I am a competitive person. So when my husband casually said back in January, “There is no way you will be able to get your citizenship and register to vote in time for this year’s presidential elections,” I took it as a challenge.
A few weeks ago I was thrilled and proud to become a naturalized American citizen. So now I have my beautiful new blue American passport and am officially registered to vote in the Tuesday elections. I have always taken the right to vote very seriously and probably annoyed my female friends and colleagues in London when I used to say, “British suffragettes died and were imprisoned to win women the right to vote — the least you can do is go out in the rain and exercise your right of suffrage!”
In the UK, women were granted the right to vote in 1918 just after the end of the first World War. For the first 10 years, this right only applied to women who owned real estate and were over 30 years of age, but it was a good start. The U.S. followed quickly afterwards with the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920, which famously said: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
Of course that right to vote involves a responsibility to understand, carefully consider and weigh one’s own opinions and conscience to make a decision before going to the ballot. As I have been working and studying hard to gain my U.S. citizenship over the past few months, I have been keenly aware of the many differences between the American and British political systems. Here are just a few examples:
• The U.K. does not have a written constitution like the supreme law of the land in the U.S. but instead a complex and potentially confusing “de facto” historical constitution made up of statutes, court judgments, treaties, parliamentary conventions and royal prerogatives
• The U.K. does not have a president but a prime minister and a queen. Unlike much of the rest of Europe, the monarchy has survived by evolving from the dictatorial reigns of earlier centuries to a constitutional monarchy. This dilution of royal powers means that while the sovereign (currently Queen Elizabeth II) is still head of state, the elected parliament has the ability to make and pass legislation
• The U.K. has three main parties: the Conservatives (closest to Republicans), Labour (spelled in the British style with a “u” and which is closer to the Democrats) and the Liberal Democrats that has developed out of the Liberal party set up in the late 19th century. Since 2010, the U.K. has been governed by a Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition.
• In the U.S., Congress is composed of the Senate, with 100 members elected every six years, and the House of Representatives, with 435 members elected for two-year terms
• By contrast, the U.K. has a House of Commons with 650 democratically elected members and a House of Lords, which until only 13 years ago had a hereditary-based system but, although still going through reform, will soon probably have 80 percent of members elected, with the remainder appointed by the queen
• General elections for Members of Parliament (MPs) in the U.K. have to be called within five years of the opening of the previous parliament following the last election but the exact date can be called at the discretion of the Government of the day
• British people do not vote for their prime minister — this position is taken by the head of the party who has the elected majority in the House of Commons.
Here is an amusing example of how tradition and ceremony still play their part in British politics: “Black Rod,” a senior officer in the House of Lords, dresses in robes, leg hose and chains for the State Opening of Parliament. He is sent from the Lords Chamber to the Commons Chamber to summon MPs to hear the Queen’s Speech. Traditionally the door is slammed in his face to symbolize the House of Commons’ independence from both the House of Lords and the monarchy before he bangs three times on the door with his “black rod” (a big silver baton) before it opens.
But moving to next week’s elections, I am not going to offer comment or my views on the political situation we face today. However, I do freely admit to being a fervent fan of Thomas Jefferson. It is interesting to reflect, as we enter the last days of campaigning, that he said, “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”
God bless America!
Lesley grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.