To the left is Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister and member of the Labour Party (a Labourite). To the right is David Cameron, the Opposition Leader and member of the Conservative Party (a Tory). Each Wednesday, they do battle in the chamber of the House of Commons in London for thirty minutes, and it is awesome.
The tradition first began at regular intervals in the 1950's, though before that, the Prime Minister would take questions off and on. Today, it works like this:
- Before PMQ's begin, backbenchers with questions submit them to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
- The Speaker chooses the names of those who want to ask a question randomly, separated by party, and keeps that list with him.
- The first question is traditionally given to someone who will simply ask "Number One, Mr. Speaker," which references the typical first question: "What has the Prime Minister been doing?"
- The PM responds, usually, with something on the order of "This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today." Now is when the fun begins.
- The first actual question is given to the Leader of the Opposition (currently, David Cameron). He will ask a series of questions and follow-ups, to which the PM must respond on the fly.
- The minority leader in the opposition (currently Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, or Lib Dems) will ask a few questions and follow-ups.
- The Speaker calls on the backbenchers from his list, and they will ask their questions. He alternates by party. If a Member of Parliament (MP) who is not on the list wants to ask a question (usually, a follow-up that is germane to the subject at hand), (s)he will stand up as the PM begins his answer to the previous question and will try to catch the Speaker's eye. If he so chooses, the Speaker will call on that MP next.
- The gibing goes on for thirty minutes, when the Prime Minister basically says "Thank you" and leaves.
The big table in the center of the commons has two ornate boxes, known as the 'Dispatch Boxes' (see right). This is where the PM and the Opposition stand and face off. To the right, you can see two holders for the ceremonial mace. It is brought in by the Serjeant-at-Arms when the House is in session and symbolizes the power of the House as the representative body of the people and of the Sovereign as head of state. There are two lines drawn parallel to the benches, supposedly set two sword-lengths apart. Members are not supposed to cross the lines (and will be ridiculed by the other MP's if they do), out of a tradition that debating members should stand far enough apart that they cannot duel. Sometimes, listening to PMQ's, you're convinced that they're about to wring each others' necks.
The best part about PMQ's, from an entertainment standpoint, is the way that you see the raw disagreement pouring forth. Unlike the U.S., where our members of Congress snipe at each other through newspapers and give speeches to empty chambers, the House of Commons seems engaged in the day-to-day operations of Britain. This isn't just fun to watch, but it's important as well. Real debate is vital for a democracy to flourish. We don't get that very often in America, since there is a systemic flaw: members rarely, if ever, need to interact with each other in public. We then feel like everything is happening behind closed doors (which it is, in committee meetings), breeding resentment against the politicians.
John McCain said on the trail last year that he'd institute a "President's Question Time" similar to the Prime Minister's. I'd love to see something like that happen, though I worry that it may pull something from the aura of the Presidency. Unlike the UK, where the State is represented by the officially non-partisan Sovereign, who is 'above politics', our head of State is intimately involved in the process. There remains, however, a majesty to the Office of the Presidency. We are protective of the President in a way that we aren't of Congress. We like the pomp of state dinners and of the State of the Union and of Air Force One and the White House. Perhaps it would be best to see a representative of the President go at it with the Opposition. Then the President would be called a wuss, though, and would be forced to show up in person to defend himself and would be lowered into the fray. Maybe it's a lose-lose with our system.
In the meantime, I will continue my infatuation with the Brits' PMQ's.