Friday, 14 May 2010

My summer of 1987 with Britain’s Liberal Democrats: lessons for Singapore

The story starts in 1986. As a sophomore at Occidental College (yes, the same college Obama attended!), I applied for a Richter Fellowship to study the British first past the post electoral system. I didn't receive the grant.
Never one to take no for an answer, I reapplied for the grant the following year, 1987. (The research scholarship was handed out annually.) Maybe the selection committee liked my proposal; maybe they just wanted to shut me up or maybe the forthcoming 1987 British general elections swayed the decision.

Whatever the reason, I found myself in London during the summer of 1987 researching the electoral reform proposals of the yet to be formed Liberal Democratic Party. A third force in British politics borne out of an Alliance memo jointly issued by Sir David Steel's Liberal Party and former Labour stalwart Dr. David Owen's Social Democratic Party (SDP) which finally culminated in the formal merger of the two parties in 1988.
It was quite a time. I wrote to each of the handful of Liberal Party MPs at the House of Commons requesting an interview. Most wrote back on Parliamentary stationary excusing themselves due to commitments in their constituencies – it was Parliament's summer recess. The formality of the communications was 'quaint' to say the least!
During the process, I was referred to the Centre for Constitutional Reform operated by Lord (then Sir) Richard Holme (1936 – 2008). Sir Holme took me under his wing and his Centre gave me a place to 'house' myself while conducting my research. Through affiliation with the Centre I somehow ended up attending a Liberal Party weekend event (was it the annual conference?) at Cambridge.
Cambridge 1987 was a fascinating event. Traditional Liberals, known for their support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and legalize marijuana campaign, were being lobbied by party elders to join the 'real world' of British politics.
Woolly liberals feared their historical and revered party was the target of a takeover by SDP's 'Gang of Four' comprised of David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rogers. Months earlier, the Gang of Four had split from the increasingly left wing Labour Party, a party falling under the influence of (closet communists) Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. *
The Liberal Party is the party of William Gladstone and David Lloyd-George. Never mind that the Liberals had not formed a government since the early 1900s – they still had a legacy to protect. (A situation reminiscent of today's Islamic world which always seems to be looking backward at the lost glories of the Mogul and Ottoman Empires rather than forward to face the challenges of the post-industrial world.)
I dutifully did my research, meeting as many Liberal and SDP MPs, leaders and strategists as were willing to say hello to me. Some later turned out to be influential public figures in their own right. I enjoyed every moment of my research.
For the 1987 general election, the Liberals and Social Democrats joined hands and hoped for a hung parliament. A Lib-Labour pact was in the making to unseat the Conservatives. The Alliance, as the Liberal-SDP coalition was then known, was set to play king maker and hoped to double its twenty odd Parliamentary seats.
Prominent among the Alliance platform was the reform of the first past the post electoral system. An electoral system under which the Alliance obtained almost one quarter of the popular vote but only five percent of the seats in the Commons.
It took the Liberals several elections, approximately 60 seats, an economic crisis and twenty-three years to get the opportunity the party so diligently worked towards. Charismatic Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberals, has been appointed Deputy Prime Minister in Britain's first coalition government since World War Two. The Conservatives have promised a referendum on the electoral system in return for support by the Liberals.

It will be interesting to note how the traditionally change resistant British population will vote in the referendum. The British seem to take pride in being different from Continental Europe, electoral system and the lack of a written Constitution are part of this 'differentiating' tradition. They may well vote to keep an inherently unfair electoral system in place. (Note to the Conservatives: it's my blog so I can write what I like!)
For the Liberals, this is their one and only chance to demonstrate that the party is back from the woods. If Nick Clegg and gang blow it, then the party may have to wait another quarter of a century before it gets another chance to govern. British voters will return to their usual choice of tweedle dum and tweedle dee. And the two 'Big Boys,' the Conservatives and Labour, will happily squeeze the 'third force' out of the political system forever.
The lessons for Singapore are plain. Democracy requires a vibrant opposition to dutifully play its role in keeping the government of the day in check. A robust opposition ensures any one political party does not regress towards complacency or arrogance through a continuous long term stint in power.
For its part, the opposition parties must have credible infrastructures supporting party organizatons. These include policy making mechanisms such as think tanks, not just enthusiastic volunteers willing to knock on people's doors to undermine the ruling party.
As in Britain, it might help Singapore's opposition if 29% of the popular vote translates into more than two parliamentary seats, as was the case in the 2006 general elections.
*I was highly impressed by a speech delivered by London Mayor Ken Livingstone a few years ago. Ken Livingstone was recently defeated by a Conservative candidate for the London Mayor's post.


  1. That was a most interesting account indeed Imran. An enviable experience - given that the highlight of my life around that time was, amongst others, breakdancing and being a 'Far East kid'..haha - quite pointless, albeit interesting.

    Just to add,

    I wouldn't say that the Brits are 'traditionally change-resistant'. That credit goes to confucian societies given their penchant for familiarity in all respects save fashion and places to engage in the 'national' pastime of shopping and eating. I have to say that the Brits are quite adaptive - as evidenced in their production of various parties of highly variable orientation, openness to cultural difference, and being open to contradiction in debate. That much cannot be said, again, of confucian/chinese societies.

    Additionally, democracy requires a 'vibrant opposition' - that i agree - but not only in terms of taking issue with the government of the day with arms akimbo, but also in being open to critique and change. Again, that cannot be said of confucian societies who operate societies of all sorts, from triads, to christian sects, and through to the opposition in an 'us vs. them' and 'you're either with us or against us' stance.

    This 'gang mentality' - as I also observed in my experiences with Indian gangs and Chinese triads in the 80s - seems to be pervasive and in a sense mirrors the 'gang mentality' of the government itself. We could venture to theorise that the depoliticisation of the populace leads to a closing of ranks along 'gang' lines, respectable or otherwise. I suppose such a refuge is required to make the best of a bad situation.

    A wise chinese philosopher did say once, perhaps a thousand years ago, that what the government is, the people will mirror. A most astute observation indeed.

    I would love to hear more about your experiences and insights given your background. I'm sure there is much to be learnt from it.

    Cheers mate.


  2. Hi Ed,

    Great to hear from you again - thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

    I would not completely discount the benefits being a 'Breakdancing Far Eastern Kid.' Everything has a place in life! :)

    Thank you for pointing out my stereotype notion about the British to me. You are right in suggesting that cultural conservatism is inherent in many, if not most, cultures. Your example of the Chinese-Confucian culture is apt.

    Interesting saying about the government being mirrored by the people. Often, however, when I look at Pakistan I think the opposite may also be true in some instances: what the people are, the government mirrors!

    You have a great weekend and look forward to hearing from you again soon.

    Kind regards,


  3. Great post Imran. Out of curiosity, how long have you resided in Singapore?

    Singapore unlike the UK has a very short history. I'd like to think that we are in a transition phase where an almost authoritarian sort of governance will not be relevant anymore. The new middle class are feeling the pinch (finally!) of the high cost of living and are beginning to question the ruling party's policies.

    I did a research in university once about the required social factors for a democracy to succeed on a country.
    1) majority middle class
    2) prosperous economy
    3) a history of active citizen involvement in shaping the society.

    We are sorely lacking on the third factor. A combination of education system, society norms, government ruling, has created a society of materialism, oblivious to most national issues, with a nanny state mentality; thus rendering most of us politically apathetic. A perfect recipe for the existing ruling party to stay in power without a strong cohesive alternative voice. What Ed posted in "your comments" is spot on with regards to us being a Confucian society.

    It's real sad if you ask me in the kind of young citizens we are grooming and I hope we see changes real soon. I'd like to hear from you especially since you are a person from the "outside". Cheers

  4. Hi Nabs,

    Great to hear from you and thank you for taking the time to post a comment. I am glad you enjoyed the post.

    I spent about eight years in Singapore from the late 1990s until 2004. After spending almost 5.5 years in Dubai, I returned to Singapore in July 2009.

    Your research sounds very interesting and very relevant to Singapore. As you know, there are many factors that shape a country's development, including citizen activists. To me, it seems as if Singapore does have a pool of citizen activists but these activists are (cleverly) co-opted into the PAP infrastructure from a very early stage. Subsequently, these same persons find it much easier to operate from within the system than through other organizations or opposition parties.

    Arguably, this is a strength and a weakness of the Singapore system - certainly a strength of and for the PAP organization.

    Currently,the opposition infrastructure is weak and certainly not credible enough to govern. It seems that the opposition wins only protest votes from disgruntled segments of the population. Not surprisingly, not many people are actually keen to see the opposition form a government.

    With time, I am sure we will see more citizen activists who will help to shape positive social changes. It is right for us to be optimistic about Singapore's future and work towards positive change - not just change for the sake of change.

    I look forward to hearing from you again soon.

    Kind regards,