Parliament Day One –
Before getting started, a quick note: I will not use the full names of people in my office or those I interact with, unless they are well known political figures. I’m not hiding anything but rather I do so out of respect to those I work with who might not want to see their names and actions, however flattering or unflattering, on a blog of their intern. I will instead use initials.
Unlike what one would expect, I did not wake up on my first day excited to get to work. Instead, one of my flat mates woke me up early, as he needed help tying his tie. I tied a four-in-hand while half asleep. I only mention the type of knot as later in the day he got some good-natured ribbing for tying a simple knot. He was advised that a half- or double-Windsor is the standard (I subsequently taught said flat mate how to tie a double, and then tied a double for him the next morning after he had forgotten.) All in good fun.
Despite the early wake up, I was excited. After three weeks I was finally stepping into the Parliament as an intern and not a tourist. I was resolved to make the best of the day and my time. I carried those thoughts with me through both my morning rituals and the tube ride to Westminster. As I stepped off the train and walked to the front of Portcullis House, which is the office annex next to Westminster Palace, I felt a certain sense of satisfaction that I had finally arrived (both literally and figuratively.) This was the moment I had first thought about years ago in a History of England discussion section, when my TA told us that UW students could intern in Parliament. This was the moment I had been waiting for since I made the decision to apply to the program, prodded on by my good friend Alex, while in an internet café in Cusco, Peru. This was the moment I had been waiting for since submitting my paperwork and waiting nearly six weeks to hear an admissions decision.
As I entered the doors, quickly navigated security, and had the information ring the Plaid Cymru office to let them know I had arrived, I began to realize that the moment I had been waiting for would have to wait a few minutes. The entrance to Portcullis House is separated from the rest by inches of bulletproof glass, and you need an escort to get in. I waited patiently as others who entered the building after me found their escorts and went about their business. First five minutes, and then ten, passed. As I stood there, a young man came walking up, confidently looked at me and queried “Andrew?” The moment had come. We exchanged greetings and began to move towards the door through the bulletproof glass. Half way through the revolving door, the gentlemen asked me to step back through – apparently I was not the Andrew I was looking for. A moment of disappointment, but I quickly laughed it off. After half an hour of waiting, and another request to the information desk to ring my office again, R (full name withheld) finally collected me, apologizing profusely. Apparently the first attempt to the Plaid office didn’t connect, though the information desk failed to tell me. Such is life sometimes.
I’ve been a bit concerned going into this placement that I would not be able to understand the Welsh accent. A flat mate works with a Welshmen, and she had related that it was difficult at times to understand him. I’ve been warned by a couple of British friends (and Gary!) that the Welsh accent is extremely difficult to understand. I was pleased, then, when I was able to fully understand R (and, for that matter, almost everyone in the office). We worked our way up to the Plaid party office where I met most of the staff – D, a researcher, E, the public affairs officer, and the MPs (we have three.) Another researcher was on holiday, and we have another intern arriving next week. All nine of us share three offices, and it was immediately apparent to me that this is a close-knit group who work well together. And rightly so – they are three of 650 MPs, and advocate Welsh independence – not exactly a favored position in Parliament. There is a certain sense of ‘us vs. them’, and an awareness that ‘us’ is at a disadvantage. As the day wore on and I learned more about the party and their operations, I wasn’t so sure that their small size was a disadvantage. They don’t have to follow the party line, which allows them to live up to their personal and party values on almost every vote. The MPs speak their minds clearly, supported by the facts, and do not hide or shy away from attention. They form a sort of conscious for the House of Commons.
It was immediately apparent to me that this would not be a boring internship. I spent the first hour or so coming up to speed with the issues for the day and some of the basic mechanisms by which the party operates. The girls – R, D, and E – and I then went for lunch at one of the cafes in Portcullis House. As they are all friends and were on their first day back in a week or so, they began talking about their holidays and the kinds of things they had done. I ventured into the conversation and related some of my time in Edinburgh, though I choose to exit the conversation when they began talking about why they like champagne (it’s bubbly and pretty). It was nice to get past the awkward first-day get-to-know-you conversations and skip forward to a more friendly conversation.
After lunch R and I went to the pass office to try and pick up my pass, which will allow me almost unrestricted access throughout the Parliamentary Estate. Unfortunately I did not have all of the proper documentation, so I would need to wait a day. It was then back to the office for what I expected would be an introduction to the work I would be doing.
Instead, Jonathan, one of the MPs, asked if I cared to tag along with him to a committee meeting. Of course I would! He is a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which was discussing ‘inward investment’ in Wales, which is a fancy way of saying “what do we spend this money on?” The topic of the day was transport infrastructure, which I confess I don’t know much about, nor care to know much about, but I still found the committee meeting fascinating – to a point. I started to fall asleep somewhere around an hour and a half into it. I managed to bring myself out of it just in time for the committee to adjourn.
Jonathan then asked if I wanted to tag along to an interview he was conducting with a reporter for MSNBC. Of course I would! I followed him through the halls of Portcullis, until we realized the reporter wasn’t yet there. We sat down for a bit and discussed our various experiences in college/university. As it turns out, they are quite similar. Jonathan studied the Cold War, as do I. He is interested in foreign affairs, so am I. We both wrote papers on Afghanistan. We’re both very interested in strategy. From my perspective, this began to look like a pretty good placement.
After a bit we found the reporter, who I had a brief conversation with while Jonathan grabbed coffee – she turned out to be from Mexico City, grew up in the States, and is now a long-term expat in the UK. I went back to the sidelines as Jonathan returned and the interview turned formal. A few weeks prior Jonathan had tabled a question for the government regarding the UK’s training mission in Saudi Arabia, and the government revealed that UK taxpayer money had been used to train Saudi troops who very likely (though unconfirmed) were used to put down the democratic uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen. Jonathan found a lot of traction in the press as he rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of the Government, who were at the time bombing Libya ostensibly in support of democratic uprisings, while training Saudi troops used to put down democratic uprisings. At one point the discussion turned to lobbying and the power of the UK arms industry, at which time I was able to contribute to the conversation and provide a comparative frame regarding the US arms industry/lobby.
After the interview concluded, it was back to the office for a bit. I glanced at my watch and realized it was almost 6 p.m. – time for me to leave! I thanked everyone in the office, one of our other MPs (Elfyn) promised to catch up with me the next day, and I was off for the tube and home. When I got home I was on a bit of a natural high, so I went for a long run around Hyde Park while the sun was shinning and reflected on my time so far in the UK (I never want to leave.) The remainder of the night was non-descript.
Today’s political insights: (From Jonathan) The first year is hardest on new legislators, who must adjust to the rigorous demands of the job, which places great pressure on family life. Related, legislators rarely have time to learn on the job, so one must rely on prior knowledge, even in the later parts of ones career. For these reasons, it is best for an MP keep away from making politics a career without a substantial break.