Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Parliament Visit

by Adam Troxtell

On the Saturday before leaving for Dublin, our class had one last thing to take care of while in the capitol: Parliament. With Westminster Abbey just across the street and Big Ben towering over it, the Parliament building is among the top icons in the city of London, and we got the chance to see the very rooms in which UK policy is determined. Upon walking into the famous building, you get the impression this is no ordinary governing building; this is because it is not.

The actual name of the Parliament building is the Palace of Westminster, and for obvious reasons. It was built by King Edward around one thousand years ago, and the King and Queen would reside in this place up until King Henry VIII. The original palace burned down, but it was rebuilt 1840-60 strictly for the use of Parliament. Hand-carved wood covers the walls and corners of the ceiling; the colors gold and red (royal colors) decorate the hallways. Portraits and sculpted busts of famous politicians of the past sit as a reminder that this place likes to remember the old days fondly and continue the legacies they have created.

The Palace of Westminster sits on the banks of the Thames,
with Big Ben directly to the right. It is an iconic image.
 There are three main parts to the Palace of Westminster: the Royal End, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We began at the Royal office but were only allowed into the Royal Changing Room. When Parliament has just gone through a national election, the Royal Head of State (currently Queen Elizabeth) will have to officially open Parliament. So, she would change into the Royal Robes in this room, then walk through the doors down a long hallway and through a ballroom area (where some famous heads of state, including President Bill Clinton, gave speeches in the past).

Then, she would walk into the House of Lords. This used to be the ‘upper house’ of Parliament, full of dignitaries who were given their seats based on hereditary lines (hence the royal colors of red and gold lining the walls and seats). Now, it merely serves as an advisory body for the government, and seats are given to famous politicians or high ranking members of society as a sign of honor. Still, this is where the opening of Parliament has always been done, and the traditions do not end there.

Once the Queen is ready to address Parliament, she must ensure they are all present. She will send a servant to the House of Commons to fetch the nationally elected members of the UK legislature. However, once the servant arrives, he has the door slammed in his face. This is a symbolic move to show that this is a room of the people, not of Royal authority. He will then knock three times, and members of Parliament will crack open the door and be told the Queen requests their presence in the House of Lords for her speech. Eventually, they all do fit into the House of Lords and the Queen’s Speech covering what Parliament should hope to accomplish in the next session is given. This tradition comes from 1642 when King Charles I came to arrest 5 members of Parliament for dissenting the crown, and the speaker refused to go fetch them. When the King sent a servant to do the job, the servant had the door slammed in his face.

The House of Commons is green, a sign of being separate from royalty. In fact, the whole layout of the Parliament Building is a symbol itself, as the speaker of the House of Lords faces the speaker of the House of Commons when addressing his or her members. Despite this, it is difficult to imagine government policy is done in such a royal, palace-looking building.

At times it just feels the same as being in a castle once used by the highest members of the Royal Family, and that is probably because it was. Once again, the UK’s rich history creates the basis (literally) for its present and future.

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