Perchance to dream: Some British cheek and scowl in Congress

Brexit debate showcases a slightly different way of debating public policy

The British House of Commons has been the scene of extraordinary debate over Brexit the last two days. It is quite a contrast to the way the United States Congress conducts itself. (House of Commons/PA Images/Getty Images)
The British House of Commons has been the scene of extraordinary debate over Brexit the last two days. It is quite a contrast to the way the United States Congress conducts itself. (House of Commons/PA Images/Getty Images)
Jason Dick
Posted September 4, 2019 at 7:15pm

What hath the Brexit debate wrought? Leaving aside the overall chaos in the United Kingdom, the last two days have given those of us who watch Congress for a living a chance to imagine what it would be like if there was just a smidge of British cheek in its deliberations.

Anyone who has ever watched the British Parliament’s Prime Minister’s Questions has surely dared to dream what would happen should their cousins across the pond adopt such a freewheeling political debate.

That went into overdrive this week as Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his majority, and then lost again when the House of Commons voted to approve legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit, and then lost yet again in his attempt to order a general election.

Despite the common U.K.-U.S. government DNA, there are so many fundamental differences. The U.S. has a written Constitution, unlike the U.K.; the British government comes from Parliament, while the United States has a separation of powers — the list goes on.

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But, perchance to dream, what if things were a wee bit more Brit? Would that be so bad? Maybe a few more people might even be tempted keep an eye on Congress. Consider:

Failure is an option

Johnson lost three votes in two days. There are consequences to such a failure. But the rapidity with which the MPs dispensed with such epic considerations is to be commended.

In Washington, we’d be watching an endless quorum call in the Senate, or be in recess subject to the call of the chair in the House, while leaders huddled in a back room hammering out details, only to be bring something to the floors to maneuver a thicket of procedural obstacles to get something only the leadership would accept. Leaders in the U.S. don’t like to lose, and they minimize their exposure to losses. In the U.K., sometimes they can’t avoid it, so they don’t, and they get over the losing quick, which is fairly healthy for democracy. 

I did get a harumph out of you

Oh, the cheers and jeers. The House of Commons is a raucous place, with MPs booing, hissing, laughing, and interjecting all the time amid debate. And they go out of their way to try to settle things with a bon mot. Even in going down in flames on Wednesday, Johnson framed it thusly: “This is the first time in history that the opposition has voted to show confidence in her majesty’s government.” That lead to a loud round of “yeeeaaaahhhhhs.” Somewhere, Howard Dean is thinking, “I could have really been a contender over there.”

A speaker who speaks

The speaker of the House rarely presides over the proceedings of the chamber, usually leaving those duties to some junior member of the majority party, or in the case of a tough vote, one of the caucus’s enforcers who knows every rule by heart. The speaker of the House of Commons has a more formal role, and is frequently in the middle of jousting among the MPs. 

In seeking to wrap up adjournment of Wednesday’s long and torturous session, Speaker John Bercow went into the windup, “The clerk will now proceed to read,” before seeing an MP seek recognition. “Oh, very well,” he said, in mock dejection, calling on Bernard Jenkin for a point of order. 

“Mr. Speaker, is there some way of tabling a motion that this house has no confidence in her majesty’s opposition?” Jenkin said, leading to gales of laughter, even from Bercow himself. “It is evident from the smile on the face of the honorable gentleman, that he is very pleased with the point that he has made,” Bercow said, seeming to enjoy himself and playing to the crowd. 


Members of Parliament who don’t agree with their leadership quit the party with way more frequency than their cousins across the pond. Johnson lost his majority over his plan to adjourn Parliament and go full steam ahead with a no-deal Brexit. Several Conservative MPs crossed the aisle on Tuesday, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, who has served in Parliament for 37 years. Johnson then expelled them from the party. Quitting on principle should be more of a thing. 

Hair gone wild

If nothing else, being a British politician means never having to comb your hair. Johnson and Bercow are great examples, but the casual state of the hirsute in the House of Commons is to be commended. 

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 09: British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., off camera, in the Capitol, January 9, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is as known as much for his unkempt hair as he is for his policies. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)