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British politics continue to fascinate ND Parliamentary interns

Bob Costa | Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Politics is a hot topic on the Notre Dame campus in 2008. Yet, not all of the discussions are about Senators Clinton, Obama and McCain. For a small group of Notre Dame juniors and seniors, many political conversations are spent debating the legacy of Tony Blair or the political influence of Oasis on British culture.

Beyond campus activities, Notre Dame students are involved in a myriad of political experiences around the globe. What may be surprising to some is that eight to 10 Notre Dame juniors each semester are interning in the House of Commons in London as part of Notre Dame’s London Program.

Don’t know what the House of Commons is? It’s that British legislative body shown every week on C-SPAN – chock full of green-upholstered leather chairs – where politicians are funnier and louder than the sometimes tame C-SPAN drama of the U.S. House and Senate. In Britain, politicians boo and jeer each other publicly when they’re angry. It’s more like a pantomime and less like “The West Wing.”

Meeting the Prime Minister

Junior Natassia Kwan spent last semester as an intern for Labour MP (Member of Parliament) Claire Curtis-Thomas in London. Kwan wasn’t making coffee and copies during her London experience; she was meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to talk public policy.

Kwan spent much of last semester working on a project involving the group “Engineers Without Borders,” spearheaded by Curtis-Thomas, an engineer herself. Prime Minister Brown was interested in learning more and invited Kwan and her boss to his private parliamentary office in the House of Commons.

Brown spoke briefly to Kwan about her studies at Notre Dame before delving into details of her project. Kwan said she was not expecting Brown to shake her hand, out of protocol, but the Prime Minister, clad in a dark-suit with specks of grey in his hair, smiled and extended his hand warmly.

“Gordon Brown was so nice,” recalled Kwan. “I would like to think it is because I looked very professional with my business suit and designer scarf, clutching a large stack of papers and cradling a laptop in my arms,” she said, laughing.

Experiences like Kwan’s are not out-of-the-ordinary in Notre Dame’s Parliamentary internship program.

Gaining appreciation

Patrick Kaiser, a senior majoring in political science and economics, worked for Alun Michael, a Labour MP.

“My favorite days were spent discussing politics and British life with office staff and friends in Parliament,” said Kaiser.

Kaiser had the special opportunity to attend a reception at 10 Downing Street when Tony Blair was Prime Minister last year. “I was able to hear Blair speak and watch him interact with his friends in a social setting, a side of politics the public rarely sees,” said Kaiser.

Senior Dorea Jackson, who interned for Ian Cawsey MP, said the internship gave her a greater appreciation for both the British and American political systems.

“I was not simply a visiting student and tourist, but I also had an inside perspective on the policies that affected every day life for British citizens,” said Jackson.

Jackson even had the opportunity to visit her MP’s local constituency and be interviewed on local radio to explain the concept of Thanksgiving to Brits.

Luke Derheimer, a junior, interned for Celia Barlow MP, a Labour Party politician.

“The best thing for me,” said Derheimer, “was the chance to attend the debate on the Queen’s speech opening Parliament for the year, which was filled with funny stories and witty exchanges.”

Learning new fields

Senior Kathleen Sullivan, who interned for Shona McIssac, a Labour MP, was inspired to study a new field during her internship.

“Shona came in with the 1997 all-women Labour short-lists, which were extremely controversial,” said Sullivan. “I looked into that controversy and ended up writing my senior thesis on women’s ability to represent women in government.”

Senior Stephanie Yoshida worked last spring for Liam Byrne MP, an Immigration Minister in the Labour government.

“The interaction with British politicians, staff workers and voters on a continual basis allowed me to fully witness and experience British culture and worldview from new lenses,” said Yoshida.

Rahul Shewakramani, a senior, interned for David Kidney MP in fall 2006. Shewakramani said that Notre Dame London Program tends to be “pretty insular” since most students “don’t get to interact with ordinary Londoners unless they have internships.”

Shewakramani was able to have lengthy discussions with Kidney and ministers, including Hilary Benn MP, Minister for International Development at the time.

“I was fascinated by the fact that as a senior minister [Kidney] was traveling in coach class, without any security,” recounted Shewakramani. “People gave him a lot of privacy. It really changed my perception of ministers and democracy – I’m from India where all ministers have an entourage of 20-30 people wherever they go, without a private moment on public transport.”

Exploring international politics

Dr. Cornelius O’Boyle serves as Assistant Director of Notre Dame’s London Program and has mentored many classes of Parliamentary interns.

“This internship program is part of the internationalization of Notre Dame,” said O’Boyle. “It gives an international perspective to students’ political imaginations.”

O’Boyle noted in our interview that the internships are not just meant for political science majors, but have gone to English, Program of Liberal Studies, economics and pre-med majors, too.

Suzanne Fox, a junior majoring in theology and pre-med, interned in fall 2007 for David Mundell, the lone Conservative MP from Scotland. Scotland began a process of separation from England after the 1997 general election, often called “devolution.” Fox was able to observe the often complicated relationship between England and Scotland up-close.

“I got first-hand experience with devolved politics,” said Fox. “To put it lightly, I was thrown in head-first. By the end, I felt as though I had a very deep experiential grasp for what ‘devolved’ politics really looks like and what Scottish independence would mean for both England and Scotland.”

“[MP Mundell] and I would often swap views on the upcoming American election, favorite restaurants, plays, and films,” said Fox.

A “special relationship”

Winston Churchill, the former British Prime Minister during World War II, once famously said that the friendship between Britain and America was a “special relationship.”

For Notre Dame’s many classes of parliamentary interns, that “special relationship” is redefined each year, said O’Boyle.

“Brits have an enduring fascination with America,” said O’Boyle, a Brit himself who previously spent many years on campus teaching at Notre Dame. “That fascination takes different forms and shapes. It’s gone from ‘real politik’ to cultural symbiosis.”

Contact Bob Costa at [email protected]