By Rajan Philips –
There is an old joke about farmers playing village volleyball. When one of the younger fellows couldn’t bend down fast enough and far enough to retrieve the ball swooping low in front of him, the older player behind him let out a bark: did you swallow a crowbar before coming here? Imagine a politician trying to do just that, if not orally, but at least having a crowbar strapped to his upper back to reinforce his backbone. Will that satisfy the new cardinal standard for political strength? Bones are essential to the anatomy, but the head is more crucial for politics. If you try to do too much with your bones, you might get them spurring in your brain. Of course, not literally. But you end up as a bonehead, literally. And there are plenty of them in politics and in Sri Lanka, but the island has no monopoly on political boneheads. Nor does the government have such a monopoly.
The President went for the bait that was dropped from the pulpit and ended up taking his foot in the mouth. He is more supple and even acrobatic than the young volleyballer, but instead of being happy about it, he bragged about having a crowbar-backbone when he fired the Prime Minister last year. You should not brag about firing someone especially after you ended up eating crow for doing it. The government’s problems and failures have much less to do with backbones and a lot more to do with its boneheads. Anyone castigating the government about its backbone is only indicating that there are boneheads not only within the government but also among its critics.
The government’s problems started long before the President’s firing of the Prime Minister last year, but the wholesale paralysis of the administration started when the President started showing off his backbone. The collapse of the security regime was part of this paralysis. The soapy details of this collapse are being externalized in the proceedings of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday attacks. No body knows where and how the Committee will conclude its deliberations and what will come out of it. Going by the history of the government’s other initiatives, can anyone expect anything different?
But the proceedings are quite revelatory and even those who are critical about it seem addicted to following it. Some are complaining about the selection of people to testify before the Committee. One complaint is that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has not been invited to appear before the Committee. If true, that is a fair criticism. Regardless of what one thinks of his political forays, the Cardinal and others representing the places where the attacks took place deserve to be invited and heard by the Committee. The MPs may not like what they might hear but that is the nature of the process.
Talking about criticisms, on Friday, the former President did himself some credit in parliament when he delivered a rather comprehensive critique of the government’s ‘constitutional deceptions,’ as he called them. He chided the government for shying away from having a referendum on the proposed constitutional changes, but he did not quite say that the government doesn’t have the backbone to face a referendum. Mr. Rajapaksa has too much of it to venture into elections even to the point of losing as he did in 2015. He has since regretted that he spurned the wiser counsel of DEW Gunasekera – not to risk a prematurely called election. Instead, the former President went along with the boneheaded advice to call an early election based on astrology and even hoping for a papal visit during the campaign to catch Catholic votes. The Rajapaksas may have thought that their kingdom was gone, but here they are, back in contention, for another kick at the State can, thanks to the boneheads who replaced them.
Going by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement in parliament, the SLPP will include its own constitutional proposals for the upcoming elections including the promise of a referendum. There was no mention of the Executive Presidency or its future under the next Rajapaksa regime. There were enough indications that the 19th Amendment will be reversed. The sponsors and supporters of the family are not shy about saying that the Rajapaksas have all the backbone to do whatever they want. The country will pay the price if what they want is the return to the 18th Amendment. They will wave the magic wand of referendum as their democratic license to cripple democracy. The referendum requirement has been overblown far beyond what is asked for in the Constitution. Nihal Jayawickrama keeps pointing this out. But he is virtually a lone voice in the constitutional wilderness. In all of this Sri Lanka is in good, rather bad, company.
Many in Britain think of their new Prime Minister as a boisterous bonehead. They have good reason to think so. Boris Johnson just got appointed as the new British Prime Minister by virtue of his being elected by 92,153 (out of 160,000) members of the British Conservative Party. And this to lead a country of 65 million people who are deeply divided over Brexit. A majority of the country and a majority of the Members of Parliament are opposed to leaving the European Union (EU) without a negotiated deal. The EU is insistent that it will not reopen the ‘deal’ that was earlier negotiated with Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May. But Johnson insists that he will take Britain out of the EU by October 31, deal or no deal.
Never mind it is the EU that is fully prepared, and Britain is totally unprepared, for either outcome. The new PM’s ardent supporters, all diehard Brexiteers, see him as the man with the crowbar-backbone to deliver on the boneheaded referendum result three years ago. Boris is their Joan of Arc for Brexit. Making his first appearance in Parliament as PM and addressing an apparently “rowdy session”, Mr. Johnson vowed to deliver Brexit and a “broader and bolder future.” Jeremy Corbin, the Labour Opposition Leader and a man of no weak backbone himself, saw no strength or smarts in the new PM, only “arm-waving bluster.” Fortunately for the new PM, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor even the Bishop of Durham (given Durham’s outspoken tradition) is berating him from their pulpits, even though they are both opposed to Brexit and they both sit in the British House of Lords.
Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, has his admirers in Sri Lanka. They are cheering for Boris to deliver Brexit and make Britain great again, but without the empire. Britain still ranks among the economically well positioned countries, but its rank is on the way down from where it used to be and to where it can never return. For all his bluster over Brexit, the upstart PM is facing his first acid test in the choppy waters of Persian Gulf, where the old imperial power is caught in a tit-for-tat tanker spat with Iran. According to British officials, the Foreign Ministry was distracted by the Conservative leadership contest. Jeremy Hunt, the outgoing Foreign Secretary, was Johnson’s opponent in the contest. And Johnson, as leadership candidate, refused to voice a consistent message with the government Theresa May on international affairs.
Britain is now calling for European support to deal with Iran, while threatening to leave the EU without a deal. In Trump’s America, Britain has an unreliable ally. While Trump has been boastful in his praise of Boris Johnson, calling him Britain’s Trump, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has offered no support at all and said that it is up to Britain to look after its ships in the Persian Gulf. And the power that once ruled the waves has only one warship in the Persian Gulf and Iran is teasing Johnson’s boast about a new “global Britain,” post Brexit.
How will he ever deliver Brexit? That is the question. He seems to have shown his hand in talking about the possibility of proroguing parliament and taking Britain out of the EU without a vote in parliament. Clever, but too clever perhaps. In a preemptive move and one week before Johnson became Prime Minister, the House of Commons passed a resolution to block the suspension of parliament between October 9 and December 18 – the critical window for Britain to leave or rethink Brexit. The resolution was passed by 41-vote majority including support from government MPs.
Although proroguing parliament is the Queen’s prerogative, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister, the resolution against proroguing will definitely weigh on the Queen and the fear of her rejection will weigh on Johnson before he decides to request proroguing by the Queen. The vote on the resolution shows how the numbers are stacked in parliament and that is Johnson’s predicament, just as it was his predecessor’s. He has purged the cabinet of prominent Remainers and doubters and replaced them with Brexiteers. But in the end, it is not the cabinet but the numbers in parliament that will count.
The new Prime Minister will also have to deal with the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, who has become a living legend and a thorn in the side of all Brexiteers. Under Britain’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011), the general election is not due until 2022, unless parliament agrees to an early election by two-thirds majority. That was the disastrous route that Theresa May took with the support of the Labour Party. The new Prime Minister may not want to take that route and the Labour Party may not be so obliging this time around.
Sri Lanka went through these parliamentary convulsions last year when Maithripala Sirisena chose to show off his presidential backbone. What is in a name? That which is presidential in one fool’s reckoning might stink like parliament in the reckoning of another. Whether presidential or parliament, the Speakers have come to the fore in Britain, the US and in Sri Lanka. They have shown some backbone to the boneheads around them, but the backbone of the old school type and not the crowbar kind. And that might be the cardinal truth.