Sunday, June 03, 2012

Political dynasties: a response

Changing Perspectives has written something on political dynasties.

This is my response:

There was a 'ruling class' that used to dominate parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, the church, industry and other institutions in the UK. This was not a family but a section of society- a class. In Britain, the influence of that class has declined steadily since 1945 and for the most part has broken down completely.   Jeremy Paxman documents their involvement in his book published in 1991, but it has declined significantly even since then.

In Sri Lanka there existed something roughly akin to that at the end of British rule in 1948. These were people who had been to St Thomas', Royal, Trinity and the other 'big' schools, or been to Oxbridge. It persisted in some way until the 1970's but although Bandaranaike and Jayewardene were from that class, much of the rest of the government, the public service and others were not.

With the advent of the change in language in 1956, the riots of 1958, and the abolishing of the Civil Service in the 1960's, many Civil Servants, judges and police officers simply migrated, retired or resigned, therefore the governments of the day was not dominated by that class. The sudden departure of vast numbers of educated people wrought havoc and traditions of independence and integrity were lost. New entrants to the services could not absorb all of the practices and knowledge of the departing seniors within a short period of time. In any case many of of the new comers were political appointees and as such were interested more in serving their political masters rather than the public at large.

The dynasties of old no longer exist. In fact, in a proper functioning democracy the dynasty or even the person in a position has little relevance. It is the institution that matters.

A quick primer on the UK and the importance of institutions. The Royal family in England is a constitutional monarchy and only have only a symbolic role to play. Originally the monarchy was very powerful, and its subjects treated badly.

Over the course of an 800 year struggle, starting with the Magna Carta the people rebelled and seized power from the monarchy,  ultimately reducing them to mere symbols. Initially it was the barons who rebelled and imposed the Magna Carta on the king. After many battles with the crown over several centuries came  The Bill of Rights of 1689. This was the foundation of the modern parliament

All of these were aimed at only one thing: limiting the power of the king. 

Having won their freedom, they guard it jealously. Freedom is guaranteed by institutions: an independent judiciary, an independent civil service and police, parliament and a free press which keeps people informed of what is going on. If the judiciary is independent, they can strike down unjust laws, if parliament happens to pass any such laws. The Civil Service and police will not enforce such laws, this is how the power of the rulers is checked.

The Civil Service runs the actual administration of the country. They must be impartial and serve everyone equally. Their independence is guaranteed by Permanent Secretaries (senior civil servants who cannot be removed), the Public Services Commission, which alone can determine the promotion, transfer and salaries of Civil Servants. Politicians should not  interfere in this process.

It is important that the civil service and police be independent of the rulers so that they do not become tools to distribute political largesse or of repression. 

Similar structures ensure the independence of the judiciary and the police. 

England has no written constitution but in most modern democracies the power of the rulers is limited by the constitution as well as the institutions listed above. The idea of the institution is important because no one wants to be ruled by the whims and fancies of an individual. People must be ruled by laws, not by men.

These checks and balances existed at one time in Sri Lanka but in the years since independence have been removed through constitutional change, abolishing the independent civil service and through corruption. The result is that the rulers are now all-powerful, which is detrimental to the rights and liberty of its citizens.

There are vast celebrations held at public expense to celebrate independence from Britain but the rights of Sri Lanka's citizens have been eroded greatly since 1948.

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