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Total recall in British politics

An interesting political debate is taking place in Britain with potentially far-reaching implications for the functioning of British democracy. It’s a move that will resonate in democracies around the world, including of course the planet’s largest – India.

world Updated: Aug 23, 2010 23:53 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

An interesting political debate is taking place in Britain with potentially far-reaching implications for the functioning of British democracy. It’s a move that will resonate in democracies around the world, including of course the planet’s largest – India.

The debate is all about giving citizens the right to recall their MPs. In the leadup to this year’s general election, all three major political parties – embarrassed after their MPs were mired by the expenses corruption scandal – promised voters that whoever was elected to power, that party would enact Recall laws.

Conservative leader David Cameron declared in February: “When it comes to the firing, we’ve said we’ll introduce a power of recall to allow voters to kick out MPs mid-parliament if they have been proven guilty of serious wrongdoing.”

Three months on, things appear to be moving in a way that’s causing campaigners concern. According to Zac Goldsmith, a young Conservative MP who has launched his own Bill on the matter, Britain’s coalition government is planning to dilute Recall by leaving the decision with a powerful group of MPs.

“What we’re being offered falls far short of true Recall,” says Goldsmith. “Instead of handing the power of Recall down to the voters, the measure will pass it up to MPs on the Standards and Privileges Committee.”

At present Recall is used in a handful of countries – 18 states in the US, six of the 26 cantons in Switzerland, Venezuela, the Philippines and the province of British Columbia in Canada according to research by the House of Commons library.

The most famous Recall goes back to 2003, when voters in the state of California replaced governor Gray Davis with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger – the star of Total Recall and Total Recall 2.

The British government’s move to leave the decision to the MPs’ committee is aimed at preventing abuse of the power — specifically any attempts by opposition parties to try and cynically coral support for recalling the sitting MP.

But Nick Cowen, the author of a 2008 Civitas report that sparked off the British debate, tells me there are three ways to deal with potential abuse: 1. Limit recall attempts to one per term; 2. Set a high petition level, say 20-25 per cent of voters; and 3. Vest the power of recall exclusively with voters in order to “prevent political power in the Commons from engineering recalls through the Standards Committee.”

In the meantime, Zac Goldsmith is getting rather unhappy. “Under current rules in Britain, a newly-elected MP could theoretically move to Hawaii for five years, and leave constituency work to a team employed at public expense,” he says. “The MP would be deselected, no doubt, and the Party Whip would be removed. But voters would still be lumbered with an absentee MP until the next election.”