Sometimes British politics seems like a movie. To an American, some aspects of the system are so foreign they almost seem made up. Other parts are just plain funny, though the British usually don’t understand why you’re giggling. The obvious differences, such as the parliamentary system, are boring comparisons that belong in political science papers, and professors don’t cover most of the really interesting parts of British politics. Maybe if they did, we’d sleep in their classes a little less.
Based on my experience interning for a member of Parliament in London this summer, I’ll give you a rundown of things you never knew you didn’t know about British politics.
We’ll start with something simple. For the first week of my internship, my office kept telling people that my MP was having a “surgery” on Friday. They said it really calmly, like it was no big deal that he was going to be knocked out and sliced open on Friday and then back on Monday. In my experience, people usually take a few days off after going under the knife — but perhaps I had unreasonable American views on medical procedures. Eventually, I figured out that “surgery” is a sort of office hours MPs hold back in their constituencies. Now, if anyone actually does have a surgery, I’ll never know.
The names of important politicians here can really test your composure. It’s unfortunate, because since they’re so important they’re mentioned constantly, and occasionally you might have to speak to someone from their offices. When answering a call from Ed Balls’ office, uncontrollable laughter is generally discouraged by your co-workers and supervisors. And eventually I should learn to stop snorting when filing a letter from the Rt. Hon. Eric Pickles. No, I’m not making these names up.
MPs rarely run around with the entourage typical of American politicians. In my first week, I was casually walking down the hallway, lost once again, when Winston Churchill’s grandson strolled by. There was no flurry of secretaries, interns or researchers around him and there were no policemen breaking through the crowds. Sometimes, you can be waiting for an elevator and realize that the man standing next to you is the Secretary of State for Defense. It can be a little unsettling, but really cool. If I were working in the U.S. Congress, I probably wouldn’t even be able to see Secretary of Defense Robert Gates through the crowd of aides that follows his every movement. Not many political interns in Washington can say they touched such a high-ranking cabinet member. And neither can I, because that would have been weird.
British politics is rowdy. During floor debate, MPs cheer and boo loudly following speeches. Members of the opposition will yell at the prime minister when they don’t agree with what he says. Sometimes members of the majority party heckle the opposition just for the fun of it. This is especially true during Prime Minister’s Questions — the half hour on Wednesdays where the prime minister, you guessed it, answers questions from the MPs.
With the recent election in the UK, I’ve also had exposure to the electoral facet of British politics. During every election in Houghton and Sunderland South, the roads are closed at 9 p.m. When the polls close at 10 p.m., election officials grab the ballot boxes and run like maniacs to town hall, where votes are counted. Pictures from the night show frantic runners trying to be the first to report results. Across the country, citizens gather in the town hall to hear the results announced, which I really wish we did in the U.S. All the candidates are present, and they stand in a line in front of the voters.
And then they announce the losers — not the winners. Thanks very much for trying, but you lose. Imagine lining President Barack Obama and John McCain up and then saying, you lose, you win. It’s hilarious.
Being at the University for the 2008 election showed me just how fun American politics can be. But that’s nothing compared to the excitement that goes on here. As an outsider, I love the interruptions in the House of Commons, but I think I would be irritated if it were actually my legislature. As for elections — I can’t deny that running in the night with ballot boxes and announcing losers instead of winners makes voting a lot more fun.
Sometimes I have to cover up my laughter at work in a dramatic coughing fit. After all, people with a stake in British politics don’t find these unique nuances all that funny. But to a Yank, they’re deliciously entertaining.
Erika Mayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.