Puff Piece: PMQ

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Your Humble Blogger has been terribly cranky over the last week or so. On principle, I try to write a puff piece for every hatchet job, but I expect it will run more like two to one on the bad side. Still, there are things I like, and enjoy, and I'll try to remember to write about them. Here's one.

Any US-citizen with access to C-SPAN and an interest in politics and the political process would be well-served to watch the Prime Minister's Questions, run every Sunday while the Parliament sits, at 9:00pm eastern time. The actual event is Wednesday at something like 7am Eastern; you can see it live on Parliament Live TV, if your connection is good enough. The transcripts are in Hansard as well, but I don't advise them as a substitute (though I do use them if I miss the video, as the House doesn't appear to have video archives available).

What's so good about them? Mostly, they are a magnificent example of the benefits of a parliamentary system. The main difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential one (such as we have in the US) is that the executive is a legislator, and responsible to the legislature. That means that debate is held, regularly, between the executive and the legislature; in the US it simply is not. In the UK system, with its love of talk, that means that the Prime Minister must take questions in the House, every week, for half an hour.

Now, not much is actually done in that time. I doubt any opinions change, no compromises get hammered out, and any subject that gets brought up is touched on in the shallowest manner possible. There's a lot of party squabbling, a good deal of point-scoring, some grandstanding, some petty beefing, and above all, muttering, nodding, coughing, and foot-shuffling. It's not the finest hour for the Mother of Parliaments, but scarcely the worst; it seems to mostly be a diversion, almost an entertainment.

And it is entertaining. Blair is masterful, moving from comic to stern, to thoughtful, to snide. Ian Duncan Smith is terrible, which pleases me as a Blair fan, but also provides a marked contrast. Charles Kennedy, of the Lib Dems, has a posture and manner that speaks volumes about third-party idealism and defeatism. The Conservatives are delightfully Tory, with stereotypical suits, haircuts, and faces. The Labour MPs are marvelously themselves as well, big fellows in ill-fitting suits and bad haircuts, huge bellies thrust indignantly before them as they make their obvious points. The member from Sherwood talks about the need for lots of police in Nottinghamshire. If you watch, pay attention to the people who aren't speaking, as well, to those whispering gleefully to each other, nodding seriously, shouting, or squatting on the aisle steps.

The House of Commons was burnt out in the Battle of Britain, as I understand it (you don't hear as much about the Fire Watch there, but it was, like the one at St. Paul's, brave, disciplined, harrowing, and boring); in rebuilding, they decided not to have a room like the US has, with desks for everyone or even chairs for everyone. The members sit on benches, and if by some chance everyone shows up for a debate (the House is usually mostly empty, as is our own), they squeeze, stand, and squat.

Anyway, the real eye-opener is the conflict. When, do you suppose, was the last time someone told George W. Bush to his face that the politically oriented spin machine he set up is responsible for the lack of trust in him personally and in his plans for war? Sure, people say it, and write it, and if the president cares to find out, he certainly knows that people disagree with him, and strongly, too. That's different, though, from being in the room with somebody saying it. The US President speaks to Congress once a year, and maybe twice, but never sits and listens when they respond. Barring a challenge from within the party, an incumbent only does one string of maybe three or four debates, over a month's time, four years into his presidency.

I don't think a parliamentary system would work in the US without major changes in whole federal system, which I don't endorse at present. I know the British system has troubles of its own. I am aware that Blair is particularly good at this, and that John Major was not; I never saw Thatcher at it but I suspect she was tremendous. I know that it didn't teach humility to any of those. I know that nobody watches it in England.

I do find it breathtaking. Imagine, imagine, if W. had to sit through half an hour of this a week. Imagine Clinton, every week. My goodness.

Thank you,