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The Westminster system: from Magna Carta to Play-Doh

Liz Cheney paid a price for siding with the Democrats over the January 6, 2021 insurrection by losing her position as chair of the House Republican Conference, but freedom of speech and opinion as enshrined in the US Constitution protects her from total expulsion, a provision not enjoyed within the Westminster system (File photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The beginning of the Westminster system dates back to the Magna Carta, which was a document created in 1215 that put a limit and check on the powers allowed to the monarch. Before the Magna Carta, the monarchs had absolute reign over all their subjects and were immune to any consequences for doing wrong.

Among other features, the Magna Carta created a separate judiciary where all people were considered equal under the law and had the benefit of a court rather than the caprice and arbitrary judgments of the monarch.

It also led to a degree of the civil legislature that eventually became known as the Lower House or the House of Commons. The monarch’s consultants, comprising bishops, earls, noblemen and lords of different counties, became what was known as the House of Lords or the Upper House. A majority in the House of Commons would select a leader who would appoint a Cabinet of ministers with specific responsibilities. The Upper House evolved from the medieval period and its role would come to scrutinise legislation coming from the “lower” House of Commons. The Upper House had no power to change the verdict of the Lower House but it could slow progress, which often led to amendments to Bills presented.

All of this has morphed into what we have today as the Westminster style of governance, which is the form of governance possessed by most countries coming out of the British Empire. The Westminster style has been challenged within Britain particularly during the 17th century by the “levellers”, who were the beginnings of what later emerged in the 18th century as revolutions inspired by the thought that “all men are equal”. It led to the idea of a republic in which the British Empire had a short-lived experience in 1649, when Oliver Cromwell decapitated King Charles I, took over Parliament and declared the empire a republic.

Cromwell was more of an autocrat than a leveller. Ripples from that episode affected Bermuda when several persons challenged the authority of the Church, which was the vestige of the monarchy. They were promptly rounded up and deported on two ships. My tenth-generation grandfather, John Darrell, was the sergeant at arms responsible for that task of their removal. That episode led to the discovery and colonising of the Bahamas.

The republic of the British Empire did not last for long, as the monarchy regained its position only to see — a little more than a century later — one of her biggest colonies, North America, have a similar revolution and gain its independence to become truly established as a republic in the 18th century. This resulted permanently in what we know as the United States of America.

It is a realised truth that a republic is the greater expression of individual freedom and a higher form of democracy where the power and political authority are not the Parliament’s but rest with the people.

I recall the question at a forum being asked of Dame Lois Browne-Evans about the prospects of changing Bermuda from a Westminster style of government. She remarked: “Many people want to get rid of the Westminster-style government; the problem is they don’t know what else to put in its place.”

At the time I did not accept her position and statement. But later, upon reflection, I had to conclude it was indeed a challenge to have the full range of rights of a republic under a parliamentary system. The Westminster system by process evolved as an attrition where power gradually devolved from the monarchy, but full individual human freedoms and power were never completely wrestled away.

So can a society under the Westminster system ever enjoy true equality where the leadership is by the consent of the majority? The simple answer is “No”. However, the Westminster system is largely of one precedent following the other. In other words, it is not a system set in granite. Any society can decide for itself what rights and privileges it affords its citizens. It happens that we only enjoy the rights inherited from the previous generation. It is a fruitful lie that each generation of leaders tells itself, which has helped to maintain power by claiming that it’s the system which is at fault and which cannot be fixed.

Under the existing relationship we have with Britain, there are two areas where we have a direct connection to their control — they being the judiciary — which is connected to the Privy Council, and our external and internal defence. How do we run our Parliament and what rights we give our people are not the concern of Britain. The Westminster system does not prevent rights and democracy from forming; constitutions can be amended where there is an expressed will, and even entrenched provisions can be adjusted to advance the rights of people and form a greater democracy. In some ways, the Westminster system is unshaped putty. But that, of course, is only if one chooses to see it that way.

The problem has always been the unwillingness of parliamentarians to advance the rights and freedoms of the people. Let’s take as a simple example the idea of freedom of speech and the right to express one’s beliefs and opinions without fear of victimisation — which is in our Human Rights Act. In this recent midterm election in the United States, Liz Cheney, a Republican, endorsed three Democrats. The Republican Party cannot expel her because the US Constitution guarantees the freedom of opinion and speech as an inalienable right, and that enshrined right has primacy over any political party. In other words, those rights follow you inside the party as a fundamental principle.

Then there are the types of freedoms and matters that make persons in society as equals. They would be issues such as representation and rights to vote and to stand for election, and proportionately to have a balance of power spread out evenly across the country with no pockets that give a small group a disproportionate share of power. These types of matters need vigilance and from time to time need to be readjusted, but they are all part of that which reinforces equality, which is essential for a just society.

The Westminster system does not prevent that type of freedom or equality; it is people who want to maintain control who block that kind of freedom and equality. To have that simple freedom of expression has consequences that destroy many controls. You will hear the argument that under our system, we have a whip and that you must obey the whip. Says who? The whip should be there to encourage a perspective, not demand it or else! Parties will have to adopt a new process for the nomination of potential leaders. MPs of one party may support and vehemently argue in favour of the position of the other party and not face disciplinary consequences such as has been displayed too often in our local politics. It is these changes that contemporary politicians resist because it breaks their control; they have become, as it were, “the new monarchs” or neocolonialist.

I posit that, given the experience of Britain within the European Union, there is nothing preventing Bermuda from being a fuller, more open and more participatory democracy where the people are the base of authority within the present or more evolved relationship with Britain. I posit, too, that the rights and freedoms which should be inalienable are not enjoyed because they are being withheld by those who want to maintain power at the expense of those rights — and not because this is a Westminster system.

The Westminster system is benign and malleable; it is greed and avarice that is the malignancy we suffer. Some may argue that we need to go to Whitehall to get an order in council to change our constitution. And that just may be the kind of maturity Britain would appreciate.

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Published November 17, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated November 16, 2022 at 8:48 pm)

The Westminster system: from Magna Carta to Play-Doh

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