Democracy Moves in Peculiar Ways

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 1 2015.



Jobs for the Losers

For several days last week, Ceylon Today was carrying a banner headline stating that SB Dissanayake was a “serious contender” for the post of Leader of the Opposition. “Hang on, I said”, to myself (I often talk to myself as it’s the best way to guarantee an intelligent conversation) “was SB not one of those recidivist old lags the voters rejected in the cleansing of the Augean stables that occurred on August 17?” “Yes, indeed he was”, I answered myself, “but he is back in parliament as one of those names on the UPFA National List”.

National List

I try manfully to explain the nature of Sri Lankan democracy to my foreign readers (both of them) but it is not easy. What is the National List? A National List MP is an unelected Member of Parliament who is appointed by a political party or an independent group to the Parliament of Sri Lanka. The number of national list MPs allocated to a contending party or an independent group depends on the proportion to their share of the national vote. 29 national list MPs are appointed.

University Constituencies

One looks in vain to other countries for exact parallels but one might compare the concept to the old University seats in the UK. University constituencies originated in Scotland, where the representatives of the ancient universities of Scotland sat in the unicameral Estates of Parliament. When James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603, and became James I of England, the system was adopted by the Parliament of England. The system was continued in the Parliament of Great Britain (from 1707 to 1800) and the United Kingdom Parliament, until 1950. The University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford were therefore given two seats each from 1603. The voters were the graduates of the university, whether they were resident or not, who had the vote for their University in addition to any other vote that they might have. Note that the members representing Oxford and Cambridge Universities were not appointed like National List members – they were voted into the Commons. Although the members for the university Constituencies were usually Conservatives, in the later years, Independent candidates began to win many of the seats. In 1948, the Labour government abolished the university constituencies, with effect from the dissolution of Parliament in 1950.

Intellectuals Making a Contribution to the Legislature

The Members for the university constituencies included many famous names: Pitt the Younger and Palmerston both served as MPs for Cambridge University, and Peel and Gladstone served as MPs for Oxford University. In his last years Ramsay MacDonald was MP for Combined Scottish Universities after losing his seat in the 1935 general election.

The idea of University seats was similar to the idea behind the Sri Lanka National List – to have intellectuals, who were not necessarily up for what Alan Watkins called the “rough old trade” of politics, to contribute their wisdom to the national legislature.

One scans in vain the list of University MPs to find many names that have resonance today. One that I recall is AP Herbert. Sir Alan Herbert was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, gaining a First-Class Honours Degree in Jurisprudence. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1919, but never practised. Herbert served in the Royal Naval Division during the First World War and was mentioned in dispatches after Gallipoli. During the Second World War he combined his parliamentary duties with service in the Royal Navy on patrol boats in the Thames as Petty Officer Herbert. When he was knighted in 1945, The Times noted “his individual niche in the parliamentary temple as the doughty vindicator of the private member’s rights, including not least the right to legislate.”

Throughout his career Herbert lobbied for reform of several laws that he felt to be out-dated, including those on divorce and obscenity. He began contributing humorous articles to Punch in 1910 and used satire to get across his reform agenda. He wrote a series of stories about a persistent litigant, Albert Haddock, called Misleading Cases. The BBC adapted them for television in the late 60s and early 70s. These fictions were Herbert’s vehicles for his law-reform work and carried cogent legal points and are sometimes quoted in real-life judicial decisions  and academic research. Herbert also wrote eight novels and 15 plays, – the comedy Bless the Bride (1947) ran for two-and-a-quarter years in London.  PG Wodehouse wrote: “I want to see an A. P. Herbert on every street corner”.

Intellectuals in the Irish Upper House

Today there are no university constituencies in the Republic of Ireland’s lower house of parliament, Dáil Éireann, but there are two university constituencies represented in Seanad Éireann, the Irish upper house. Unlike Dáil Éireann, the Seanad is not directly elected but consists of a mixture of members chosen by various methods. Its powers are much weaker than those of the Dáil and it cannot veto bills, only delay and seek to improve them. The two university electorates consist of the graduates of University of Dublin (Trinity College) and the National University of Ireland who are Irish citizens, regardless of where they are resident. Each is a three-seat constituency elected under the Single Transferable Vote and the election is conducted by postal ballot. Some politicians have called for university representation to be abolished, on the ground that it is unacceptable that possession of a degree should confer special electoral rights.

One can find many distinguished writers and intellectuals on a list of former senators, including many who have had an influence in global politics: Mary Robinson, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Mary MacAleese, Garrett Fitzgerald, Lord Longford, Oliver St John Gogarty, George Moore, Brian Friel, and WB Yeats.

One would have to look very hard into the history of National Lists to find anyone of the moral standing of Mary Robinson or the intellectual clout of Yeats or Friel. The original intention of the National List was to allow a voice in the legislature for professionals, academics who did not have the networks and resources of professional politicians. Rajiva Wijesinha was a good example of what the National List should have been about. Whether one agrees with his views or not, he tirelessly analysed the micro aspects as well as the macro of what was needed for good governance in this country. Few would complain about Lakshman Kadirgamar being given a seat. Harsha de Silva brought his economic expertise to the benefit of the legislature without having to go to the hustings (although he has now successfully done so). On the other hand, CBK, who is being deferred to on many issues by the current prime minister, appointed Mervyn Silva to the National List after he finished last in Colombo with 2,236 votes. What did he contribute to the quality of debate in the legislature by squeezing a monk’s testicles?

Nevertheless, data on parliamentary activity collected between May 2012 and August 2013 showed that on average, national list MPs contributed 25 per cent more in terms of net productive time in parliament than elected MPs. There were four national list MPs amongst the top 22 contributors (top 10%) in parliament. These were (in order): Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP), A.H.M Azwer (UPFA), Harsha de Silva (UNP) and Eran Wickramaratne (UNP). There were also four National List MPs amongst the bottom 10 per cent. The average contribution of an Opposition National List MP was double that of a government National List MP.

Whatever about their performance, is it morally right that 29 members get a seat  in Parliament without being democratically elected? Many of those now coming into parliament and getting ministerial jobs were decisively rejected by the voters.