MPs can pick up lessons from UK on separation of powers
Brexit has offered a welcome insight into one of the most crucial principles of a constitutional government: separation of powers.
With 61 days to go until the scheduled Brexit on March 29, the UK Parliament certainly doesn’t know what it wants in terms of an EU exit deal. But it certainly knows it did not want the country subjected to the government proposed deal aptly named “Bad Deal”. In the biggest parliamentary defeat by a UK government in years, the tabled deal was rejected by an overwhelming 432 nays to 202 ayes. The ruling Conservative Party has 330 MPs and only 196 of these voted for the government’s deal.
This historic vote can largely be credited to the UK Supreme Court, who judged that the executive did not have the exclusive and unilateral power to decide and implement the EU deal without a final vote from parliament. Had this crucial nation altering judgment not been handed down by the court, the UK parliament would not have had any say on one of the most life altering decisions of the country. It’s evident the Brexit deal would have been signed as soon as it was concluded late last year.
In this continued disarray of Brexit where the UK is now publicly conscious of its lack of headway, it has offered an inadvertent crucial renewed application of separation of powers. The UK Prime Minister Theresa May was not in a vacuum to be surprised by the result of the vote. For months the MPs were very vocal in their rejection of the deal that resulted in resignations of some Cabinet secretaries. The MPs made a plea for the government to come up with a more favourable deal that reflected the purpose of the referendum. Instead, the Prime Minister, in defiance, chose to push the deal through.
In a quagmire, this was a defining national moment to the MPs, vote yes upholding party allegiance or vote no in accountability to the electorate who voted for you? Well, 118 MPs voted no, not in rebellion against the government, but because the deal would place the country in jeopardy. So in the truest form of checks and balances, the legislature checked the government, which was overreaching its power. Consequently, by parliament playing on its constitutional strength it vehemently prevented the executive from over asserting itself. Separation of powers crucially curbed the abuse of power by the executive and avoided the saturation of power in one branch of the government to the detriment of the citizens.
Even after this great defeat, the relationship between the two branches has not soured. The Prime Minister, taking into account parliament’s decision, invited party leaders and MPs from both sides of the House to come together and work towards a deal that would be mutually agreeable. Through this gesture of goodwill, the executive upheld inter-institutional comity, which is the respect one organ of the State owes another.
And here lies the crux of the matter. All too often we witness lack of mutual respect between our arms of government. Where there are opposing views even between MPs of the same party, the discord turns into a vocal battle of who shouts the loudest, with little or no self- restraint on choice of words. This unfortunate approach to resolving disputes has trickled down to the grassroots level with some MCAs getting violent.
Self-restraint in this case is not against criticising decisions made by other branches of government; it’s the manner in which we disagree that calls into question our leadership. Offer a substantive analysis as to why you disagree with the decision and how its implementation will be of grave consequences to your constituents or populace at large.
Of course the other extreme of exclusively agreeing with every executive proposal or decision is not upholding parliament’s independence either. By all means actively support decisions you have critically analysed and come to the conclusion that the benefits for the people who elected you are evident and feasible. After all, you did swear, “I will bear true faith and allegiance to the people … and that I will faithfully and conscientiously discharge the duties …”
It is accepted that separation of powers is not as purist as the title leads us to believe. All three state organs are independent and inter-dependent. But ours has leaned more on the former and, if this continues, making checks and balances will be that much harder with compromises being made (Sugar Probe). Even worse, that single vote that represents the people behind you will not be cast in their best interest but will be at the behest of externalities.
As our Parliament resumes from recess on February 11, 2019, let the people you represent be at the heart of your decision making.