This post comes to us from the blog of Lauren Sundby, who studied abroad in Cardiff Wales in the Spring of 2015
I can hear the collective groans of everyone reading that title, but hear me out. I know politics isn’t everyone’s favorite topic and would probably rather read about some other adventure I’ve gone on but let’s try this, at least for one post. To be very honest, politics has probably been the most exciting part of my life for the past couple weeks. I’m in the middle of exam season and knee deep in notes so exploring the country has been put on the back burner for the moment, so I’ve had to resort to current events to spice life up a bit.
For anyone who didn’t know, last Thursday (May 7th) was the big election here in the UK that would determine who the next prime minister would be. Generally election season gets quite repetitive and tedious, but as I can’t vote here I sort of just got to watch everything happen from the sidelines. Cardiff University had a relatively large campaign urging students to use their votes, and based on the hype on campus, it seemed to have worked. Although I feel the election lacked the simple elegance of a red ‘I Voted’ sticker, it was very cool to know that young people were getting out to cast their votes. Watching the election take place and understanding what was happening (or what was going to happen) is an entirely different thing. Politics in the United Kingdom are confusing.
At our IFSA orientation way back in January we got a brief overview of the political system. The most obvious difference to me is the sheer number of political parties. Yes, the US has a lot more than just the Republicans and Democrats, but here the smaller ones seem to have a lot more popularity. At the top are the Conservatives (‘Tories’) and the Labour party but also the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Green Party, Scotland has the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Wales has Plaid Cymru, as well as some others. In the end, the party with the majority of the seats in Parliament ends up providing the Prime Minister. So how does this all work? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out, but I think I’ve sort of got an idea.
Before I even try to explain what I know you might want to just check out this video from The Guardian instead, it’s what helped me the most. I spent quite a few hours scouring the internet for help to understand. That video and a bunch of other news articles helped to bridge my knowledge gap. I found myself scrolling through the New York Times reading through various things that were explaining both what was happening, as well as what it meant, which was very useful considering my significant lack of background knowledge. The extra reading also reminded me of the early stages of the American election that have been taking place, which added even more confusion to the mix. Luckily I have Saturday Night Live to keep me up to date on that, right?
Essentially, when the election happens, people are voting for one person: their MP, or ‘member of parliament,’ who will represent them in the House of Commons. The Houses of Parliament are divided into two houses, the House of Commons, who’s representatives are elected by the people, and the House of Lords, who’s representatives are all people who have inherited their seats. This past weekend we took an IFSA sponsored trip to London to tour the Houses of Parliament, which was pretty cool considering the election had only happened three days prior. As any election will leave some people unhappy, it was unsurprising to see protestors in London so soon after the election, fortunately for us we seemed to have missed the brunt of them.
Our tour gave us a guided walk through the beautiful Houses of Parliament in Westminster where we learned not only about the history and architecture of the building, but also how it operates as the home of the government. The building was beautiful, and it was cool to finally get to see the building that the famous Big Ben is attached to. I think my favorite part was the amazing mosaics of the patron saints of each of the countries that make up the UK (obviously the St. David’s piece for Wales was my favorite).
Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament
The history was also fascinating as we got to see paintings of Kings and Queens we’ve been reading about in history books for years. Henry VIII and his wives have a whole section of wall dedicated to them. The history also brings along with it some interesting traditions, including the door of the House of Commons being slammed in the face of a man called Black Rod. It was a very interesting tour, but we found ourselves more than confused a number of times. In the end, I did have a better understanding of the way the building is structured and functions. The House of Lords and the House of Commons are on two distinctly separate parts of the building and they each have their own special corridors for votes to be cast, they even have specific places for yes votes to be cast and a different one for the nos.
St. Stephen’s Hall
Later in the day, we were wandering the streets of London and found ourselves wading through a particularly dense crowd of people (in London, especially Westminster, its not a matter of if there will be a crowd, its a matter of how big the crowd will be) and I didn’t really know why. Turns out, it was the entrance to Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives, so it was definitely not surprising to see that there was a big gathering after the election. Whether they were there in support, curiosity, or protest, I’m not sure, but it did look like a spectacle.
So how did the election turn out? In the end, the Conservatives took the majority. A lot of the United Kingdom is sort of up in arms about the outcome, and there were some pretty big protests going on in London, and I even think there was one in Cardiff. The specifics are still a lot for me to understand but according to the New York Times, the conservatives took 331 of the 650 seats, enough to win the majority. The biggest competitor for the conservatives was the Labour party, which ended up losing a lot more seats than anticipated to the Scottish Nationalist Party. The SNP ended up winning all but one of the seats in Scotland taking away a lot of crucial votes for the Labour party. For more specifics you can check out this New York Times article, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get a better understanding of what’s going on with everything using the New York Times and it’s been quite useful. I definitely encourage checking out some further reading because my knowledge is incredibly minimal.
Moving forward from the election, the Prime Minister will get approval from the Queen to continue on as Prime Minister (a sort of formality) and then will resume his position as head of the government. In the House of Commons, the majority party, in this Parliament’s case the conservatives, is called ‘the government,’ which was confusing for me at first. Government is a lot more of an all-encompassing term in the states. The second largest party is called the opposition. Sometimes, no party wins a majority and eventually there may be a coalition government that forms, which is what happened in the last election. This one however has a true majority leader.
Back here in Wales the government is centralized here in Cardiff, more specifically in Cardiff Bay. With my Welsh class we got to take a field trip to the Senedd (Senate) where we got to sit down and listen to talks from various members of the assembly, and even go to meet the First Minister! I didn’t really know what to expect and didn’t have too high of hopes, but it ended up being incredibly informative and interesting (plus we got to see a room where they filmed a bit of Sherlock).
The First Minister is in the center, I’m a floating head in the back right.
The current Welsh government is actually the first government in Wales since the 13th century! Until the 1999 devolution of power, Wales was simply governed by England. Now, Wales has a gorgeous National Assembly Building (that is open to public visitors if you ever wanted to visit) where you can go to check out the architecture, or sit and watch the debates happen. It was very interesting to watch because the MPs are allowed to speak in either Welsh or English so there was a lot of listening to translations and trying to keep up with everything.
The Welsh National Assembly Senedd building.
We got to ask the First Minister a bunch of questions, and between him and a couple other ministers, we learned a lot about a whole bunch of different elements of Welsh government. I think the coolest thing we heard about was that the Wales National Assembly allows the public to propose ideas, and recently there was actually a very effective and important proposal by a member of the public. Up until this proposal, plastic shopping bags were free, as they are in the United States, but it was decided that in order to decrease the amount of waste created by plastic shopping bags, Welsh shops would be required to charge for them. As a result, Welsh shoppers bring their own plastic, or fabric, bags to carry their shopping. It may seem like a really minor thing, but from that simple public petition with only 10 signatures, shopping bag waste went from 400 per person per year, to a mere 20. That is a pretty incredible difference. The action has been so successful that the law is being put into place in a bunch of other places.
I had a really wonderful time listening to the various questions between the ministers and us students. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to have such a direct discourse with the leaders of the government. I was very impressed with the sincerity of both the questions and the answers; it was very reassuring to know that they didn’t just overlook us as students. I even threw in my own question about the devolution of the media sector as it was a large topic of discussion in one of my classes this semester. Applying my learning, way to go me.
As someone who has never really spent that much time involving herself in the government, I have spent a surprising amount of time learning about it over here, which has been very cool. I’ve been to the government buildings for both England and Wales, and even got to meet the head of the National Assembly here in Wales. It might not be your favorite topic, but there’s a lot of things to learn about the government in other places. I feel like a much more informed member of the culture here, which is a great way to try and feel more like a local and less like a visitor.