From, time immemorial, philosophers have warned against unchecked power of government and settled on the balance of separation of power. This balance must apply to Parliament as much as the Executive because each has the potential to be dictatorial.
“I would rather be ruled by one lion than a hundred rats,” declared Francois-Marie Arouet, popularly known as Voltaire.
A philosopher, historian, scientist, dramatist and poet, Voltaire, who lived between 1694 and 1778, earned a reputation throughout Europe for his wit and satirical criticism. He was feared by the monarchs and the Church and spent considerable time in detention for his revolutionary talk.
Voltaire was unfortunately speaking at a very emotive time in French history – the years preceding the French Revolution that saw King Louis XVI swept from the throne in one of the most spectacular popular uprising ever witnessed in political history. At that time, all political power lay with the king who perfectly fitted the description of “Absolute Dictator”. Once questioned about the legality of a decision he made, King Louis XVI remarked: “The thing is legal because I wish it.” His predecessor, King Louis XV, had also once remarked: “The State is myself.”
Over the years tensions had built up against the French monarchy, fueled increasingly by philosophers who were developing theories about the political rights of human beings. One of the most influential of them was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who challenged the system of governance and laid out the obligations of kings to the people in his book, The Social Contract. He exalted the sovereignty of the people and decried that man was born free but was everywhere in chains. Another philosopher, Charles Louis de Secondat, later to be popularly referred to by his title, Baron de Montesquieu, also wrote a book called The Spirit of the Laws, in which he called for different institutions to exercise the separate powers of government and for each institution not to be more powerful that the other and to check the powers of each other.
While these theories at first appeared to be fantastic, a practical example was set by the American colonies. In 1776, the 13 British colonies in America revolted and began a war of independence. After ejecting British rule, they formed the United States of America and implemented much of the teachings of the French philosophers on liberty and government. Ironically, the King of France sent many troops to assist the freedom fighters against the British and they all came back home as witness of the practicality of the new political philosophies. And when they told their countrymen that the Americans had thrown out the British because of tea tax of three pence, the French King was well on his way out.
Unlike the Americans, though, the French revolutionaries did not heed the advice of their own philosophers. Baron de Montesquieu, for instance, had in 1748 warned that the legislative body should not be allowed to rule itself and should fall under some measure of control from the Executive: “And if it had a right to prologue itself, it might happen never to be prorogued; which would be extremely dangerous, in case it should ever attempt to encroach on the executive power…It is fit therefore that the executive power should regulate the time of the meeting, as well as the duration of those assemblies, according to the circumstances and exigencies of a State known to itself…Were the executive power not to have a right of restraining the encroachment of the legislative body, the latter would become despotic: for it might arrogate to itself what authority it pleased, it would soon destroy all the other powers.”
And so it came to be that the French concluded their revolution with a people’s assembly and with an independent executive that could check on the powers of the assembly. He who ruled the assembly, ruled France and became both a lawmaker and law enforcer. The powers of the State were fought on the floor of the assembly and shifted variously from one political faction to another. The peoples’ assembly that had been formed to deliver the people from dictatorship of the French monarchy soon became tyrannical, with even the greatest powers over the French people than the king ever had.
Historians have described the political reality then as “Committee Dictatorship” and it reached its height under a man known as Robespierre. He had a reputation of being virtuous and had been nicknamed “the incorruptible”. However, he was also ruthless and believed that terror was necessary to instill virtue. Taking control of the Assembly in July 1793, his rule came to be known as “the reign of terror” as he went about fixing the vice. He had the assembly pass a law known as the Law of the 22nd Prairial by which a person could be punished for being of “bad moral character”.
Within 50 days of this law, 1500 people were found guilty and their heads chopped off. These beheadings were done in public and became so popular and regular that they were knows as “the red mass”. When he lost the control of the assembly one year later, he and 71 of his followers were executed at a a similar ceremony. The words of Voltaire rang true all over France as they struggled through the dictatorship of “a hundred rats”.
One hundred and fifty years before the French “reign of terror”, the British themselves had experimented with absolute power of their Parliament. This was during the reign of King Charles I, who like the French king was an a absolute monarch. King Charles believed that the King was divinely ordained, was accountable to only God and was above the law. Though a parliament existed, he rarely called it to session and dissolved it whenever it passed a resolution that compromised his powers over government. It did not help his situation that he was Catholic and Parliament largely Protestant.
When a rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1641, King Charles raised an army to quell the rebellion, a move that was looked at suspiciously by Parliament. Many feared that Charles intended to turn the army on them. Parliament therefore raised its own army and demanded that Charles surrender control of the Parliament. In 1642, war broke out between the two armies. It was a war that Charles lost and he ended up on trial before Parliament for being a “tyrant, traitor and murderer, and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England”. He was found guilty and promptly beheaded. After his death, Parliament abolished the monarchy and declared England a republic. The head of the Parliamentary army, Oliver Cromwell, became the head of the republic under the title, “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.”
Oliver Cromwell ended up as dictatorial as King Charles I. Like Charles, he believed that God had chosen him to lead the people of England. He moved around with a bodyguard of 160 men and had total control over the members of Parliament. Like Robespierre, he had a reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty while being known to be virtuous and a puritan. He sought to create a parliament of virtuous men that was aptly nicknamed a “Parliament of Saints”. In the end he was so disillusioned by the same parliament that he once told: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
In the end, Cromwell did as he predecessor had done and ruled without Parliament, calling it to session only when absolutely necessary. But England was so fed up with him that when he died, they abolished the republic and invited Charles II, the son of the late King, to come and reestablish a monarchy. They then exhumed his body, cut off his head, and put it on public display outside the parliament building for 20 years.
And so we have learnt from history that Parliament is not the soul of democracy as any single tyrant and has the capacity to be worse. And Parliament becomes a dictator when none of the other organs of the State has the power to check on it, when it can pass whatever law it wishes and carry out whatever action it deems fit.