The many not the few
LONDON EYE - Stephen Lillie (The Philippine Star) - June 6, 2013 - 12:00am

During the recent election campaign there was much discussion of political dynasties and how to implement the constitutional provision against them.  Will the new Congress return to this debate, and what lessons can the UK share as another established democracy?

The term dynasty is not widely used in British politics. It tends to conjure up images of Chinese history, or alternatively (for those of a certain age) of American soap operas.  Today there are very few well-known “political families”. However Britain’s parliamentary institutions and history reflect the notion of dynasty — and the move away from it to meritocracy.  We are a constitutional monarchy, not an executive one.  The House of Lords (our upper house of Parliament) was originally made up exclusively of members of the aristocracy, who passed their titles from one generation to the next.   It was distinguished from the House of Commons, whose members were elected from the “common” people. The hereditary nature of the Lords was diluted during the 20th century.   Following reform only a small proportion of peers remain on a temporary basis. The Lords plays an important supervisory role in British politics, but real power is exercised by the Commons.

I believe that the absence of dynasties in British electoral politics can be explained above all by our robust party system.  Modern British politics, at national and local level, turns not around individuals but political parties. These are characterized (for the most part) by mass membership, internal discipline and a clear ideological direction.  Candidates are selected by their parties to compete in elections according to well defined processes which encourage meritocracy.  Loyalty to the party matters, but so does ability and experience, as this is what voters look at.  Family name counts for little. 

Also relevant is the incentive structure in British politics.  Put bluntly, political service, like government service, offers little opportunity for personal enrichment. There is no pork barrel and elected politicians’ financial affairs are subject to close scrutiny.  We also have no term limits in the UK.  A Member of Parliament or a local councillor can serve until he or she tires of running for office — or until the electorate tires of re-electing them. 

As a Briton I am proud of the role that tradition plays in our institutions, from the pomp and ceremony of the annual State Opening of Parliament, to the sense of political continuity between our modern day parties and great statesmen of previous centuries, like Disraeli and Gladstone.  But looking around the world, dynastic behaviour can also have negative impacts. Individual instances of power passing through generations do not mean that there will inevitably be bad outcomes. However, the number of brilliant minds needed for a modern nation (or just a city) to succeed means that no family, clan or interest group is big enough to govern on a sustained basis. We need inclusive and meritocratic systems that draw upon the skills of the many and which do not rely on the power or history of a limited few.  

There is no single way of achieving this. It is as much about culture and institutions as about simple legislation.  It is, I suspect, about more than dynasties.   Fundamentally it is about the challenge of ensuring a genuinely representative democracy, which delivers not for those in office, but for those who elect them.  I don’t have the answers.  But I think it’s right that there’s a debate about how and where to find them.

(Stephen Lillie is the British Ambassador to the Philippines)

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