The Westminster Model, humility and dialogue

27 May 2009
,
Alan Hudson
The UK is in the throes of a major political crisis with the exposure of questionable use of expenses by a large number of Members of Parliament of all parties

While the Westminster expenses system is not, in itself, a product of the Westminster Model of parliamentary democracy, the scandal has sparked a wide-ranging public debate about the nature of the political system. This touches on issues of electoral reform, constitutions, political parties, party whips, and relations between the legislature and the executive – reviving, perhaps, a stalled effort to reshape governance in the UK.  

The problem with Models
Donors, including the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) are, increasingly, supporting the emergence of more effective parliaments in developing countries. Here at ODI, we have worked on parliaments and development, as part of our wider portfolio of work on politics and governance. The political crisis in the UK is a useful reminder for development professionals working on governance and parliaments that, to put it mildly, few parliaments make as effective a contribution to good governance as they might. The crisis besetting Westminster also serves as a reminder of the dangers of promoting particular Models of governance:

  • First, promoting particular models implies that approaches to addressing governance challenges – with the Westminster Model in mind, I hesitate to call them ‘governance solutions’ – can and should be transferred from one country to another regardless of context.
  • Second, exporting particular Models of governance could undermine the local ownership that is essential for successful governance reforms.
  • Third, political institutions evolve over many years, in interaction with their environment, and a focus on a particular model may mean a focus on the formal rules of politics, while neglecting informal social and cultural processes.
  • And fourth, in the real world, few Models are ideal. British confidence in Parliament is at an all-time low, suggesting that ‘The Westminster Model’ itself has considerable room for improvement!

Aid donors should beware of exporting particular models of governance, including parliamentary democracy. Instead, they should ensure that their strategies are flexible enough to respond to local needs and to allow for the sort of democratic ownership agreed in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action.

Governance dialogues
The issues raised by recent UK political events will resonate around the world, particularly in developing countries where the UK Government – particularly through DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – is promoting poverty reduction and democracy, in part by promoting greater transparency and accountability.

Donors such as DFID are increasingly aware of the fact that governance reforms need to be locally-owned and appropriate to context. The implicit assumption is nevertheless that ‘we’ in the developed world have better governance and, as such, are in a position to provide sound advice to developing countries.

There is no doubt that the governance challenges in many developing countries far exceed those in the UK, but the UK crisis reminds us that a little humility is in order. It may also provide a good opportunity for dialogue and two-way learning about governance. Perhaps readers from developing countries have thoughts about what can be learned from recent events in the UK and, very importantly, about what the UK could learn from experience in their countries?

Developed and developing countries have much to learn about governance, but rather than seeking to export particular Models of governance, those of us in the developed world should – as the latest cracks appear in the Westminster Model – be open to learn from those who are, more typically, seen as recipients of governance advice.

Looking at African parliamentary politics, for example, Kenyan readers may have views about the impact of increasing MPs’ salaries on MPs’ behaviour. Ghanaian readers may have interesting insights on the role of the media and civil society organisations in beginning to change the political dynamics of parliament, for instance in relation to budget processes. Ugandan readers might have something to tell us about how a ‘parliamentary scorecard’ can open a space for public debate about the role and effectiveness of MPs and Parliament. Readers from Rwanda can share useful suggestions for the UK on how to increase the proportion of women MPs. And readers from around the world may well have stories to tell us on their efforts to demand transparency and accountability in their own countries – stories that may help shed some light on what is working when it comes to governance.

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