessert and later coffee with Scottish members of Parliament at its modern cafe overlooking the timeless hills of Scotland, one could appreciate the modern no-nonsense building and its equally efficient functioning. That singular experience has forever ingrained an image of a parliament conscious of its ancient history, yet catering to the needs of the modern era.

The almost permanent debate in Pakistan regarding the division of powers between the federal and provincial parliaments is not unique to our country. Talk to any parliamentarian from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Virginia, Louisiana, Nevada or Texas in the UK and the US and you will not feel out of place if you are a member of parliament belonging to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Balochistan or Punjab in Pakistan.

Parliament in Pakistan, despite its shortcomings, has achieved remarkable successes along the way. The unanimous agreement over the 1973 constitution, which has been the basic law of our country ever since, is the most obvious example. Parliament has also risen to the occasion in many instances of national importance and emergencies. In a diverse federation, which Pakistan surely is, the role of parliament is paramount. As we evolve into a country comfortable with itself, sure of its place in the world and well on the path to achieving modernity, development and progress, the debates and the legislative process inside parliament are crucial.

Of course, there is room for improvement. When Phineas Finn, the Irish member of parliament in Anthony Trollope’s novel finally decides to speak for the first time in the House of Commons, “He had feared to trust himself to speak, because he had felt that he was not capable of performing the double labor of saying his lesson by heart, and of facing the House for the first time.” When he has finally made his first speech, an experienced parliamentarian, Mr Monk, has this piece of advice for him, “….never to speak for above three minutes….”. How many of our parliamentarians can count preparation and brevity among their virtues?

Parliaments are run according to rules but parliaments are better run through long-standing traditions. Recently in the KP Assembly opposition members pointed out a lack of law on a particular proceeding. The Speaker gave his ruling admitting the absence of any legal basis, but relied on long-standing traditions of the House. The opposition relented and accepted the ruling of the Speaker. Supremacy of parliament and its effectiveness demands an adherence to dignity, quality of debate and respecting the rules and traditions of parliament.

The House of Commons consists of 650 members. Yet, its green benches can only accommodate 427 members. When the Germans bombed the Palace of Westminster on May 10, 1941 and it was being restored under the supervision of architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, he had to concur with Churchill’s view that to enlarge the Chamber would only destroy the traditional packed atmosphere of great occasions.

There has been a timeless natural conflict between parliament and the executive. In Jean Plaidy’s novel ‘Saint Thomas’s Eve’, King Henry the Seventh advising his young son, the future King Henry the Eighth on statecraft has this to say; “…Let the people think that the parliament guides the King; but let the members of the parliament know that the king has a hundred ways of striking at them if they obey him not.”

Parliamentarians in Pakistan need to raise their game and focus on their constitutional role of contributing to policy making, legislation and oversight of government. To be fair to them though, parliamentarians, especially in provincial assemblies, need more facilities – including offices, secretarial and research staff and better remuneration. An effective local government system would also give them respite from municipal and developmental activities to focus more on their primary tasks.

When one rises to speak in parliament, there is this sense of being a part of the historical continuity of representing the people and affinity with the Assembly of ancient Athens, the Senate of historical Rome, the Shura of the early Muslim state and the parliament of England. The exhilaration of a lively debate, the noisy rowdiness of the members’ common room, the sobering solemnity of formal state occasions, the empowering feeling on a major vote and the satisfaction of public service are unique to being a parliamentarian.

George Thomas, apeaker of the House of Commons from 1976 to 1983, writes in his memoirs: “….reminds me of the man of eighty who, when asked how he felt now he had reached such an age, replied, “Very well, especially when I consider the alternative.” And I believe there is no alternative to parliament if we are to remain a democracy.”

The writer is minister for law, parliamentary affairs and human rights, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.