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Countries are generally proud of their political systems and bodies of government. This is often reflected in the grand buildings used to house the focus of the governing body, or the varied agencies thereof. This pride is also reflected in the opening of the legislature, parliament or congress buildings to the public. Whilst buildings are often opened to encourage the electorate to participate in politics, some are also opened to foreign visitors. The tradition, history and heritage associated with machinery and operation of Governments worldwide, are of interest to a number of travellers.
This topic introduces some of the significant seats of government and sites of political history which you can explore on your travels. This article does not cover participation in politics, of which travelling to conferences and conventions is part.
Although a full explanation and discussion of the precise organization of government (and of political representation) in specific countries is better suited to a civics textbook and beyond the scope of a travel guide, in very simple terms, government can be broadly grouped into various functions or branches, consisting of an "Executive" that maintains and provides certain civic services, maintains public order and so on; a "Legislature" that decides the direction and what laws are needed to maintain it; the third branch is the "Judiciary" (which enforces laws), History of justice covers some of the sites associated with it.
Government, is perhaps as old as complex human society and there is archaeological evidence for this in the earliest permanent settlements. Groups of wise-elders or respected community members deciding on rules for their society also date from antiquity.
Tynwald, the parliament of the Isle of Man claims to be the longest continuously operating parliament, with a claimed start in 979, although there is little evidence of an exact first sitting date.
Bicameral legislatures often go back to the English model where one body represents "the people" and/or lower nobility and the other three church and high nobility. The United States copied the model but absent a domestic aristocracy decided to have state legislatures appoint delegates to the upper house which was only changed to direct elections in the 20th century. It is this modified version of an upper house representing sub-national units that has subsequently been copied in many countries.
The French Revolution meanwhile produced a rather powerful unicameral legislature which was at times seen as a reason for some of the more radical phases and elements of the revolution.
The concept of a "loyal opposition", the possibility to publicly and openly be against government policy without being seen as opposing the state and public order as such, is relatively recent and not respected everywhere. The essence of modern democratic government is a "marketplace of ideas" where everybody can express their views without fear of reprisal and the people as the ultimate sovereign decide through elections and referenda which idea or set of ideas is put into practice. By comparison, in governments perceived as undemocratic (by various standards), an "Executive" branch takes many decisions for themselves, treating an "opposition" or even nominal "Legislatures" as merely advisory of wider opinions.
Political systems can also be divided into "presidential" and "parliamentary". In the former the president is not merely a figurehead but the highest executive and empowered to do certain things even with a majority in all representative bodies against her. There may or may not be a means for parliament to remove the president, or overrule their actions and decisions. In a parliamentary system the government is dependent on parliamentary approval or at least the absence of a no - confidence vote. If a president exists he is usually just a figurehead with no actual power.
"Semi-presidential" systems try to combine the above mentioned but can usually be said to be either more presidential or more parliamentary by the time the first serious clash between president and prime minister occurs.
- See also: Monarchies
Seats of Government (Contemporary)
The national (or in some countries the Federal) capital, is where the national (Federal) Government is typically seated. Whether a long established historic city, or purpose built district such capitals contain many associated government buildings and sites of traveller interest, and which may offer various tours thereof.
Some more significant government seats are:
- Westminster and Whitehall, London. The 'Mother of all Parliaments' sited in the Palace of Westminster. There are also devolved seats of government in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast Some local government (city and county councils) headquarters are in impressive buildings and have regular or occasional tours, and meetings can be watched from a public gallery.
- Paris, France.
- Strasbourg, France - The current seat of the European Parliament, even if much of the European Union's executive is based in Brussels, or Luxembourg.
- Ottawa, Canada. The parliament is a Gothic revival set of buildings, located on Parliament Hill and begun in 1859. Free tours are available.
- Canberra, Australia. The parliament is an impressive 4700 room building opened in 1988. Parliament is open daily, and visitors can wander around a large part of the building.
- Wellington, New Zealand. The parliament is housed in three buildings built in 1899, 1922 and 1977 which can be seen on free guided tours. Afterwards eat in the Backbencher pub, with political themed dishes and regular visit from politicians.
- Brasilia, Brazil
- Delhi, India. The Parliament of India is in the Sansad Bhawan (Parliament Building) , Delhi, India. There is a Parliament Museum located in the Parliament of India Library Building.
- Thingvellir, Iceland
- Forum Romanum, Rome (or what's left of it)
- Athens Agora (or what's left of it)
- Paulskirche Frankfurt am Main (site of the 1848 revolutionary parliament)
- Paris revolutionary tour (itinerary yet to be created, about those revolution related sites which survived Baron Haussmann)
- West Germany was governed from Bonn during partition (1949-1990) and the government only officially moved in 1998, with some institutions still having second seats in Bonn. It is perhaps unique in having well preserved government buildings in a wealthy and powerful nation that are not in use any more. The 1 Kanzlerbungalow. Kanzlerbungalow, the former residence of chancellors (including Brandt, Adenauer and Kohl). Can be visited on guided tours
- The perpetual imperial diet at Regensburg was in session almost continuously from 1663 to 1803 and while in no way representative or democratic was one of the longest lived pre-parliamentary bodies in Continental Europe. The old city hall in Regensburg still contains the room where most sessions were held
- Sometimes visitors can watch a debate in progress from a public gallery. This may be restricted to those in the local electorate or may require advance booking.
- If you are visiting your own capital, you may get better access to facilities if you contact the office of your elected representative in advance.
- There are often airport style security checks at the entrance to major government buildings. Random bag checks once inside are also common.
- Government buildings may attract protesters. Usually these protests are peaceful (and can be on all manner of issues), and have little impact on those visiting the buildings. However this is not always the case and foreigners should also be cautious of any interactions with protesters in countries where this may make them a subject of interest to the local police or other authorities.
- As a visitor, remember you are a guest, and respect for the opportunity offered is encouraged. Inappropriate behaviour is likely to reflect badly not just on you, but affect what access is granted to subsequent visitors. In some places, even a wrong word about certain political factions or issues might land you in trouble.
- Spend a little time studying the history and politics of the country you are visiting before going on a tour of government buildings. This will increase your understanding of the tour. Some of this information can be determined from the relevant country articles.
- Government buildings are places of serious work, whilst you don't need to dress for a business meeting, you may want to wear something smarter than you would on the beach.
- Whether you agree with the security theater often present at such places, they are arguably high value targets of terrorism and political violence. Tours may also be changed or cancelled on short notice or no notice at all
- For related security reasons, tours of some locations or facilities may also be of limited availability, such as only to residents or citizens of a relevant country.