Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) are the ultimate British political tradition, like high tea, polo, and the royal family. Essentially, every Wednesday the Prime Minister must go in front of Parliament and answer questions posed by Members of Parliament (MPs). Now of course many of the questions posed are fluff, such as, “Can the honourable member please join me in welcoming the students from St. Mary’s here today?” But what makes this event so wonderfully entertaining are the hard hitting questions about the biggest issues in the country like arming the opposition in Syria, the ongoing economic woes, or the state of the E.U. These are the type of questions that most presidents in the States only really have to answer in election debates, once every four years, whereas the Prime Minister is put in front of the firing squad on a myriad of issues every week. Also, unlike American politics heckling from the opposition is not only allowed, it is expected to a degree. However, there is still this strange sense of decorum in parliamentary procedures. For example, an insult may be direct and harsh but it is always begun by calling the other side ‘honourable.’
Finally, after interning twice in the U.K., I recently got to attend this amazing political boxing match, and it was definitely worth the wait. It began with a question on whether or not Parliament would get a vote before there was a decision to arm the Syrian opposition. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, came back with strict assurances that the government would not arm the opposition without such a vote and so the verbal sparring match had begun. The opposition and the Prime Minister went back and forth for the next thirty minutes discussing issues from tax evasion to British manufacturing of lava lamps. There were a few soft ball questions as well, but for the most part the Labour party did not disappoint. At one point, Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor for the Exchequer and probably the most notorious heckler in British politics, tried to reach across the aisle to give the Prime Minister a glass of water, while screaming, “Calm down.” While there is certainly a bit of theatrics in PMQs, the idea of making the leader of the executive answerable to the legislative branch weekly, even if it is only for thirty minutes, is a tremendously brilliant and entertaining idea. It forces discussion on topics that the Prime Minister may otherwise avoid or attempt to gloss over. This type of lively, educated, but still civilized discourse is something I think is missing from American politics and something we should consider adopting from the Brits.
To watch a full video of this political chess match see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMCfH4a-MXA.