Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Westminster and The End of the American Century

When I was at the World University Debating Championships, I had to take an “adjudicator’s test” to determine my competence. The first question had me list my experience with British Parliamentary style. Though I’d cleared as the top seed at a tournament in the form six years ago, I figured it was adequately long ago and I was taking the tournament lightheartedly enough that I’d rather open my CV with something more carefree. Thus, I noted that I was a regular watcher of “Prime Minister’s Questions” on C-SPAN.

Today, we found ourselves scheduled for a tour of Westminster, but with the bad news that we wouldn’t be able to make it into PMQs. Having returned from Dublin the previous afternoon, we spent that evening with Alistair and Alex, the two UK debaters sent by the ESU to the USA on the reverse of our tour for three months toward the end of 2007. They showed us around the South Bank of the Thames and some nifty art galleries, theaters, and graffiti covered impromptu skate parks before settling in for a stellar dinner on what was apparently Shrove Tuesday or somesuch occasion on which pancakes are customary. This was of course followed by the pub and the hunt for a late-license drinking establishment, a common search in London, before turning in to get some sleep before our early morning tour appointment. This was after finding "Portland: Food and Liquor," whose picture I took after barely dodging traffic in the name of West Coast loyalties.

We arrived at the Westminster tube station and found our way to the Sovereign St. entrance, where we met a representative of the MP Andrew Mitchell’s office. Having given us the form to get through security and onto the tour, she then told us that she’d come across two more tickets for Prime Minister’s Questions, and that we were welcome to them, should we like. Of course, I was giddy at the prospect.

Having given tours of the US Capitol as an intern, I have a great deal of respect for tour guides, especially ones who can competently weave narratives from start to finish while appealing to all levels of interest in the audience. Lord knows I couldn’t - being more apt to ramble on about whatever random interesting tidbit I learned about a given Statuary Hall figure that week - but this fellow could. He usually worked in the House of Lords, and gave us an insider’s perspective of the functioning and history of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Apparently, the leadership can’t hold votes open indefinitely in the UK. An eight minute egg timer until the voting is done wouldn’t give the leadership nearly enough time to whip the majority into line in America! They do, however, have a charmingly similar bell system.

We were able to walk on the floor of the House of Commons, and I stood at the very box, containing a Bible and New Testament on which the Prime Minister leans during Question Time, and leaned on it myself. Rather than bore you with all the trivia we learned (Prince Albert’s changing room had an authentic Crapper!) I’ll just say it was an incredibly illuminating experience for a politics and trivia nerd like myself. But the tour couldn’t hold a candle to Prime Minister’s Questions!

We sat in the gallery and watched Gordon Brown get unfortunately torn to shreds by David Cameron, who accused the Prime Minister of “dithering” rather than acting on any number of policies. Having spent the last week immersed in UK Debate, it was interesting to see the parallels, where the style of question and answer in this particular PMQ particularly mirrored the quips of points of information in a British Parli round. It wasn’t Blair, but it was still pretty fantastic to see in person. Democracy has at it heart certain principles of accountability and transparency that are often disguised in America, but here they are put on blatant and glorious display.

Of course, this wasn’t the end of our day - we were headed to the American School of London to debate the resolution “This House Believes that the American Century has Ended.” We were proposing, with Alex and Alistair in opposition. Though I somewhat underperformed my opening speech, Meredith more than made up for it and I provided a strong summation. Alas, it was no match for Ali and Alex whose three months of public debates in the US, and razor sharp wits, helped them win the division of the house. It was really no matter, as they joined us, Patrick and James from the ESU for dinner afterwards before we continued on for drinks.

Tomorrow, we’re headed to Oxford and we won’t be back in London for another week. While a bit sad to be leaving the City, we’re excited to see some new sights, try our hand at another tournament (the Cardiff IV), and visit Scotland.


Korry said...

hey ya'll!! glad to hear you're having a good time, and thanks for letting us share vicariously. congrats on the inner temple showing, and best of luck at cardiff IV. may the "badass american allstars" shine! when you get up to scotland, pay my respects to some ancestors with a pint or two. take care-

Judith Strom said...

being a history trivia nerd myself i am really enjoying your blogs, nice picture of Portland pub, i hope mere is not driving you crazy, having traveled with her myself she can be fun or flighty. I hope you get a chance to see the tower of london and the ravens, i watched the movie Elizabeth the golden age, thinking of you two, sorry about your losses but keep having fun and doing your best. Mom Judith