One of my favorite novels is Jeffery Archer’s “First Among Equals” published in 1984. It’s a political novel based on the British Westminster model – multi-party parliamentary system similar to ours. I first read this novel nearly 30 yrs ago. I keep going back to read it from time to time especially if I could not recall some of the sequence of events as my memory fades. The last time I referred to it was many years ago. Anyway, I could still recall the intense and exciting political drama unfolding stretching over a period of 30 yrs when four ambitious young men entered parliament on their own merits through elections and eventually one of them rises to the coveted post of Prime Minister. Hence, the title of the novel – “First Among Equals”.
From the novel, I got to know much about politics and government in a democracy based on the Westminster model. Our system is quite similar to them but without the GRCs of course. Four aspiring politicians have to make their impact in local elections winning every single vote especially if they are contesting against established MPs of the constituencies. They really have to slog it out working their butt out canvassing for every vote often more than 15 hours a day in the heat of the elections. The battle for the heart and mind of the electorate started at grassroots level even before the MP-elect is sworn in to office. That’s how competitive the UK system is.
The four young men came from various backgrounds belonging to different political parties. They belong to different camps – the two biggest political parties – the Labour and the Conservatives. In the end, the butcher’s son Ray Gould, a commoner becomes the Prime Minister. I am impressed by the speech he delivers in his school speech day – where only the top student usually delivers the keynote speech – where he spells out what he will do when he becomes PM of UK. Yes, WHEN he becomes the PM not IF he becomes the PM. Another ambitious young man of the cohort, Simon Kerslake tries all means to get into Oxford University even though he’s denied a place initially. When the term opens, he goes around personally to every college in Oxford asking for a place. Incidentally, he takes over the place of a freshman tragically killed in an accident after meeting the 22nd College Don. He is overjoyed when History is the subject of his studies. He says that future PMs all come from Oxford and not the rival Cambridge or any other universities.
I note that the four of them study only humanities not some hard core sciences. They are never engineers or other professional degree courses except maybe law degree. The four of them got admitted to parliament based on personal merits even though some of them got some connection with political office holders. Most importantly, they are all full time MPs working very hard in their own constituencies and have to rush back to London to attend parliament sittings. They often rush back to their own constituencies over the weekends only to rush back again for week day parliamentary debates. We must remember that UK is a big country comprising Scotland, Wales and Ireland – unlike Singapore where it is so small. Yet, we have MPs here not able to attend parliament sessions resulting in two bills not able to pass. Click here to read.
When I was reading the novel, I could not resist comparing their attitudes with our own MPs. The UK MPs are serious in their work working tirelessly struggling through parliamentary debates and then rushing back to their faraway constituencies cuz they need to attend local events or attend to their constituents’ needs. Failing to do so risks getting voted out in the next election. UK MPs are also full time career politicians treating their MP job seriously. They treat their MP job with first priority and the other jobs such as own legal practice or business venture on part time basis. Whenever parliament is in session, they will put away all other private businesses or appointments with parliament session being the top priority. The dedication to public office is impressive. Some even rent a room near to the parliament so that they could rest and shuttle back for any emergency session or party meeting.
The four newly elected MPs have to really prove themselves in parliamentary debates to impress their party leadership so as to win for themselves political posts in the government. If the political party is the government, the novice MPs have to fight hard in parliamentary debates to win a political office. Once the party elders notice any potential office bearers amongst them, they will be head hunted and accorded a junior post. There is no short cut to a full fledged cabinet minister post until after few successful elections. In other words, the MP must keep winning every local election in order to get promoted within the party ranks to full ministerial rank. After every successful election, the seasoned MP is promoted to higher political office. For example, it takes nearly 30 yrs when a young MP Ray Gould first enters parliament to the time when he realizes his childhood dream of Prime Ministership – the day when he gives a speech in school on “When I become the Prime Minister of UK!”
Maybe in UK, there are many political parties with so many aspiring politicians. There is intense competition to enter parliament through the democratic process of elections. I could sense the tenseness and treachery as the political drama unfolds revolving around the four main characters from different backgrounds and different areas of the country. Luck also plays an important part besides political acumen, tenacity and commitment of the ambitious politicians in the UK multi-party system.
High pay or other forms of monetary rewards are never on their agenda. They are after pure glory, fame and power. They pursue their dreams single-mindedly with the intention of leaving their mark in their beloved country’s history as great statesmen in the likes of Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher. However, when they lose in an election, they accept their defeat with dignity and honor. When they win, they extend their humility to the defeated. They never resort to the court to sue even though the local newspapers may not side them or malicious allegations made publicly against them. The court of public opinion holds supreme there. The well informed electorate shall decide on their political destiny.
The UK system is truly a First World Parliament where people all over the world admire. After all, many other countries including us copy or emulate their Westminster system of parliament. But sadly, we have not matured and reached that level yet. It will never happen in our lifetime. Hopefully, it will happen in our children’s lifetime. The signs are there for all to see.
To those readers who like political drama novels, I recommend that you read this book. I think it is the best political novel based on the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy. Thirty years since “First Among Equals” was published in 1984, it is still getting rave reviews. It’s an instant hit when it’s adapted into a mini television series. Maybe, it is due to Jeffrey Archer himself being an MP at one time where he could really draw on his immense experience to write this all-time bestseller. I never grow tired of reading it.