We visited the Parliament building for a tour and a meeting with a member of Parliament (MP). The building itself is, of course, lovely. The main chapel area is the oldest part, having survived the London fires, at something like 1200 years old. Here is where kings and queens lie in state after they die but before they are buried, and Winston Churchill was the only non-royal to do so (apparently they break a lot of rules for the old war horse). It was also the place of famous trials, including kings and William Wallace (Braveheart).
We were able to meet with an MP of the ruling Labor party, though he's not a member of government. For those who don't know (or haven't previously cared to know), the British govt is not known for its separation of powers, and this, in fact, does not exist. The people vote for parties, who then choose the representatives. The majority party (or a coalition to create the majority) choose the members of government, including the Prime Minister. This means the executive branch IS the legislative branch, and the legislative branch has no ability to oppose the executive except, essentially, in debate. Additionally, there is no written Constitution in Britain, so the courts have no ability to declare a law unconstitutional or sanction executive action. Absolutely no separation of powers.
This works for some Britons, but not others. In particular, the MP to which we spoke spent a long time praising the American system of checks and balances and expressing his wish that the citizens of Britain be better able to control and have a hand in their own governance. He was very outspoken in his criticisms of the system (though not specifically the current govt led by PM Gordon Brown). He also blamed the media, saying it was like "Fox news on LSD" and hindered the ability of the citizens to focus on important political debates rather than distracting scandals. It was a very cool meeting, and the students really fed off of his energy.
Finally, we were able to sit in on a session of the House of Commons, which, though sparsely attended by MPs, was like I'd always imagined/seen in films. MPs grilled the minister of energy (or something like that) on the newest plan for climate control, sometimes being quite aggressive and rude to one another. Yes, some people wore wigs. I love what I do.