translated by Juliet Ye
This is a book to introduce to Chinese readers the way democracy operates in the United Kingdom. China and the UK share many similarities. A monarchy ruled both countries for over a thousand years, but the two nations have since evolved different political systems. The book could act as a bridge to help people on both sides understand each other.
For me personally, this book is also a memoir. In the fall of 2009, I was lucky enough to have been granted of a World Bank Graduate Scholarship, which enabled me to fulfill my dream of studying in London for one year, bringing with me my wife and four-year-old son. Prior to that, I led a team of student reporters from Shantou University to the US to cover the 2008 presidential election. We followed the election campaign throughout the country for three months and filed back to China a great number of news stories and pictures, witnessing the emergence of the legend of Barack Obama. This experience helped me develop a strong interest in Western democracy. And it was the source of inspiration for continuing my studies in the UK, the birthplace of the modern democratic system.
After submitting a stack of painstaking applications, I enrolled in the 184-year-old University College London (UCL) to do a Master of International Public Policy. At the same time, the World Bank also granted me a scholarship to support my study in London. Having always been curious about this ancient empire, I could finally land on its soil and thus open a window into Europe, a world radically different from the US. I asked myself: what are the differences between the political systems on the two sides of the Atlantic?
We lived in a family residence arranged by the school in Fortis Green Road, North London, which was one Tube stop away from Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery. On any given day, I could see a variety of political events taking place around me: local residents voted for their Members of Parliament or for the new Prime Minister; people protested against the local hospital for cancelling its 24-hour emergency service; my neighbors signed petitions to oppose the Northern Line weekend closures for maintenance and upgrade ahead of London’s 2012 Olympic Games. Political activities took place in this neighborhood every day, as a part of people’s daily lives. The old empire is going through an unprecedented financial crisis, but life moved on peacefully.
Chinese people in the UK don’t pay much attention to anything political apart from immigration policies. They probably care more about the price of vegetables in Chinatown or when the sale season on Oxford Street starts. Chinese students here usually choose subjects like management, finance, law, and engineering that are more likely to lead to jobs. For these Chinese in Britain, politics is just none of their business.
For me, however, my curiosity of the political system in the UK increased with each passing day during my studies in London.
I began talking to local parliament members, who were required to publish online every single donation or free gift they got–including a movie ticket–to retain their credibility among people. I interviewed a gay parliamentary candidate from my community, who came out to the public and worked hard to change the public’s attitudes towards homosexuality. I travelled to Liverpool to meet a Conservative Party MP candidate who came from the same town where I was born. Chatting with him in Chaozhou dialect in the branch office of the Conservative Party gave me the feeling of travelling through time and space. I also requested an interview with a local woman MP who was busy seeking re-election. However, I did not hear back from her until the election season ended, because my vote didn’t count for her.
All of them are going after an entry ticket to a seat at Westminster – the nerve centre of this country. They all want to be part of the Brownian motion in the eye of the economic storm. Is there any theoretical basis backing their efforts to realize their political participation?
To understand Britain’s modern political system, one must start with understanding the Westminster system.
The Westminster system is used, or was once used, in nearly a third of countries worldwide. The term comes from the Parliament of the Westminster, the seat of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
Having had a profound impact on the bourgeois revolutions in France, the United States, etc., these political ideas that originated from Britain have taken root in foreign soil and bred new varieties of democracy in different sunlight.
The Westminster system preserves traditional political factors such as the monarch, while at the same time incorporating modern democratic political philosophy. It is the product of nearly a millennium of evolution. It differs widely from the political system in the United States, which, in design, attempted to build a political system on the basis of ideal philosophical theories. As compared to the US, it is more replicable and propagable. Meanwhile, it also includes checks and balances of power, which is similar to the “Separation of the Three Powers” in the US system. In general, the Westminster system has the following features:
A sovereign or head of state that is the theoretical holder of executive power, and holds reserve powers, but whose daily duties mainly consist of performing the role of a ceremonial figurehead. The head of state shall obey the law and has no right to veto the bills passed by the Parliament.
A cabinet government led by the head of government, known as the Prime Minister (PM), which essentially exercises the executive authority. The Prime Minister under the Westminster system could request permission from the sovereign to dissolve Parliament and call for new elections.
A multi- party parliament, in which the party in power takes the majority of seats alongside powerful opposition parties. The party, or parties, that hold the majority of seats in the parliament forms the government.
An elected parliament has legislative power, which is entitled to hold a non-confidence vote against the government to defeat a government and force a new general election.
A written record of all parliamentary debate should be publicly accessible.
Under this system, the prime minister is pushed up to the front stage to perform the presidential duties. But with a strong parliament, the prime minster should report to the parliament and accept accountability from the opposition parties on a weekly basis. Even if more than half of the elected parliamentarians belong to his party, the prime minister still has to strive hard to win support from the Parliament—it is not impossible that he’ll face troubles caused by the backbenchers from his own party. If a government is formed of two or more parties, like the current coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron, volatile situation may occur at almost any moment.
It’s hard to imagine that the Westminster system of government is not enshrined with a written constitution. The reason is that the British does not have a written constitution. The establishment is built on the basis of the gradual improvement of the legal regulations over the years. It also showcases the process of exploring systems and modes for political governance by human beings.
The Great Charter of 1215 ruled that the Church shall be free and the King should obey the law. The Bill of Rights (1689) said that the king had no right to abolish laws and the parliament should be independent from the government and judiciary. The Reform Act of 1832 called off the property qualification for voters, and thus granted the majority of individuals the right to vote. Since 1911, the elected House of Commons has had the power to overrule the House of Lords if agreement is not reached, by invoking the Parliament Act. And in more recent decades, there have been continuous legislative improvement, such as giving women the right to vote and reducing the age for eligible voters. Step by step, we walked through the evolutionary process of the British democratic system. Democracy could not be accomplished in one move. Instead, it takes hundreds of years to evolve and develop.
Even now, the reform is still going on. There is still something more to be desired in the Westminster system. For instance, there are still 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords, who have prolonged the existence of the hereditary system. And there are still debates on the voting system, that whether a simple majority rule will maximize equality. A new round of electoral reform is starting up. Democratic politics require a high level of technical competence, thus it needs constant practice and the search for equality and efficiency in practice.
I am not going to talk about political theories in this book. Neither will I discuss the historical origins of the British democracy. Instead, I will introduce to my readers, with my personal experiences and observations, the social context and historical background of the system. This book may be considered my interpretation of “living politics”, which is also the origin of the book’s title. Politics can be specific, detailed, feasible and tangible. It requires good system design to avoid the imputation of ill nature in mankind, and to fix the problems inherent in the process of institutionalization. As the oldest democracy, UK offers a frame of reference for China in terms of practicing democracy in thinking and action.
In July 1945, after Winston Churchill led the British nation to victory in World War II, his Conservative Party looked at re-election with full confidence (the war-time coalition government was led by Conservative party). Churchill and his party did not expect a bitter defeat. He lost almost half of the 383 seats in the Parliament, thus losing the election to a dark horse candidate, Labors’ Clement Atlee. Churchill was praised by the public for his leadership in the World War II, but the voters still believed that a Labor government could better lead the post-war reconstruction.
Stalin mocked Churchill after the election, saying, “In your country, the winner of the war gets ousted.”
Churchill replied, “I fought for the people’s right to vote against me.”
This is the essential embodiment of British political values: that freedom and individual rights outweigh the right of the party to rule.
Today, in the 21st century, we will witness a greater shift to this age-old value of democracy.
Li, Z. (2011). Democracy: A Set of Skills, A Chinese Perspective of UK Democracy. Guangzhou, China: Southern Daily Press