I begin here with the Preface to Political Principles and their Practice, which Cambridge University Press in India published a decade or so back. The language is simple, because it was intended as a basic introduction to those new to the subject. I have made some changes to the published version where updates or clarifications seemed necessary.
This book is intended to provide a basic introduction to the structures and functions of government, while the latter part of the book contains a brief overview of the development of such structures in Sri Lanka. This overview also provides a short analysis, intended to evoke further discussion, of the manner in which these structures, as established over the years, fulfilled or fulfil (or not, as the case might be) the functions of government.
A brief account of the manner in which the functions required of government developed historically is also included in the earlier section of the book. In the explication of structures, the different forms of a state, and the various institutions that exercise the powers of government, are described. In doing this, the doctrine of the separation of powers, and its advantages in terms of the purposes of government, are explored.
The different forms in which the executive might be constituted, and the suitability of these forms for the different functions of executive power, are also considered. The various ways in which a legislature may be constructed are also examined, together with some voting systems in current use.
The section on law and the judiciary includes an account of the various types of law as well as the manner in which these are upheld through a system of justice. Also analysed is the relationship to other structures within a government of the judiciary, and other institutions of government essential for the pursuit of justice.
Crucial to questions of the structures and functions of government are the different layers of government. Various approaches to the relevant issues are considered. The doctrine of subsidiarity is introduced, with analysis of different structures that might be appropriate for different layers.
All these issues are explored in the latter part of the book which deals with the practice of politics in Sri Lanka over the years. Issues of special interest, such as pluralistic systems of representation, institutions meant to provide checks and balances and their efficacy, the impact of majoritarian politics, appropriate structures for devolution of power, are considered, together with suggestions of how attention to principles might prevent abuse.
It should be noted however that the discussion and analysis presented here is extremely brief since the book is intended as an introduction for those without prior deep knowledge of the subject. While what is presented here is designed to provoke thought and discussion, thoroughness in such discussion will require deeper study and reference to other material.
The book includes at the end of each chapter exercises intended to assist with understanding of the text and the various issues that are raised. The book may thus be used in courses intended to develop reading skills in English, as well as analytical capability, in students of the subject.
Politics is the study of government. But we should be clear about what we mean by government.
Generally by government we mean those who take decisions on behalf of a country.
We should remember however that the country itself is different from the government. We all belong to some country, and generally we would like to act in the best interests of that country. This does not mean that we necessarily support the government of that country or what it does.
To make the distinction clear, we talk about a country as a State. As citizens we belong to a State. We have obligations to that State just as that State has obligations to us, whatever government rules it at any particular time.
The different forms of the State
A State has a form. In the modern world there are generally two forms of State, either Republics or Monarchies. The Head of State is the symbol of that State, and he or she officially represents all its citizens on formal occasions.
In a monarchy, the Head of State is a King or Queen (or a Sultan or the equivalent in some countries), and holds that position through heredity, that is, by birth. In the past States were thought to belong to monarchs. However, in many monarchies now the King or Ruler has no real authority. In some monarchies the Ruler also acts as the head of the government and is in charge of decision making. But generally that authority belongs to a separate head of the government, who is chosen by the people.
But even in such monarchies, where real authority lies with the head of government, that head of government officially acts in the name of the monarch. It is the monarch who finally signs laws or receives ambassadors from other countries.
England (the United Kingdom as it is officially known) and Thailand and Japan are examples of monarchies where actual executive power belongs to a Prime Minister elected by the people. But, as mentioned, there are also monarchies, such as Bhutan or Brunei, where the monarch also has real executive power, and is the Head of Government as well as the Head of State.
We should note here that there are a few countries in the world that in theory come under a monarch of another country, but have their own separate Head of State who is appointed by that monarch. This situation has arisen in countries that were earlier ruled by the British, and which kept a formal link with Britain when they got independence. Such countries are called Dominions, and have as their Head of State a Governor General, who is appointed by the British monarch. However, this is done on the recommendation of the Head of the Government of the country, and the British monarch or government does not interfere with such choices.
Current examples of Dominions are Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Sri Lanka became a Dominion when it got independence from Britain in 1948. In 1972 Sri Lanka, which used to be known internationally as Ceylon previously, became a Republic. India and Pakistan were also Dominions when they first got independence from Britain, in 1947, but they soon wrote up their own constitutions and became Republics by 1950.
A Republic, as the word indicates, is a public body. So, while a monarchy in theory belongs to a monarch, a republic belongs to its people. Technically then, it is they who have authority, and the Head of State therefore is someone who represents the people. He or she usually has the title President.
In some countries, the Head of State has only a formal position, just like the British Queen. The President of such republics has little or no real power. India and Bangladesh, which used to be ruled by the UK, are examples of such countries, as are Germany and Italy.
In such cases the President is not elected directly by the people. In some Republics, such as the United States of America and the Maldives, the President is elected by the people and has the dominant Executive power. In other Republics, such as Sri Lanka or France, the President is elected by the people and has Executive power, but has to share this in some way with a Prime Minister.