The John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum traveled to London for a "Forum on the Road" at the residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Authored by James Dionne, a summer 2013 Director's Intern with Member of Parliament Tom Brake.
When you walk into the residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons, it takes a moment to grasp that you are in fact entering his home. The intricately carved dark wood and historic portraits is in keeping with the splendor of the rest of parliament, but the idea that above this chamber is a spacious apartment where Rt Hon John Bercow and his family reside adds to its intrigue.
This event was particularly exciting to me because I am working in Parliament, and even that doesn't’t get you the chance to listen to the Speaker of the House, Trey Grayson and Baroness Shirley Williams—all wildly knowledgeable and all in different stages of their political careers—talk candidly about the state of both the US and UK political systems.
The member I am working for, Liberal Democrat Tom Brake, conveniently represents the Sutton area, which is about 20 miles south of London. Because of this, I am able to spend one day a week in his constituency, which is a markedly different, more localized experience than working in Parliament. But, on the day of the Harvard event, I was in the constituency, and dressed for the vastly less formal job of passing out leaflets and interacting with constituents who come through the office with queries ranging from complaints about the volume of their neighbor’s dog to the macroeconomic effects of commodities futures.
I was initially embarrassed about my state of dress, but after listening to the three speakers, I felt that it was fairly representative of one of the major differences between politics in the US and UK, a difference that both Mr. Bercow and Baroness Williams mentioned. A large part of a member’s job is to cater to his constituents, much more so than in the House, or, even more so, the Senate. Sure, there are localized campaigns, earmarking, and plenty of other efforts to connect with constituents, but there is a real sense in Britain that the first job of an MP is to ensure that they listen to what his or her constituents say.
This is also connected to another point brought up by all three speakers—the permanent campaign. The influence of money is something that is vastly more prevalent in the U.S., which means Senators and Congressmen must spend as much time convincing people to give them money as they do convincing them that the job they’re doing warrants reelection. There are plenty of advantages to the presidential system, including greater checks and balances and the ability for representatives to more easily break with their party on issues of personal importance to them, but it was great to see that such experienced politicians echoed some of my personal findings.
After the speeches, everyone was really available to answer personal questions, and seemed just as interested to listen to mine as they were to anyone else’s. I would say that this is the mark of a shrewd politician, but as no one there will ever be seeking my vote, I would say that this is the mark of a nice and engaging person. Finally, I couldn’t write this blog post without mentioning that I am a finger food connoisseur and was thoroughly pleased to be treated to a great array of delicious foods. It was a truly great event, and I was reminded—as I often am—how Harvard, and the IOP in particular, is able to create unique and awesome experiences.