“A Parliament,” claimed the 19th century political essayist Walter Bagehot, “is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people.” It is a view that appears to be shared by many. The men and women (though it is still mainly men) that fill parliaments around the world have rarely been so unpopular. In the United States approval of Congress is just 10 per cent; in the UK only estate agents are deemed to be less trustworthy than politicians; across the rest of Europe, recent elections have been greeted with a mixture of frustration and…
If you want to look like you are serving the people it helps to locate your parliament centrally – you need to give the sense that you are approachable, there for everyone to see. The downside? When things go wrong the mob will be at your doors (as our friends in Athens have found out). One solution is to make sure you have a natural barrier – the Danube protects the parliament in Budapest, the Thames in London (well at least on one side). It’s the dodgier regimes that favour remote locations for chambers (see Burma on page 72).
The problem with a parliament building, unlike the politicians who populate it, is that, once built, you’re stuck with it. Any building that’s rooted too much in the style of the day, centuries down the line tends to look conservative – London’s Houses of Parliament are one example. It’s important not to opt for too much symbolism, which looks self-conscious and needy (sorry Scots). The blueprint that should be followed is simple (see our Liechtenstein parliament profile on p120) – and use local materials. Our top three tips would be Peter Zumthor, Hopkins Architects and MMBB.
Britain addressed this issue in 1943, after the Commons chamber was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs. Wartime prime minister Winston Churchill instructed that the new chamber remain with benches facing each other, and built too small – he wanted to create intimacy and “a sense of crowd and urgency”. Many other parliaments – such as the US House of Representatives – now favour horseshoe-shaped chambers which give every member what Churchill sighingly described as “a lid to bang”.
While these theoretically promote consensual lawmaking, there are good reasons for keeping opposing MPs apart – Taiwan’s legendary legislators conduct their much-YouTubed punch-ups in an agreeably shaped arena. Britain’s centuries of unbroken parliamentary tradition are tough to argue with – as, indeed, are the words of Churchill. “First we shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”
In Europe MPs are looking nervous, scared that any expenditure will go down badly with stretched electorates. The risk: best practice will shift to other parts of the world and they’ll fail to keep up. In our fantasy parliament we would make sure there were restaurants serving the best of the nation’s cuisine, a great library where you could find the latest papers and journals from around the globe, an in-house gym, bikes to get you around town and even a laundry and dry-cleaners to let MPs look their best on the floor.
The people’s houses should of course be open to the people: one of the more woeful self-inflicted injuries suffered by democracies in the past decade has been the increasing retreat of their citadels and officials behind security barriers.
Some exceptions remain. Australia’s parliament house is effectively encased inside a hill, which visitors can stroll on (and, inside; there’s a shop and café). Finland’s parliament provides a visitors’ centre. Citizens unable to visit their capital should be able to follow proceedings online (Norway’s Storting provides a multilingual model for this, at stortinget.no). It should also go without saying that every accommodation should be made for the media. If reporting of parliament is made easier, there’s every reason to expect it to be better.
The calculation of a proper number of parliamentarians is an inexact science. The world’s smallest democracy – the self-governing New Zealand-associated island Niue – returns 20 of 1,050 voters on its electoral roll to its assembly. The world’s biggest – India – elects 802 members to represent 1.2 billion people. Britain, Canada and Australia have, respectively, a representative for roughly every 91,000, 105,500 and 133,000 people (although at Britain’s next general election, the number of MPs will be cut from 650 to 600). Italy, Europe’s most-governed country, with a representative for every 60,000 or so people, is also one of Europe’s most chronically chaotic. The US has remained the world’s richest and most powerful nation despite not having expanded its House of Representatives since 1912, in which time its population has more than tripled.
American political scientist Matthew Shugart has coined the so-called Shugart Number – a theory which holds that the number of members of a country’s lower house tends towards a cube root of the population. It’s as good a starting point as any, but the key – in this area of endeavour as few others – is quality, not quantity.
A country makes no falser economy than when it scrimps on the salaries of its lawmakers. Look at the UK’s expenses scandal in 2009 that sent four MPs and two Lords to jail. They got a relatively poor wage of £65,738/€77,500 (before they start invoicing for duckpond maintenance).
In comparison, Singapore’s politicians receive high wages – in 2010, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong justified his take-home pay of S$3.4m (€2m) by modestly observing that: “our attitude is that you must pay for the quality of the person you want”. Even after accepting a 36 per cent pay cut in early 2012, Loong still earns about four times what Barack Obama gets paid for leading the free world.
There’s a time and a place. Kenya’s MPs in 2010 probably had more urgent priorities than awarding themselves pay rises. MPs should be well rewarded. This is not a realm in which to try demonstrating what one gets when one pays peanuts.
At the beginning of this year, the incoming speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, prompted a degree of ribaldry by reinstating some long-abandoned traditions of his role, including a long black gown and bow tie – there were even rumours that he planned to retrieve the speaker’s wig. The response of his fellow parliamentarians was, to put it charitably, sceptical. “He wants the respect of the parliament,” said one MP, “but the risk is he will end up looking like a clown.”
Slipper isn’t altogether wrong: running a country is a serious business and ritual can help to remind all present of the gravity of their deliberations. His error was to try to impose British pomp to a country that prides itself on egalitarian informality. Traditions should be organic. Bhutan joined the ranks of parliamentary democracies in 2008 and built a chamber that could represent no other country: deputies wear Bhutanese costume and conduct their business between walls decorated with paintings. A parliament, like its members, should truly represent its people.
The technology now exists to allow parliamentarians to vote electronically and remotely. Although it would save travel costs and working hours, the temptation to introduce such technology should be resisted, in parliaments as in elections. More complex technology is more prone to failure and fraud. While TV cameras, webcams and radio should be used to broadcast parliamentary proceedings and decisions, it must always be possible, when the vote is called, to see what our parliamentarians stand for.
Stalin’s dictum still holds that it’s not who votes that counts, but who counts the votes. There is no better way of knowing what our representative stands for than seeing them standing among the ayes or the nos – or noting that they couldn’t be bothered turning up.
The maverick MPs
A smattering ofmavericks is useful in any parliament – it keeps the public engaged and ensures tolerance and democracy are properly tested. Order and compromise are obviously both desirable: nobody wants their country ruled by a chimpanzees’ tea party. But nobody, aside from the party whips, wants a chamber upholstered with nodding automatons – genuine debate and bold thinking are important. You need at least one of each of the following types:
An unreconstructible adherent to the noblest founding principles of the ruling party and/ or country.
A member with an incongruous and bizarre extracurricular occupation.
A member who has, at some point, been a member of his opposition party.
A member who bangs the drum volubly for unfashionable or disregarded foreign causes.
A member who was, before taking up politics, a proper war hero.
A member who is a great orator. Rousing Churchillian rhetoric always has a place.
A member with a volatile temper. The odd verbal ruckus is good for propelling candid debate.
A member with perfect comic timing. There is always a place for well-judged humour in the dispatch box.