It was in the cold UK midnight when I suddenly woke up and had the urge to eat. I went down to the kitchen, cooked an Indomee, and opened the TV. Then I saw a program about a debate proceeding in some sort of a big hall filled with smartly suited men and dressed women sitting on green chairs. In the middle, there was a huge table with some big books and a strange gold-colored staff. At the end of the table were four men, three of whom are typing down furiously of something, whilst the fourth man was sitting on a highchair shouting “Order!! order!!” to reduce the noise and jeers of the hall.
On the order side of the table, a man with a blue suit was delivering an important speech. Once his speech was done, the man on the highchair shouted a title, and so a man on the opposite side of the bench stood up, went to the podium, and unceremoniously attacked the first speaker’s speech. Then as he finished, the speaker shouted the title, “Prime Minister!!!”, to which the then Prime Minister David Cameron stood up again and went on to rebut the other person’s point.
I watched with wonder and excitement as I ate my Indomee. The show lasted for 20 minutes or so before it eventually ended. The show was titled, ‘BBC Parliament’. I had many questions that night. What were they debating about anyway? Why were they so heated? Was it really necessary to be so nasty in these sessions? The combative-style of politics was so alien to me. Before I dozed off in the night, I thought to myself, I need to know more what this is all about out.
The next day, I went to my university to check on YouTube what the show was all about. I typed in the UK’s parliament and found out snippets on the video site. It was funny clips of Prime Minister David Cameron blasting and making fun of Ed Miliband, the leader of the labor party. I proceeded to Google David Cameron and found him as the opposition party leader, attacking the then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The then Prime Minister David Cameron blasting and making fun of Ed Miliband:
David Cameron attacking then Prime Minister Gordon Brown:
These videos made an impression on me. As a novice debater myself, I watched the whole debates in full swing by these Englishmen. I also thought that debates can never make a huge impact. I thought debates were just a sort of competition to see who can speak and make a case better to win some points. But in the UK parliament, you got leaders whose nation’s policies hinges on every word, every sentence, and every idea they present. It is no understatement as the UK’s parliament – known as the mother of parliaments – was a vitally important innovation that has shaped the course of the modern world. Even Brunei’s parliament fashion itself after UK’s, albeit with notable modifications.
The Brunei parliament building. Sadly, much needs to be changed:
The debates and speeches that resound the halls of parliament since its founding more than six to seven centuries ago, I would argue, was instrumental in building Britain into a global powerhouse. You see, people in parliament come together to parley, debate, and make leaders accountable and transparent in the way how they carry themselves and their ideas. Ironically, this English institution was introduced by Simon De Montfort, a Frenchman! Much to the credit of the Englishmen, fortunately, they have adapted to it and improved upon it, and thus made a lasting impact to the parliaments across the 53 Commonwealth nations and her 2.4 billion population.
The UK parliament is divided into three branches, namely the House of Lords, House of Commons, and the Crown Sovereign. To put it simply, the House of Lords represent the elites, the House of Commons the people, and the Monarchy the Queen (or Kings) of the UK. These three forces play a significant role when it comes to passing, investigating, debating, and even rejecting laws (passed laws are called Acts of Parliament). Due to the limited space, I will only focus on the House of Commons for this article. A good introductory book that elaborates on the parliamentary system is Walter Bagehot’s book The English Constitution. I highly recommend reading it!
The House of Commons is interesting because the green benches in the halls can seat up to 600 people. These 600 people are the representatives of the people of the UK and are appropriately known as the Members of Parliament or MPs. They each represent 600 constituencies (or mukims/districts in Bruneian terms) across the United Kingdom, with each constituency having a rough population of 100,000 on average (the UK has sixty million people, so to divide it by 600 constituencies results in the 100,000 average).
These members of parliament go on to contest in elections every five years or so. The government can hold general elections anytime (also known as snap elections), but usually, every five years is the norm. This is when members of parliaments would contest seats across the 600 constituencies. Whoever gets the highest votes (through the first-past-the-post voting system) wins the constituency and would become an MP. First time MPs are invited to deliver what is known as the maiden speech, a sort of a rite of passage to serve in the parliament. Here is Mhairi Black, an SNP (Scottish National Party) MP giving her maiden speech when she was just 20-years old:
Each MPs would belong to a political party. The three most well-known political parties today are the Conservative party, Labour party, and Lib-Dems party. Then there were periphery parties such as the strange and pro-Brexit UKIP party, that saw a national surge during the 2015/6 national elections. The biggest share of MPs that make up the House of Commons would become the ruling party, where the second biggest would become the opposition party. I even met the former Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg when I was in the UK!
Nick Clegg in action!
The commanding party of the House of Commons would then elect their own Prime Minister and Ministers. The Prime Minister or the Primus inter pares (first among equals) has the prerogative to appoint or to fire ministers and other cabinet members to lead the civil service. As Prime Minister, he must champion the will of his or her people in the reflection of the political manifesto or other key policies laid out by his or her party. A great example of a manifesto is the Conservative 2015 manifesto (below):
Conservative Manifesto 2015 (You can download from the link here):
The opposition party’s main role is to defeat the ruling party by actively criticizing the government openly and continuously. That means current opposition party leader Jeremy Corbyn can slight Prime Minister Boris Johnson as undemocratic for wanting to pursue a no-deal Brexit. To command the confidence of the house, Boris Johnson would have to defend himself. This included him labeling Corbyn as someone who is failing the British people.
You can see Boris attacking Corbyn in the following video:
The entire thing can be seen as a huge mess, but for those who appreciate politics, they know that the only way to get things done in an open society or any society, in particular, is by the nitty-gritty of politics, such as calling people’s names out and heavily clubbing them criticisms relating to the policies they carry out. Certainly, no Prime Minister can do whatever he likes. Even David Cameron had to win the votes to conduct an airstrike on Syria. The debate length? More than 10 hours!!
The 10-plus hours Syrian airstrike debate:
At one point this year, I even saw an amazing performance on YouTube delivered by Gary Oldman who played as the great Winston Churchill in the movie, The Darkest Hour (Also fun fact: Did you know SOAS III set up a Winston Churchill statue in Brunei once? That is how much SOAS III admired the man!). He re-delivered Churchill’s “We Shall Fight” speech in the parliament during the height of World War 2. You can see his stunning act here:
Conversely, you can see at the beginning of the movie Clement Atlee lambasting the Neville Chamberlin for his appeasement policy. Now, these are exaggerated versions of how parliamentary proceedings are. It is from a movie after all. But we can make an intelligent guess how heated the debates nevertheless were when Britain was close to the jaws of death! Even the aforementioned Syria strike debate had a similar stressful air to it.
One thing that is for certain is how these debates never come to physical blows. Ladies and gentlemen, if there is a stark difference between advanced countries and backward ones is how countries like in the UK, people can criticize each other and their governments openly. This means disagreements or frustrations can be alleviated by constant negotiations, criticisms, and debates in the open space; not through the threat of violence or jail, much like what is, unfortunately, happening in conflict-torn nations now. Whereas speeches or debates are shut down through censorship or other violent means, then social atrophy, chaos, and corruption follow. This is why we need to have more debates and truth-tellers in society.
Likewise, the parliament reduces the temptation for people to commit anti-political behavior. Imagine, if a UK minister promised to achieve 100% food self-sufficiency in less than 5 years. But five years later, the entire thing became a complete failure. In response, the minister deliberately set up insane levels of red tapes to reduce his accountability. These sorts of anti-political behavior will easily be blown out of the water with the opposition leader calling his incompetence out in open parliament. There is no escape, there is no way to hide, not even behind HM Queen Elizabeth.
The UK parliament has its defects. The main problem is how difficult it can get to pass new laws. The Brexit charade is a prime example of this. It has been three years since the British people voted to leave the EU, yet there seems to be no end in sight. Time and time and again, people voted against bills put forward by the ruling party. It can get frustrating for the political leaders and the public who simply wants to get the whole thing over with.
Then again, the difficulties of passing these laws have their benefits, in such that every decision or action by the government are being thoroughly investigated and debated before it becomes law. Failing to pass this stringent process will see it voted out of the house, notwithstanding the additional scrutiny it will face by members of the House of Lords (another process to go through!). Knowing how difficult how laws can get passed would necessitate policy-makers and political leaders to make high-quality policy proposals.
Overall, the UK parliament is a fascinating institution that brings together national leaders to debate, deliberate and improve the nation. From the halls of parliament in the UK has and shall the world be shaped. It is a wonderous institution that I have visited inside twice, both in 2016. I cannot take pictures in the actual hall, but having been there, seeing the green benches, the tables and with the place where the leaders of the UK, including Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May and the rest once spoke out to champion their ideas were magical!
I recommend going there. Indeed, one of my earliest photos in the UK was me with my late grandmother in front of the Big Ben (being a part of the parliament). I was then around 8 years old or so. I never thought I would be there again, this time inside the building and walking down the majestic halls of the House of Commons. Hoping that someday, Brunei can emulate the changes as the British did in shaping her parliament; hoping that someday we can finally have genuine participation in the political sphere.
After all, His Majesty himself declared that “Brunei shall be forever a sovereign, democratic and independent Malay, Muslim Monarchy…” in the eve of Brunei’s independence in 1984, a historical day marked with full promise and hope for the Rakyat and the country itself for re-assuming total control over its affairs after a long period of British colonial rule.
If you enjoyed reading this, see my other articles and subscribe to my website:
- JUNE 17, 2018 –
- FEBRUARY 26, 2019 –