In many ways, today’s experiences are at the heart of this study abroad experience centered on the British political system. This morning, we took the Tube south to Westminster station where we first toured the Houses of Parliament and then visited the Cabinet War Rooms. We were at the center of the British political system where some of the most challenging decisions a republic can grapple with were made. This includes where those decisions are debated—on the House of Commons floor—and where those decisions were executed, deep underneath the bowels of London with an elected government directing the machinery of war.
|The Houses of Parliament|
I should say that we saw a House of Parliament, not the Houses of Parliament, as we were unable to enter the Lords Chamber. As the Queen’s speech is Wednesday, the House of Lords was closed in preparation. You see, the Queen may be delivering the government’s policy, but she is not allowed to enter the House of Commons as the House of Commons is the people’s house, independent from the monarchy and not subject to its whim. The last monarch to enter the House of Commons was King Charles I, and we know how that turned out.
That’s OK, though, because it was Commons is where political power resides, not the Lords. The Lords can initiate legislation, but the Commons must approve it. The Lords has no absolute veto over legislation either; if a bill begun in the Commons passes, at best, the Lords can delay it if the House of Commons is determined. Tour guides often describe the House of Lords chamber as more visually interesting, and it may be, but it is all pomp and circumstance. The Commons is where it’s at, and that’s what I wanted the group to see.
I’ve visited state legislative chambers and the U.S. Capitol. I’ve seen debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and I’ve seen the House of Representatives chamber. In that respect, one might think that the House of Commons isn’t terribly special; it’s just another place where politicians meet and blow a lot of hot air.
|The Ultra Machine, designed by Polish scientists, which broke the German military codes|
Of course, that’s not what I felt at all. The chamber is widely described as intimate, and it is. And, quite unlike the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, members sit across each other in opposition—in fairly close quarters. This arrangement, it is said, encourages spirited debate between the parties and reinforces partisan loyalties. It is true that party defection is often rare in the British system, and that cross-party collaboration is not the norm. On the other hand, I’m not convinced the seating arrangement has anything to do with it given the rise of partisanship and polarization in the US over the past forty years. It does, however, make for great theater that seems, in my opinion, to be missing from legislative debate in the United States.
To stand in the palace of Westminster, parts of which date to the 11th century, was one of the highlights of my life as a student of politics. To think that this is where the English Parliament stood up to a King, overthrew a dictatorship, debated the fate of the American colonies, created and then dissolved a global empire and may decide Britain’s continued relationship within the European Union was almost too much to comprehend. To walk in the shoes of Churchill, Thatcher, Walpole, Disraeli, Gladstone, and Lloyd George completed for me a journey I began with the history books I read throughout my childhood and early adulthood.
It also reminded me of the importance of politics to the lives of a nation’s citizens. As much as I love the theater of politics, the choices made in these chambers have real impacts each and every day. Should children be required to work? Should education be free and available to all? How clean do we want our environment to be? And, if we decide to regulate, who should bear the burden and pay the costs? What should government expect of its wealthiest and what should it do to help its poorest?
It is these choices about freedom, equality, liberty, and order that government makes for us in these places. While the responsibility for the decisions they make are first and foremost theirs, it is also ours because we choose them. When we stop listening, when we think it doesn’t matter—that we can do nothing to affect what they do in these places—it is then that representative government has failed because it becomes ever easier for those in charge to do what they want rather than what is in the best interests of the people.
|MSU students, engaging their world|
Washington and Westminster work only if we do our duty to stay engaged, involved, and informed. The irony is, in my estimation, that both Congress and Westminster are more accessible to the public than at any time in history at the same time that we, the public, are becoming less willing to take the time to pay attention. Without a vigilant public, the notion of representative democracy either in the United Kingdom or in the United States becomes an unpleasant fiction.