Parliamentary Internship

London

Spring - Summer 1998

Steven Keel '99

[see below for a brief biography of Steve and his e-mail address]

 

During the past spring and summer terms I worked as a researcher for a Member of Parliament in London. For someone interested in studying the government and politics of Britain, it would be difficult to imagine a more ideal internship. Nor could I think of an opportunity better suited to complement my overall academic program, which has included courses at Dartmouth on Congress and the American Political System, The Supreme Court and Constitutional Development, and my studies at Oxford in political philosophy and comparative government. I arrived in London with a keen interest in examining the parallels and differences between our respective governments and political cultures. Anxious as I was to learn from the experience, I was also eager to work hard and to contribute as much as I could during my internship at Parliament. Fortunately, this was a position that provided an exceptional educational opportunity while I involved myself in quite substantive work and was able to make a practical contribution.

 

The typical Parliamentary researcher is a recent 'Oxbridge' (Oxford or Cambridge) graduate. The disproportionately large number of Oxbridge graduates in staff posts mirrors a similar composition among Members of Parliament, and contributes to the noticeably collegial atmosphere at Westminster. Being a researcher for a Member of Parliament is considered an ideal first job out of college because it affords considerable access to people in government and to an array of individuals and agencies, both public and private. Such visibility, which for others offers an opportunity to pursue subsequent career options, provided me the exposure to a broader range of individuals, views, and ideas than I would have encountered had my internship been one with more narrowly drawn responsibilities.

 

The Member of Parliament for whom I worked is Dr. Doug Naysmith, the newly elected Labour Member representing Bristol North West. Before being elected to Parliament, Dr. Naysmith had been a professor at Bristol University and perhaps because of his background he seemed particularly intent on assuring that my working with him would be an educational experience for me. For example, on my first day on the job I learned that a place had been reserved for me to attend, that evening, the presentation of the Budget, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Rt Hon Gordon Brown, to the House of Commons.

 

This perhaps dull sounding event is in fact one of the major occasions in the Parliamentary year. It would be analogous to combining our State of the Union address with a simultaneous passing of the budget of the federal government (imagine!). It was all the more notable because this was Labour's very first budget following the surprising proportions of its victory in the previous election&emdash;the new government's first opportunity to demonstrate in quantifiable terms what its priorities were and what it planned to accomplish.

 

While at most times it was relatively easy for me to attend debates and other proceedings in the House of Commons, this was an occasion when the floor of the House was standing-room-only for Members while the balconies were overflowing with press, staff and Member's guests. Aside from feeling honored to be there, I found it all a fascinating spectacle. This was the first time I saw Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Cabinet in person. It was also my first up-close exposure to the drama&emdash;I might say the theatrics&emdash;of Her Majesty's Government and its Opposition squaring off.

 

My activities in this internship included research, writing, and attending meetings and hearings. The research I engaged in was on a variety of policy issues and other topics of interest or concern to Dr. Naysmith. I found that I needed to quickly become a 'mini-expert' on dozens of topics. Sometimes this research entailed contacting the staff of another Member of Parliament, such as to follow up on a statement made in the chamber. Generally though it involved my utilizing the Parliamentary Library&emdash;an exceptional resource just a half a block away. Parliament's research library, a facility only accessible to Members and their staff, houses a wealth of resource material in what was, a century ago, a local, private gentlemen's club for Members of Parliament and their ilk. (Cabinets designed to store top hats are now filled with Parliamentary records.)

 

I also assisted Dr. Naysmith by reading, analyzing and summarizing some of the great volume of reports that arrived in our office, whether from special interest organizations, Whitehall, or Parliamentary groups. The amount of reading that is sent to Members of Parliament is phenomenal. I was flattered by Dr. Naysmith's confidence in my work and was glad to be able to assist in such a practical and meaningful way. I enjoyed a good rapport with Dr. Naysmith and, while it was never on the pretense that I might influence his vote, we often spoke about issues under consideration by Parliament, about upcoming votes, and about the opinions that had been expressed to us by special interest groups and constituents. I felt honored to be consulted in this manner and always found these conversations to be challenging, enlightening, and instructive.

 

The writing that I did included formal opinions, summaries of reports, responses to consultation papers, and submissions to committees that were drafting legislation. I attended many Parliamentary meetings and hearings, at first accompanying Dr. Naysmith and then, increasingly, on his behalf. It is not so much on the floor of the chamber, but in these meetings that the real work of Parliament takes place. One tremendous benefit of my being able to remain in this position for the length of time that I did (I stayed on through the end of the Parliamentary session) was that it enabled me to follow entire policy areas through their series of hearings and meetings. This, in and of itself, was an exceptional opportunity&emdash;one that left me with a clear understanding of the sort of consultation, debate, and deliberation that are at the heart of the legislative process.

 

I found myself putting in long hours during my internship out of sheer enthusiasm, but even when things became hectic I was never overburdened. I enjoyed the complexity and variety of my work. Our offices were on the opposite side of the street from the Palace of Westminster. My responsibilities often led to my spending part of the day in our offices, part in the Palace (where most of the meetings I attended were held) and part in the Parliamentary Library.

 

I was frequently able to attend Parliamentary debates and enjoyed them thoroughly. I made a special effort to catch Prime Minister's Question Time on Wednesday afternoons to witness the colorful and informative rhetorical sparring of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Leader of the Opposition, the Rt Hon William Hague. In addition to being merely entertained though, I found myself often moved, sometimes surprised, and always informed by following the live debate in this, 'the mother of all parliaments'.

 

I should add that this was a remarkable time to work at Parliament. Parliament is facing historic and compelling issues such as the devolution of Scotland and Wales, the Northern Ireland developments, and its ever-evolving relationship with the European Union. It is even contemplating changes within its institution. The composition of Parliament has changed. For example, of the one hundred and twenty-one women in the House of Commons alone, seventy-one are newly elected. Modernization of both chambers is being discussed and any number of reforms are being proposed for the House of Lords&emdash;a fascinating controversy.

 

If I did not find myself restricted to an office, neither were my activities confined to London. I made a point of getting out to Bristol twice and had a wonderful time working with the staff in Dr. Naysmith's constituency office there. These visits gave me an even more complete understanding of the role and responsibilities of a Member of Parliament.

 

On a personal note, I have returned to the States with so many wonderful memories. Just a few that stand out in my mind are meeting Baroness Barbara Castle, having dinner with Lord Chancellor the Rt Hon Lord Irvine of Lairg QC (the fourth member in Tony Blair's Cabinet) and his wife, Lady Irvine; and hearing the Rt Hon Dr. Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland present the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement to the House. In addition to memories, I return having benefited tremendously from the experience of engaging in serious and professional research in this vibrant and unique environment. Moreover, I have had the rare academic experience of studying British government&emdash;its structure, history, legislative process, and political culture&emdash;in its very midst.

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Steven Keel is a '99 completing a double major in philosphy and government. Before going to London to work at Parliament, Steven participated in a foreign study program with Dartmouth's philosophy department and an exchange program through the government and economics departments. He studied classical and moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in the fall term. Then in the winter term he studied political philosophy and comparative government at Oxford. Delighted to be back at Dartmouth for his senior year, his activities this year include leading the Daniel Webster Legal Society. Steven plans to attend law school after graduating from Dartmouth.

He may be contacted via e-mail to Steven.Keel@Dartmouth.EDU

 

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