Thursday, April 21, 2011

Parker Smith - Edinburgh, Scotland

Parker is studying Political Science at the University of Utah. He is currently participating in an internship with the Scottish Parliament through the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

I have been granted the interesting opportunity to intern in Scotland with the Scottish Parliament this semester. As a political science major who has traditionally focused both his studies and interest in US politics, I came here with the expectation of getting a unique and up-close look at how another country approaches politics. What I saw were several small differences that suit and compliment the Scottish people and their culture. I also saw several similarities that were interesting to view in the Scottish context, and which I believe to be universal to almost any government. In this blog, I’d like to recount a few of my experiences as an intern and tell how they provided me with some of these insights.

Me looking down on the city of Edinburgh from the top of Arthur's Seat

 The first hot political topic that was thrown right in my face when I got here was Scottish Independence/Devolution. In brief, the Scottish government is still part of the United Kingdom and has only limited powers. In fact, Scotland has only had this “devolved” government with limited powers since 1999.  Scotland now operates as a power similar to the way one of the United States would operate with the US Federal government. The powers that Scotland and a US state have are different, but that’s a basic analogy. Anyway, all my co-workers at the Parliament belong to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is pushing for complete independence from the UK. There were numerous times when the Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) I worked for and his staff would make comments, jokes, and express their longing for separation from the UK. I would just have to laugh uneasily and nod my head in unconvincing agreement. The problem I was having was that the rhetoric they were using was exactly the same as the rhetoric I heard at the Utah State Legislature when I interned there in 2010. For example, you will hear from SNP members: Westminster (the UK government) is tying up our natural resources and robbing us of revenue; Westminster is messing up our health care; Westminster is messing up our education; Westminster is overreaching with their powers; Westminster is too big, etc., etc.

Me on the Parliament floor with the First Minister, Alex Salmond

I don’t want to get into my own personal politics too much. Suffice it to say, I was immediately rebuffed by this kind of talk, but I also found it interesting that half-way around the world people were saying the exact same things they were in Utah. As time has gone on, there have been two things I learned from seeing the Scottish Government fight against the UK Government. First, I think nearly any body of government has some level of resentment towards the body of government above them, and the more the lower body feels they don’t have authority that they should, the more that resentment grows. The egos and desire for greater personal power of some politicians can certainly be a factor here, too. Secondly, I also learned that different policies and government structures are better for different places. So, while in Utah I found all the anti-federal government talk to be largely headache-inducing, I now feel differently about the same sentiments expressed in Scotland. As I’ve spent more time here and traveling all about the UK, I’ve realized that Scotland truly is a very separate and distinct country. They are very proud of their country, heritage, culture, and political identity, which are far different than England, Wales, or Ireland. Not that there are (much) bad feelings between these countries, but it’s easy to see how Scotland could be its own independent nation, whereas in the US, I have no desire to see a significantly weakened federal government and/or the secession of any state.  Currently, the push for Scottish independence is still in its beginnings; the support is building but is still not great enough to start pushing for an official referendum. After my time in Scotland living amongst the people and working in their government, I can say they’ve won me over. Or at least I don’t roll my eyes when the subject is brought up.

Me at a political rally with my boss, Alex Neil, and Alex Salmond

Another characteristic of the political culture that I found unique in Scotland was the tone of political discourse, particularly while Parliament was in session. When the US Congress is in session, and a senator or congressman has the floor, they speak to their opponents in what I would call, “feigned statesmanship”. For example, when a senator says something like, “what the esteemed junior senator from Wyoming fails to realize . . .” they are really just calling the other senator an idiot in a condescending, albeit polite, way. It can get so tightly wound in Congress that we had a huge controversy the other year when one Congressman yelled out, “You lie!” during the State of the Union address. In Scotland, the tone of discourse is far different. Every week in Scotland they hold First Minister Questions, in which any MSP can ask a question of the First Minister. The first one of these I sat through I couldn’t help but laugh. They yell, they jeer, they pound their desks, they throw around colorful insults, and it all left me with the feeling that I was watching 129 adults acting like children. The whole event, while getting at some important issues, is very raucous and sets the tone for much of the public discourse in Parliament and public discourse appearing in the media. At first it was very off-putting for me, and in a lot of ways it still is. I enjoy the statesmanship and politeness that politicians feel compelled to use when addressing each other personally in the US, despite the sometimes obvious contempt that boils below the surface. But as I’ve experienced more of Scottish politics, I’ve noticed the politicians here recognize that First Minister Questions are a form of political theatre, and although party discipline is much stronger here than in the US, there is still a healthy dialogue between parties. There are resentments, sure, but they get together and they work things out when they’re off the stage, just like any other government. So they whoop and holler and insult each other, and it all seems almost uncivilized. In the end, I think it’s just part of the tradition that makes Scotland a little more unique in its own personalized way.

Me standing outside the Parliament building

That is one of the main impressions I’ve taken away from my internship in Scotland—that everyone seems to have their own way of doing things. All these countries have their own unique approach and angle to tackle the political problems they face. But in the end, they’re still tackling the same problems, and they’re still playing the same game as anyone else in the democratic world. Politics is politics no matter where you are. 

No comments:

Post a Comment