The United Kingdom is surprisingly liberal in allowing the public to view Parliament, which is a great thrill for visitors with an interest in government and politics. All debates and many committee meetings can be observed for free. Those interested simply queue at the security line off Cromwell Green (directly across Westminster Abbey on the west side of Parliament). Although the queue may be long (ours wasn’t, given that we visited in late November), the line moves fast.
After passing through the security line, and passing by a very unique vantage point of Big Ben (an excellent photo opportunity), the next stop is the impressive Westminster Hall. This room is the only remnant of the original Westiminster Palace. Built in 1097, it is clearly an engineering marvel for the time. Westminster Hall has been the location for coronation banquets, and historically housed several important courts.
Past Westminster Hall, visitors are ushered into either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. We went to the House of Commons, which required navigating through a maze of staircases and narrow hallways. Just before the gallery, visitors are required to check all cameras and phones. The public gallery we arrived in was perched above the debating floor and separated by a large shield of glass. Televisions and paper programs provided details on the agenda for the proceedings. On our particular day, the Parliament was discussing disability benefits.
Both the tradition and organization of the Parliament were fascinating. While I knew that parties worked together to form coalition governments, I had no idea that the losing coalition formed their own “shadow government”, complete with a Shadow Cabinet with their own Secretary of State, Secretary of Health, etc. During our visit, we saw members of both the prevailing Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet speak.
Thirty minutes was enough to experience Parliament. With more time, I may have ventured into the House of Lords as well to compare to the two. The most exciting time is supposed to be the “Question Time” held each week, where the prime minister is interrogated by the Members of Parliament. However, it sounds like crowds make it difficult to get a seat.
We were very impressed with the efficient and open system the UK has created for viewing their government in action. I fully recommend the experience for any visitors to London interested in politics.