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I enjoyed the opening ceremonies for this summer’s London Olympics, because of their quirkiness. It was so very British.
I liked “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle’s whizzing, dragonfly’s view of London and England. I liked the review of English history from pastoral to industrial to digital age. I liked Daniel Craig’s James Bond picking up the Queen for a hop over to the stadium and a jump out of the helicopter. I liked the Queen’s corgis doing their tricks for the camera. I even liked John Cleese’s ad for living large like an aristocrat with Direct TV.
I’m not sure how it all relates to the Olympics, but then the games have strayed a bit from my understanding of their original purpose. The ancient Olympics were staged among the rival nation-sates of ancient Greece. Every four years, they would suspend hostilities to compete in athletic contests like foot races, wrestling, discus and javelin throws; to celebrate the winners, and to honor the Greek gods.
The Olympics were revived in the 1800s with an ethos of amateurism and a spirit that the most important thing was to take part, not to win.
Now, the Olympics accept professional athletes and experiment with nouvelle sports like synchronized swimming, golf, beach volleyball, rhythmic gymnastics, and table tennis. There is little respite from worldly hostilities, from the terrorist attacks at the Munich Games in 1972, to whether Iranian athletes will compete against Israeli athletes, to the presidential political ads running during the current London games.
I am also a big fan of another British TV show: Prime Minister Question Hour. Once a week, the leader of the United Kingdom submits to questions from members of Parliament. The general practice of putting questions to government ministers has been in effect for centuries. It has been refined and formalized over the years.
The PM gets to go first. The opposition leader second. Thereafter, the presiding officer, the speaker, calls upon members to ask questions, alternating between members of the government and members of the opposition. Members who wish to ask questions submit their names in advance. Names are drawn at random. Starting in the 1980s, Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher insisted on answering the questions herself, rather than delegate the responsibility to one of the members of her cabinet.
PMQH is a constitutional convention. Britain does not have one formal, written constitution. It has a number of charter documents, the most venerable of which may be the Magna Carta. Some of Britain’s fundamental rules and practices, like PMQH, are not codified in written law. They derive from custom, practice, and tradition. They are not enforceable in court.
PMQH is one of the best-known pieces of Parliamentary business. The observation gallery is always filled. Here in America, you can watch it on C-SPAN, Wednesday mornings and Sunday evenings.
I caught a broadcast recently. The session started off with the leader of the liberal opposition Labor Party, Edward Miliband, peppering Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron with criticisms: Cameron failed to keep his campaign promises; he lacked leadership and had lost the confidence of his own party; he was to blame for the poor state of the British economy.
Cameron defended himself by pointing out the respects in which he had led his party, and the country, to address its economic problems, whose origins predated his tenure, with responsible austerity measures. The exchange was as personally antagonistic as I can remember, as the two leaders popped up and down from their benches to put and parry questions.
It got so heated that the speaker intervened to call for order. Then things settled down and the proceedings shifted to the more familiar questions from members and answers from the PM. It is always impressive to see how the PM is well-informed about matters of his government both great and small, international and domestic, and how he responds to each member’s question with substance.
This is the type of exchange that I was used to seeing during PMQH. It includes a certain amount of hooraying and heckling from the back-benchers. However, even during the more acrimonious initial phase of the recent PMQH, you could see a hint of a smile on the opponents’ faces. Their attacks seemed mitigated by a sense of humor and a sense of their common interest.
It’s good to mix with your opposition. To take their questions and give them your answers. To get to know them and give them a chance to know you. It fosters understanding and defuses animosity. Done regularly and publicly, it can engender trust and confidence.
We do it less and less these days. People and politicians used to socialize with those of the opposite party. Now they stay away.
Our leaders should set a better example. At all levels. I give Mitt Romney enormous credit for venturing into one of President Obama’s core constituencies and speaking to the NAACP in July. All our leaders should do likewise. It doesn’t take a constitutional amendment. All they have to do is show up.