lördag 15 augusti 2009

A tale of two parliaments

Last week I visited the Riksdag in Stockholm. This was very interesting in comparison with the British parliament. I came to the conclusion that there are advantages and disadvantages in the two countries' systems. What is good about the British system is the one-member one-constituency arrangement. What is bad about the British system is first-past-the-post voting. It leads to unrepresentative democracy which is hardly democracy at all.

But the Swedish electoral system is by area, with multi-member constituencies selected from a party list. This tends to give too much power to party selection committees.

Britain's two-chamber system is also good in that it provides a check on government. However, the Swedish system removes government from parliament. What in effect corresponds to the British cabinet is separate from but answerable to the elected members. Elected members
who become members of the government must resign their seats and as I understood it, new elections are held. Under the British system, if one's MP become a minister, the constituency virtually loses its MP.

Members in the Riksdag sit in seats according to their constituency, not according to party. The layout is an arc of a circle. The government has its own seats in front, where they can be grilled by members.

In my opinion this is a better layout that having members in two blocks facing each other, as in the British parliament. That is a recipe for confrontation and it also leaves no physical space for other viewpoints. The whole notion of holding debates with two opposing sides is based on the assumption that one is right and the other is wrong, or that right consists of some kind of compromise position in between. This implies that both parties to the debate are in agreement on the terms of that debate. If the truth lies in another direction entirely, as seems so often to be the case, then such a debating structure will mean that the right course of action will not be discovered.

As I understand it, the seating layout has its origin in the practice of meeting in St Stephen's Chapel, where the choir stalls faced each other, as is normal practice in such places. But ecclesiastical establishments themselves built chapter houses for this purpose, and significantly, they were circular, thereby giving everyone an equal voice. Which makes me wonder if politics would not develop very differently if parliament met in a building with a different shape? It would be interesting to see how things would go in, for example, the Albert Hall, with the parties all mixed up.

On the subject of the building itself: I was in the Palace in March. I was struck by the odd and uncomfortable conjunction of nineteenth century Gothic and information technology systems like flat screen VDUs. The whole place seems to carry a weight of history bearing down like a heavy blanket. When that history is of the vanished empire of a great power, I am not sure whether it is a good thing. The Swedish parliament is partly in a nineteenth century classical style and part 1970s. Long before, Sweden too had been a great power with an empire, but the parliament buildings reflect the more modest role of the neutral state that the country had become by the time the parliament was built.

What strikes me more than anything, and nearly everyone I speak to says the same thing, is that Britain is failing to come to terms with its role, which means that it is not making the contribution that it could and should. So perhaps a move might be no bad thing, as a chance to rethink what Britain should stand for in the twenty-first century. The Palace of Westminster can then be opened up as a tourist destination.

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