Monday, July 11, 2011

Five things about Parliament that make much more sense now

Our Saturday morning tour of Parliament was a whirlwind 75-minute sprint through British history, government and politics that cleared up a few things for me about the British seat of power.

Our view of Big Ben as we prepared to enter Westminster Hall.

1. House of Lords: I mistakenly thought it was a lot like the U.S. Senate, but it's not at all. The lords aren't elected and serve mostly as a check and balance to the House of Commons, although lords can propose bills. Many lords are experts in certain fields. Baroness Margaret Thatcher is now a member of the House of Lords.

2. Unrelated follow-ups during Prime Minister's Questions: Having watched the Prime Minister's Question hour a couple times before, I couldn't understand why MPs would give him a softball question like "Who are you meeting with today?" only to come back with a wicked follow-up question about some unrelated proposal. As it turns out, MPs have to submit their questions in writing but are allowed a follow-up on another topic that doesn't have to be disclosed. Very cheeky.

3. Difference in styles between the House of Lords and House of Commons: The House of Lords contains a throne. It is like being outside with all the light bouncing off the gold. The red velvet cushion for the Lord Speaker looks like a red velvet beanbag chair for a king. The House of Commons has some nice woodwork and cool old items but looks, well, common in comparison. Part of the difference is to underscore the historic chasm of status (red was a much more difficult color to produce a few centuries ago, so that's why it is a symbolic color of the wealthy and powerful while green was more basic.) In addition, though, the House of Commons had to be rebuilt in the 1940s after being destroyed by a German bomb during a raid in 1941.

4. Why President Obama addressed Parliament in Westminster Hall instead of one of the chambers: When the president makes his State of the Union Address each year, most of the 535 members of Congress pack into the U.S. House chamber to listen. When President Barack Obama addressed the British Parliament last month, he became only the fourth person to speak in the 900-year-old Westminster Hall portion of the building. (The other three are Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict XVI and Nelson Mandela.) That's because the chambers and their galleries are way too small. Our guide said the most that can fit into the House of Commons is around 400 and there are more than 600 MPs, not counting Lords.

5. Why luggage locks are not allowed: So on our way through security, my backpack got flagged. I thought they were going to make me hand over the bag for them to keep, but it turned out all they wanted to keep was a luggage lock I had with me to make the zippers more difficult for pickpockets.

After the tour I came back to collect the lock and asked why they were so concerned about it. Evidently, they don't want people locking themselves to Parliament as a form of protest. (Although they assured us that security could cut through our paltry luggage lock in a heartbeat, if we were to be so outrageously rude as to protest something).

Our highly official-looking security badges. (Sorry no pictures from inside; like Windsor Castle, it wasn't allowed.)
Travel tip: If you decide to tour Parliament, purchase your ticket in advance online. The line was very long for walk-up sales, but we breezed right through.

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