Of filibusters and Black Rod

Americans often look at the British state with a mixture of bewilderment and condescension. After all, they rejected the British constitutional monarchy for something better, and America, as we all know, is the greatest country on Earth. "Ah, the Queen", they say. "How quaint!" The fascination with the Royal Family over here (will the Diana specials ever end?) doesn't help. For this reason, Tony Blair has been a boon for expatriate Britons in the US. He is almost universally loved and it gives us an opportunity to show that our government is more than just a Queen with a beautiful crown sitting on a throne. But those Americans who listen to you explain the mechanics of the British state are often left baffled, and who wouldn't be?

Where am I from: is it England or Britain, and what the devil is the United Kingdom (no, it's not in the Middle East as some Americans allegedly thought). Should I bring up the full name of my country--The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (TUKOGBANI for short). Perhaps not, because then I'll have to explain Ulster (= Northern Ireland). So I'll stick with England, where Harry Potter's from.

Who leads my country: sure, it's Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, but how do you explain that she doesn't really do anything? So, I say it's the Queen officially, but the Prime Minister in practice. The PM, by the way, can call an election any time he likes, which makes him sound a lot like a dictator, except he's not (honest!). But it is true that the PM is not directly chosen by the people, and John Major's first term in office came about not because there was a General Election but because his party (like the Communist Party) chose him when they sacked (not impeached) Margaret Thatcher.

Who makes laws: well, we don't have a Constitution, so forget that. The concept of the House of Commons sounds great (and makes a wonderful spectacle on C-Span), but mention the House of Lords and Americans shudder. "Unelected? Full of Anglical bishops? What's wrong with you people?" Ah, but there's the Parliament Act which allows the Commons to ignore the Lords anyway, so that's OK.

All in all, the UK/Great Britain/England is one fine mess of a country. But even as I admit this, I am heartened that we are not the only place full of weird anachronisms. Apparently, the Republicans want to get rid of or at least curtail that wonderfully American of weirdnesses--the filibuster [1]. First of all, what a great word (the term comes from the early 19th century Spanish and Portuguese pirates, "filibusteros", who held ships hostage for ransom). Basically, Senate rules contain no motion to force a vote, with votes only occurring when a debate ends. So if a minority party doesn't want the vote to happen then they make sure that the debate never ends, by, for example, reading from the phone book or some such. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the filibuster. A great word, a wonderful idea, and eccentric as hell.

We have Black Rod, you Yanks have the filibuster and the Electoral College. Long may they continue.

[1] Ever the cool head, John McCain has said that he would support efforts to reform the filibuster (the "tyranny of the minority", as Bill Frist calls it), if he could be sure that Republicans would be in the majority forever. His message to the GOP: don't burn your bridges!