Balance between parl and public opinion ideal

UK House of Commons speaker John Bercow spoke at the Delhi University


Trithesh Nandan | August 24, 2011

John Bercow, Speaker, House of Commons, United Kingdom
John Bercow, Speaker, House of Commons, United Kingdom

United Kingdom House of Commons speaker John Bercow was in India last week - at a time when there ongoing demonstrations in New Delhi for the implementation of Lokpal Bill started. He saw it from close quarters but hesitantly offered his view, while addressing a gathering at Delhi University (DU) on August 19.

Edited excerpts of his interaction with students at DU

On the current protest led by Anna Hazare and Lokpal Bill

There should be balance between parliament and public opinion on the other side. It would be improper to tell me how your government should function.  There could be genuine difference between government of India and opposition parties. I have met representatives both sides in the last few days. There exists huge level of distrust between citizens and government in several countries of the world. I am not disrespecting India by saying this but there is challenge to counter serious public criticism and establish and re-establish trust in basic ethics of electorates in propriety and government. We had that problem in the United Kingdom. Our government has suffered and reputation of particular class had suffered. It is up to government of India to deal with the crisis. If a policy simply cannot command basic level of public consent then it is difficult to continue with it.

One example that I want to give is that of the community charge (poll tax) introduced in UK by the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990. There was widespread outcry over the tax and opposition groups formed; some advocated a refusal to pay and months of protest. Thatcher had personally identified herself with the poll tax and was determined it should remain. She was not known for U-turns but in this case the Conservative government changed that position and introduced a new system. I have no idea if there is any such situation like that here. And if you have to counter public opinion you need resolution, fixity of purpose and come back to policy. It is a difficult balance.

On how Britain faced such problems and effectively solved it

People are suspicious of change and nervous about change. We try to criticise change. Public would like us to debate and question parliamentarians. British government has just introduced electronic petitions as a way of shaping the parliamentary agenda and increasing public engagement to make it more accessible and transparent. An e-petition with more than 100,000 signatories will be passed to the backbench business committee to decide if the issue warrants debate. Parliament should be automatically obliged to debate something simply because one hundred thousand people demanded. It is not actually that large in 60 million citizens in UK. It is easy for pressure groups to whip up numbers. I do not want to have activist charter to twist parliamentary time but if public sentiment is overwhelmingly behind a cause, a parliament should address it very sympathetically.

On the role of parliament

Parliament does not have to do simply what public opinion at any time says. Parliament must remain sovereign in decision making and what policy to frame. If the doubt between parliament on one hand and people on the other becomes too large, that is dangerous for the system. So, Parliament's challenge is to heed public sentiment and reflect public concerns and seek to reassure public by a mechanism that is credible and effective as far as electorate is concerned; if it does that it will win respect of people. And if it doesn’t, it will sacrifice it

On making parliament accountable in the current financial crisis

Look, parliaments do not run everything. The UK is a free market economy and gets broad support from the major political parties. The policies are legitimate towards public interest. We as a parliamentarians will interrogate large banks and big financial institutions in case there is the need. They should be heard in parliament. They should also face interrogation, criticism, face public. The Murdochs came recently and were subjected to thorough imposition. At the highest level, people should accept responsibilities. Recently, PM David Cameroon twice appeared in parliament to make statements on important matters and responded to more than one hundred questions. Why I wanted PM to come and answer question because with power comes responsibilities. I think people who occupy important positions in our economy, media, culture and those engaged in important public activities which are interest to parliament, and if parliament wants to question, should come.

His views on the Indian parliament

Indian parliament is extremely dynamic and robust. There is certain degree of liveliness. But in general I want that the your PM be heard and the leader of the opposition be heard not only in India but in Britain too. I believe question time must throw short questions, short answers and more questions and more answers.

I think if the necessary but the proportionate action in phenomenon such as phone tapping and social unrest in UK and corruption in India is adopted, the problem can be decisively tackled. If it is a particular scandal then it should be scrutinised and exposed. Your democracy is no doubt not perfect but it is a huge tribute to India. It is a precious achievement for India. There is far more to celebrate than to criticise. You should be certainly proud of your parliament.

As a country, India has a great future. By 2060, India will become a dominant country in the world. This century will be your century soon. My advice to young people is 'go east'.



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