July Books 13) The Belgian House of Representatives

13) The Belgian House of Representatives: From Revolution to Federalism, by Derek Blyth, Alistair MacLean, and Rory Watson

This was a freebie from a conference I spoke at in April in the Belgian Parliament (I had been there once or twice before). The book was produced as part of the 175th anniversary celebrations of the Belgian Parliament (or something), and I get the impression that it has been very heavily rewritten by three British journalists (on commission from the parliament itself) from a much more academic tome produced in 2003. I have to say it is far more digestible than the only other history of Belgium I have attempted, The Political History of Belgium by Els Witte, Jan Craeybeckx, and Alain Meynen (though I’ve read one other political commentary). As with any institutional history, of course it tries to put the Belgiam Parliament (and especially the House of Representatives) at the centre of the narrative, but often if you are describing the political life of a country that is not completely inaccurate. I certainly came out of it feeling that I understood more about why Belgium is the way it is.

Partly because of what is between the lines. The establishment of parliamentary democracy in the 1830s is described in terms which make it sound a uniquely Belgian achievement, when in fact most of Belgium’s neighbours were doing much the same, a point reinforced by a) the number of other countries said to have copied large chunks of Belgium’s constitution into their own, and b) the other previous constitutions which the authors admit were ripped off by the Belgians. On the other hand, the awful record, for which both the executive and legislative branches must bear responsibility, of keeping the public finances honest (in the years between 1832 and 1989, the budget was adopted on time precisely once, in 1839) is trreated as an administrative question with nobody much to blame. While the authors bemoan the loss of power to the executive from the legislature, they report without much comment the shift to wide consultation on draft laws with a) the social partners and b) the other five legislatures in Belgium, which basically means that although you have got a wide consensus among the social partners, it is through a very closed and opaque process.

There are a few things I would have liked more on. Why have a Senate as well as a House of Representatives – OK, it makes slightly more sense now that the state is formally a federal one, but what about the period before 1993? Why has compulsory voting lasted so long here? What about all these periods when Wilfried Martens felt he had to rule by extraordinary power? What about (to choose a local issue that became national) the Leuven University question? How and precisely why did the three main parties split into Fracophone and Flemish branches? Still, I feel I have better grounds for asking the questions now that I’ve read the book – which is beautifully presented and illustrated (apart from the incorrect reference to Northern Ireland on page 50). Nice work, though probably not available in the shops (no ISBN number visible anywhere, which is not a good sign).

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