Saturday, 8 October 2011

Jamie Stokes on Virtue-alnia Polska

Any one who might have any interest in reading about Poland should be a routine reader of Jamie Stokes' comments on Wirtualnia Polska. If not, try it out and add it to your reading list. I've just been through two tremendous pieces.

The first was "If Poland had a Facebook page…". I think it was intended primarily for his Polish readers, but outsiders with a good knowledge of Poland should find it both perceptive and witty. He does, however, seem to have left out 1989 in "Saviour of Europe (1683, 1920)" and I would add "revising other countries' histories" in 'Activities and Interests". If you can link the two, you will know what I mean. Something about digging up dead bodies would have been appropriate as well.

I then went to the next, Poles, be proud of your politics!, which I think is serious (although I am never completely sure with Jamie - a supreme complement in my view). It focuses on the parliamentary election campaign, but has the basic message that "Poland is one of the last places in Europe where there is genuine passion and choice in politics". Although the 'one of the last places' may be a bit too much a UK/Polish perspective, I also believe that this wonderful feature of Polish politics makes it a far greater reflector of voters' preferences and therefore a much stronger democracy than the UK. (I may well have said this before, but I once effectively declined an invitation to participate in training on improving democracy in Poland by suggesting that the UK could learn lessons from Poland. How's the UK getting on with its plans to introduce proportional representation?)

However, much more than this, I am a great fan of the system of checks and balances in the Polish parliamentary decision making system. The UK's strong government system basically gets one of the two parties into power with the mandate to revolutionary change everything that the second party did when fulfilling its mandate to revolutionary change everything that the first party had previously done. Things do evolve, but in practice it is a destructive and disruptive process: called see-saw politics.

Poland instead has governments made up of not very compatible partners, which, even combined, have marginal majorities. The UK political party control of its MPs is way beyond the dream of even the most dictatorial Polish party (PiS) leader, so Polish MPs tend much more to vote by conscience. This marginal majority disappears easily. Then, there is regular appeal to the Constitutional Court, which makes ridiculously political overruling judgements. Finally, there are Presidents who, at least sometimes, veto new laws that they consider unacceptable. Critics hungry for change are quite right in saying that this makes it virtually impossible for a government to introduce essential new modernising changes to Poland's laws. On the other hand, it also prevents the politicians that these critics don't support from introducing changes that they would not like.

So what happens in Poland? It takes years of each new government making different proposals, with everything eventually becoming a watered-down compromise acceptable across much of the political spectrum and, given the public debate over the years, with widespread public acceptance. Very few people will think its ideal, but the balance of acceptability is high. Things do evolve therefore, but it is a political process where the public are not the guinea pigs, party political ping-pong balls. I can't help admiring it after the UK. (I made this point somewhere before and a reply mentioned something like the importance of competition in politics and law making. Poland's competition in 'making' laws is much more extreme than the UK. The UK excels in changing them, time and time again.)

For any US reader, think of health care reform, 1993 to 2010. The last I heard, the US was still wondering if it could afford it. The UK health service has had continuous revolutionary re-changes in this period, which will doubtlessly continue going round in circles as each new government get elected. It wouldn't surprise me if Poland manages to get a sort of muddled, mid-way caring and efficiency solution that managed to last for years simply because it works well enough. (I would add 'better than most other countries in Europe', but that may be too much rose-coloured glasses guff.)

Thanks, Jamie. I've even met the man, wow!

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