Last summer, while I was in London I visited the Palace of Westminster home to the houses of parliament and the mother of all parliaments. Every Wednesday when the House of Commons is in session members gather for 30 minutes at noon to ask the prime minister questions about his policies and thoughts on current events. The question time is moderated by the speaker of the house who interjects if members of parliament (MPs) or the prime minister are not following the protocols of the House or if the House becomes noisy and disorderly.
The lively debate and animated nature of the questioners make watching PMQs sometime entertaining, the prime minister has to be rather quick on his feet and usually have a few clever retorts to MPs asking questions. The members usually stand up and engage in jeering to express disagreement. It has become something of a national pastime in Britain where all major TV networks cover the question session. Tickets to question time are also one of the most sought after parliament tickets for visitors. Questions are provided by MPs from all parties and the order that questions get asked in are determined randomly by a computer. The prime minister does not have advanced warning about what specific questions he will be asked about so he must prepare for all possible type of questions. If the prime minister is out of the United Kingdom on official business, the next most senior member of the cabinet takes the questions. Also in the absence of the prime minister the opposition questions will be lead off by the deputy leader of the opposition.
A few things that make the British government interesting is the fact that like most parliamentary systems multiple parties can hold power together. The parties that have been elected and hold power are referred to as the “government”, while the parties that don’t hold are referred to as the “opposition”. During PMQs the Prime Minister and his cabinet sit on the front bench next to him, with the opposition leader(s) and his shadow cabinet sit on the benches opposite.
While watching PMQs you’ll probably notice there are a lot of members of parliament (MPs) standing the reason for this is that the house of commons chamber was not designed to fit all members of parliament. The chamber was destroyed during WWII by incendiary bombs, and when parliament debated rebuilding it they decided to keep the size of the chamber to 427 seats even though there are 646 MPs in the parliament. Winston Churchill favored this design because it gave the appearance that parliament would always seem more full than it really was even if all members didn’t show up. They also opted not change the shape of the chamber to be more semi-circular which was seen as less adversarial design. Instead they decided to keep the traditional rectangular design that allows the two major opposite parties to face each other keep the adversarial feel. Churchill commented that the building had shaped Britain’s parliament into two-party system and that is the way it should stay. It’s good to see that democracy is alive and well in the United Kingdom.