The vibe that the Westminster type parliaments are declining was first aired by Lord Bryce in 1921. The general conclusion of Bryce's comparative study among British, American, French and Italian parliaments was plain - legislative bodies had declined in brilliance, acumen, importance and interest. This later took a name – The Decline of Parliament Thesis (DPT). Westminster type parliaments are particularly vulnerable to the powers of Cabinet so far as it relates to the law making, financial management and policy making. Cabinet dictatorship was further strengthened by the rise of polarised and cohesive party system in the nineteenth century. Situation is even worse in jurisdictions where the Prime Minister is placed far above his cohorts in the Cabinet. Today, parliament barely controls the legislative proposals that come to and passes through it. It has virtually no say over foreign affairs and security issues. Financial accountability mechanisms are increasingly falling upon non-parliamentary bodies like Comptroller and Auditors General, Anti-Corruption Commission, Multinational Donors and Lending Agencies. Parliament's oversight tools like ministerial responsibility has fallen prey to cohesive and clientelist political parties and their predetermined agendas. Even parliament's “mere deliberative” ordeal in state policy making is under challenge. Mass media has overtaken the bulk of agenda-setting and discourse setting function in political debate. Parliament merely follows the policy vibe created somewhere else. Rise of local government autonomy and community-based interest groups directly linked to the government have relieved the MPs from most of their representative functions. So now, the question is - what remains for parliament and what it stands for?
Fortunately, Anti-DPT scholars like Lord Norton and others believe that parliament still has potentials. DPT scholars over-emphasise the elitist and coercive aspect of legislatures, they argue. To them, a pluralist-institutional perspective would better justify parliament as an institution both of coercion and persuasion. Legislature may coerce by its voting power. If not possible, it may persuade by its debating power. Elitist and coercive perspectives highlight the larger hold of the cabinet over parliament. Instead, a pluralist-institutional view would explain why and how the structures (committees, speaker, etc) and procedures (rules of procedure, etc) of parliament may affect what is brought forward by the government. Institutional view has two dimensions – rational choice institutionalism and historical institutionalism.
True it is, government of a given time would seek to manipulate the parliamentary bodies and procedure towards its own advantage. But the rational-choice explanation of institutional change as expounded Douglas North suggest that such changes would be attempted only when the price for it is worth risking. For example, governments in Bangladesh would think thrice to reintroduce the fourth or fifth amendment like system again. This will be legally unsustainable and politically suicidal. The political price that might need be paid here constitutes a strong deterrent for such attempted change. Parliamentary system is therefore safe at least for the foreseeable future.
Again, could the rulers of the time attempt to reduce the authority of the Speaker, for example, substantially? From a historical institutional analysis, this is almost impossible to do. Parliamentary norms, ideas and etiquette developed over thousands of years of Westminster system militant against such retrogression. Same would be the situation had the rulers wanted to abolish the committee system, ministerial responsibility, parliamentary pre-approval of taxes and revenues, etc. Historical ideas and norms developed through institutional practice are impossible to amend unless a decisive wave of public support brings an inevitable “constitutional moment” for the ruling class. Constitutional moments are admittedly hard to come by.
The institutional view of parliament calls for a pluralist appreciation of the role and place of legislature in Westminster-style governments. To assert that the modern parliaments are far from decline, Robert Packenham identified a total of eleven functions of legislatures and tabled those functions into three major-categories – first, legitimation (democratic legitimacy to the governance), second, recruitment, socialisation and training (creation of future cabinet rank and file from the parliamentary backbenchers) and third, decisional and influence functions (law making and oversight). Prior to Peckenham, Walter Bagehot also outlined five functions: elective (choosing the government); expressive (public perception of current issues); teaching (letting the people know things that might otherwise left unknown); informing (raising the grievances of the people); and lastly, the law making – the most conspicuous one to us.
A combined reading of Peckenham and Bagehot suggests that empirical study, appreciation and measurement of the Inform, Training and Influence Roles of parliament side by side with its Legislative and Elective Role might prove a practicable way to locate modern parliaments' position within the DPT v. anti-DPT discourse. If the parliament's apparent weaknesses in the legislative and oversight functions are recoverable at least in some extent through its Inform, Training and Influence Role, we might be able to make a case for giving parliament a chance in the overall body politic.
The pluralist-institutional perspective is further substantiated by a recently articulated“Expectation Gap” analysis in the UK. Flinders and Kelso from United Kingdom argues that the declinist scholars unrealistically increase public expectations by posturing parliament as an arch rival of the executive. It fails to accept that parliamentary government was explicitly intended to deliver 'strong government'. Again, while inflating public expectations, the declinist scholars fail to close the gap from below - parliament's actual capability to deliver the expectation. Declinist scholars bypass the existence and capacity of 'informal, but no less important,' intra-party and inter-party avenues of legislative oversight through pre-legislative opinion building, cross party committee deliberation and post legislative scrutiny, etc. If the top bar of expectation is pulled down by accepting acomparatively limited role of parliament, and if the bottom bar of actual capacity is pulled up by acknowledging some less visible intra-party and inter-party control mechanisms, then the peoples' 'Expectations Gap' would have been narrower and parliaments could get the attention and appreciation it deserves. Institutions thrive only when those are cared for and appreciated.
The writer is PhD Researcher (Parliament Studies), King's College London.