Chair's speech on 1 June 2020 on Learning from the Covid-19 Experience How Can Parliamentarians Improve Global Governance to Prevent Similar Global Crises?

UPFUK: Learning from the Covid-19 Experience How Can Parliamentarians Improve Global Governance to Prevent Similar Global Crises? 1 June 2020


I start from the proposition that generally democracy is a good thing and that democracies seldom go to war with one another, notwithstanding Churchill’s remarks in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947 “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”


So my accolade for democracy is not that it leads inevitably to greater happiness and prosperity and, with fixed term parliaments, often sees some quite dramatic changes in policy direction but that, short of the direct form practised in the small environment of the ancient Greek nation state, it enables the voice of the governed to be heard. We can argue about the responsibility of the parliamentarian to be either a mere mouthpiece for the prejudice of a majority of constituents or to exemplify the adage of Burke some 250 years ago in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol on election day in 1774 that the parliamentary representative owes his constituents his judgment and conscience but not necessarily owe them the total subjugation of his own views to theirs. In his view MPs were elected to represent their constituents’ best interests as determined by the MP’s judgement rather than simply to represent the wishes of a constituent regardless of his own judgement.


That theory of representative democracy remains popular to this day – with our elected representatives. As pointed out by a skilled observer of such matters Sunder Katwala in an article on 14 August 2019 a YouGov poll in the summer of 2019, however, showed that it is unpopular with the voters who elect them.  Burke’s theory of the role of the representative has 80% approval among MPs – but only 7% among the general public, where the idea of the representative as a delegate wins broad majority support. We see that argument amply demonstrated in the debate during and subsequent to the referendum on Brexit. With increasing use of modern electronic forms of gauging public opinion through Change.UK and other platforms we can easily take a snapshot of public opinion on any particular issue. The problem is that it is precisely that – a snapshot with instant reaction given mostly without serious thought or weighing of the evidence on both sides. As a lawyer I feel that strongly. In other words, if translated into execution it is often a recipe for disaster as a knee-jerk reaction. In our everyday lives we recognise that we can act in haste and repent at leisure. The public will is not always infallible and, in any event, can be mercurial and unreliable.  In 1739 Britain entered into an ill-advised war with Spain, the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear, which was enormously popular but of which Horace Walpole our first Prime Minister disapproved exclaiming “They may ring their bells now, before long they will be wringing their hands.”


Now this is not to say that a parliament cannot also be swept by a tide of emotion into bad decisions but at least, as a manifestation of representative democracy, it is more likely to a judgement based on evidence and dialectic argument. Despite its short-comings parliamentary democracy, albeit in many different forms, is now practised in the majority of countries. A numerical tally is not particularly helpful, however, as some such countries pay only lip-service to the essential tenets of a democracy based on free and fair elections and freedom of action by those elected. Indeed, in January this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its annual survey which rates the state of democracy across 167 countries based on five measures—electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties—found that democracy has been eroded around the world in the past year. The global score of 5.44 out of ten is the lowest recorded since the index began in 2006. The sharpest decline in democratic freedoms occurred in China. Just 22 countries, home to 430m people, were deemed “full democracies” by the EIU. More than a third of the world’s population, meanwhile, still live under authoritarian rule.


The danger of dissipating the, admittedly sometimes tedious and seemingly indecisive, deliberations of Parliament is that, in the supposed interests of greater efficiency and effectiveness, it inevitably leads to decisions being taken by individuals rather than groups – sometimes those individuals are elected leaders but we have also seen the rise in influence of the special adviser and suspect that many such decisions are being taken by people who do not necessarily even subscribe to the concept of parliamentary democracy. As an unapologetic advocate of this form of government, inefficiencies and all, I can only hope that modern technology enhances rather than supplants it.


What is pleasing is that it seems that parliamentary democracy as a form of government remains on the march with regional and transnational parliaments developing, often from modest beginnings. In my lifetime the Assembly of the European Coal & Steel Community (created to ensure that the means of armaments’ fabrication no longer rested with the European nation states that had twice in a generation slaughtered their populations as a result) grew from a nominated body from existing parliaments into what we now see as a directly elected European Parliament with co-decision making powers and scrutiny.


Nearly all effective treaties have a parliamentary body to oversee their working – as in the Council of Europe, NATO, WTO etc. There are many examples. We have the Andean Parliament which represents the 120 million inhabitants of the Andean Region with functions including legislative harmonization in its member countries and permanent and active representation of the peoples of the region and, of course, in very recent times, the African Union (much modelled on the EU) and its Pan-African Parliament whose members, like those originally to the European Parliament, are designated by the legislatures of their Member State and are members of their domestic legislatures (including at least one woman).  Some, like the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly are weak with only consultative powers, lacking legislative and oversight powers over ASEAN and its members. The important thing, however, is that they exist and, like the European Parliament, can develop. There are also the chances for parliamentarians to discuss across their national boundaries such as the Inter Parliamentary Union which I have attended in the past. There are now many more opportunities for parliamentarians to meet their counterparts from other legislatures and they take an interest in each other and their countries in a sympathetic way that often eludes normal diplomatic relations. Perhaps most importantly, whereas politicians are elected to represent their constituents and country (and Government Ministers and officials are obliged even more to prefer the national interest rather than that of the wider world), the politician without portfolio is able to take a larger view and often becomes greatly interested in what is happening in the world in other countries – they can become true internationalists and promoters of human rights and values.


We remain in the midst of a terrible pandemic, with decisions of enormous consequence to the physical and economic health of the nation and the world, being taken by a miscellany of despots to democrats in different nation states. The difference between the two, of course, is that once the dust has settled democratic leaders know that there will be the inevitable inquiry, probably from a parliamentary committee that is non-party politically partisan, taking evidence from a variety of scientific and other sources. This, in itself, acts as a constraint on actions that may have results that are beyond their control and which may have a significant impact on their own political future prospects. That same discipline is not applied to Xi Jinping who has just enabled himself to be President for Life, although he would have been due to step down in 2023. The constitutional changes were passed by the annual sitting of the Chinese parliament, the National People's Congress, in March 2018. The vote was widely regarded as a rubber-stamping exercise. Two delegates voted against the change and three abstained, out of 2,964 votes. It swept away the tradition that China had imposed of a two-term limit on its president since the 1990s.


Moreover, that democratic discipline seems not to apply to a Russian President who desperately seeks to contort his own constitution to reach the same conclusion. We should never underestimate the role of parliamentarians to scrutinise and draw attention to the nature and quality of governmental decision as a force for good in popular accountability.  That is what we need now in dealing with transnational crises whether they be a pandemic (and this will not be the last), climate change and the global environment or cyber warfare. My organisation the World Federalist Movement advocates a Parliamentary Assembly with powers of scrutiny, rather than legislative authority, to monitor UN institutions such as the WHO, strengthening and empowering it. This would give voice to the Preamble to the UN Charter itself “We the peoples of the united nations” rather than just the states. Other groupings such as the G20 should also have that Parliamentary discipline.


Hopefully, the tragedy of this pandemic will bring home to all people the fact that while decisions should be made according to federalist principles at the lowest level possible, locally, nationally and transnationally there are those which can only be taken globally in the interests of humanity as a whole. That includes preparation for the next pandemic, provision of protective equipment, adequate hospital space and medicine with equitable distribution, especially when an antidote or vaccine is found, so that the poorest and those without political power are not left out. Scientists and pharmaceutical companies across the world have managed to co-operate in an estimable way. Parliamentarians have a key role to play. They can put pressure on their national leaders, they can speak up in transnational parliaments, they can work across parliaments, they can encourage global leadership where presently we see either a vacuum or an attitude hostile to the world’s governance and more akin to anarchy. Parliamentarians understand the power of scrutiny and the shining of light in dark places. They are the voice of the people. We must do our bit to ensure that nationally, regionally and globally they speak up and combine across borders to encourage the delivery of security that we all so desperately need.


Keith Best