While visiting London, England, an American tourist may wish to check out the seats of political power and perhaps engage locals in some discussion of their governors. But where’s the equivalent of the White House, who plays the role of the president, and why do many English people seem slightly more detached about politics than their American brethren?
Most of the country’s politics takes place in the Palace of Westminster, where the upper and lower houses of parliament hold their debates. It’s the pointy, 19th-century neo-Gothic building that stands by the Thames river, with the 320-foot clock tower known as Big Ben. Strictly speaking, Big Ben is the 14-ton bell inside, which tolls the hours.
Of the two houses of parliament, it’s the “lower” one, the House of Commons, that has more influence. Each of its occupants has been elected as a member of parliament (MP) for a specific area of the UK, called a “seat” or “constituency.” This might be similar to America’s House of Representatives, but the people in the House of Commons go through a slightly different process to get there. While in the US there is a strong culture of engaged citizens putting themselves forward for office, and stating which party they feel allegiance to without any formal relationship with that party, in the UK decisions about who will run for parliament are generally made by the parties. MPs are literally card-carrying members of the party they represent, and the parties themselves identify and groom promising candidates. The parties even decide in which constituencies those candidates should run, and set the policies.
That might help explain a slightly different culture among ordinary citizens regarding political involvement. When Americans say “I’m a Democrat” or a “I’m a Republican,” it’s not a mere figure of speech. Voters who back a particular party truly feel like they belong to the party – and they could go into active politics under that party’s banner at any time. British voters feel a bit more of a divide, seeing themselves as the recipients of a service, with politicians and parties as the professional service providers. While citizens might loyally support a certain party, they don’t actually belong to it unless they attain membership, which is a specific formal step.
Among other things, this means that primaries – essential to the American election process – make no sense to Brits. Why are several candidates from the same party going to voters, asking them to choose who should go through to the election? A Brit might think it’s not worth voting for a party that can’t decide for itself who its candidates are. Whether you want to take the time to explain the concept to your British hosts may depend on how close you are to last orders at the pub.
Back to Westminster. The upper house of Parliament is the House of Lords, and is much less powerful than the House of Commons. Essentially, it just reviews laws that have already been passed by the lower house, and suggests amendments. Thus, its prominence in public life is lower than that of the US Senate. The House of Lords is not elected. Some of its members are appointed by the monarch in recognition of their contributions to society, be they in the arts, education, business, or a lifetime in public service. In addition, some high-ranking priests get a seat in the House as an automatic part of their job. And, although the hereditary system was abolished in 1999, there are still some members of the House who inherited the right to sit there. If all this strikes an American sensibility as elitist, there’s a good reason for that. It is.
So much for the Parliament. The executive government is a separate thing, right? Well, kind of. A lot of the ministry buildings are found on Whitehall, a street leading north from the Palace of Westminster. But that does not mean that people who hold cabinet positions do all their work on Whitehall. They also spend a lot of their working time in the Palace of Westminster – or in far-flung places throughout the UK. That is because they are simultaneously members of parliament for a particular constituency. The same goes for the prime minister. On top of that, the prime minister is usually the head of his or her political party, leading it in parliamentary debates.
If you want to see where the prime minister lives, prepare to be underwhelmed. The residence is 10 Downing Street, a very big but rather plain-looking townhouse with a black door, located on a street that leads west off Whitehall. This is where, for example, Margaret Thatcher lived from 1979 to 1990 – at least, when she wasn’t visiting her constituency in Finchley, north London. Here, too, resided Tony Blair from 1997 to 2007 – except when he was meeting with constituents in Sedgefield in the north of England. It’s not unusual for prominent government members to serve as MPs for little-known constituencies. That is because parties like to have their most important politicians run for election in what they consider “safe seats” – areas that are likely to vote for that party. A politician who does not win the constituency is highly unlikely to end up in a cabinet position.
Unlike Americans, Brits do not elect their executive government, and could never have an executive with a different political color from the majority of parliament. When Brits go to the polls, it is to elect their local MPs. Then, whichever party gets the largest number of seats is asked to form the next cabinet. By whom? Why, the monarch, of course. Everything ultimately comes up to the monarch, Britain’s hereditary head of state. The official church (Church of England), the law courts, and the different branches of government are all answerable to the monarch, even though the monarch usually delegates the real business to others and only performs ceremonial tasks. If you want to see where the monarch lives, go and gaze through the railings at Buckingham Palace, a building dating from the 18th century. It’s slightly west from the sites mentioned so far, at the opposite end of St James’s Park.
So what would happen if the monarch did not invite the winner of the parliamentary election to form the executive government? Wouldn’t there be a popular uprising, with people rebelling against the hereditary monarchy and demanding that their democratic choice be honored? Don’t count on it. Brits are certainly like Americans in feeling very strongly about their democratic traditions – but not quite as strongly. Most of them would vehemently oppose scrapping the monarchy in favor of an elected president. The pomp and ceremony surrounding the king or queen is something that continues to command a powerful emotional attachment. And that’s not all it does. It’s also a big part of the reason why tourists from other countries visit London.
Written by David Hill for EuropeUpCLose.com