While Britain faces the prospect of a Brexit plan that remains deeply unpopular among both pro-EU and anti-EU British voters, one saving grace remains the fact that Britain’s unpopular Prime Minister Theresa May has to face the scrutiny of the Parliamentary House of Commons on a regular basis. Here, she is interrogated in real time both by opposition parties and by sceptical members of her own deeply divided party. In a less effective presidential system, May would not have to face this kind of scrutiny and thus her monstrously unpopular plan would stand a better chance of seeing the light of day.
If there is any evidence one needs to demonstrate that unpopular, ill-informed and politically desperate politicians prefer ineffective presidential systems to parliamentary systems, Britain’s Theresa May has just provided students of governance with one such example. While the ultimate decision on Brexit will be decided by Parliament rather than via a referendum (at least as things stand for the time being), May has proposed holding a presidential style debate on the subject with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn on live television. There is something inherently absurd about such a proposal as May and Corbyn face each other in a political debate once a week at the very minimum during Prime Minister’s Question Time, while in recent months, they have faced each other in Parliament far more frequently than once a week.
As Britain’s Parliamentary debates are free to watch online and on television, the fact of the matter is that anyone who wants to see May and Corbyn debate on Brexit have already had more than enough opportunities to do so. Yet while Parliamentary debates are governed by a strict and universally known code of conduct, television debates are typically governed by arbitrary rules set by the participants themselves and managed by a highly biased mainstream media.
As a long standing parliamentary nation, Britain’s distinct Parliamentary traditions first came under severe attack by former Prime Minister David Cameron. It was Cameron who first proposed and ultimately agreed to presidential style debates during the 2010 general election campaign while Cameron also passed the cognitively regressive Fixed Term Parliament Act which restricted a Prime Minister’s ability to dissolve Parliament, while simultaneously forcing a 3/4ths majority of Members of Parliament to lose confidence in the government before calling a new election, while previously a fairer simple majority was required. Cameron was also famous for his total disregard for Parliamentary language as he often addressed Members of Parliament directly rather than via the Speaker of The House of Commons.
To their mutual credit, both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are more respectful of the Parliamentary rules of procedure than Cameron ever was, but now that May’s political career is on the line, she’s running away from Parliament and towards the television studio where she seeks to hold a presidential style debate on Brexit with Corbyn. The fact of the matter is that important issues like general elections or the withdrawal from a major trading bloc like the European Union should not be vulgarised with a television debate whose outcomes have more to do with reality television style theatrics as opposed to traditional political customs and a well known rules based forum. Put simply, presidential style debates are cowardly substitutes for facing the scrutiny of a parliamentary chamber.
In The Philippines, the broken presidential system has allowed a permanently unhinged opposition to escape scrutiny by using friendly mainstream media outlets to hurl counter-productive abuse at President Rodrigo Duterte while in a parliamentary system, Duterte and his supporters would have an instant right of reply where the opposition itself could be scrutinised in real time. Running to friendly media outlets is truly a coward’s way out while parliamentary debates test the intellect and mental stamina of a politician more effectively than any alternative system.
As an unpopular British Prime Minister runs away from what has been called “the mother of all parliaments”, it becomes clear that she seeks to rely on support from her friends in the mainstream media to discredit an opposition that has been landing many heavy blows against the government inside Parliament. Thus, if a presidential style debate is favoured by someone lacking both popularity and credibility, one can deduce that presidential systems themselves help to foster an atmosphere where credibility, genuine democratic support and political intelligence are largely surplus to requirements. One look at The Philippine opposition and the case for a parliamentary system largely makes itself.
Those who lack confidence excel in stage managed presidential systems while parliamentary debates help separate the men and women from the political girls and boys. This is why The Philippines should learn from the mistakes of others as well as its own deeply flawed political system and shift to a full federal-parliamentary democracy.