In 2004, a rising Conservative in the United Kingdom Parliament named Theresa May participated in the British American Parliamentary Group (BAPG), a Department of State exchange program co-founded with the U.K. Parliament in 1977 and administered by Meridian International Center. Ms. May and several colleagues traveled to the United States for meetings with U.S. congressional representatives to learn about America’s political process and its domestic debates, in turn sharing their perspectives on pressing challenges facing the U.K. and Europe. After spending the first week in Washington, DC visiting Capitol Hill and various government agencies, Ms. May and her BAPG colleagues traveled to congressional districts all over the U.S. to gain an in-depth understanding of constituent issues. Twelve years later, six British and two Scottish members of Parliament tread the well-worn path of Ms. May and many other BAPG alumni, arriving in the United States to participate in the Department of State’s 2016 BAPG program.
Due to recent events in the United Kingdom, it was not surprising that congressional representatives were eager to meet with this year’s BAPG participants. Scheduled to begin in mid-July, the 2016 BAPG was perfectly timed amid the sudden appointment of a new Prime Minister, a fast-approaching vote on the U.K.’s armed nuclear deterrent, and a second push for Scottish independence. The majority of meetings with their American counterparts, however, centered on the aftermath of the recent “Brexit” referendum, priming the U.K. for an exit from the European Union. While some of the BAPG cohort had voted “Leave” and others had voted “Remain,” all stressed the need to prepare for the U.K.’s next steps rather than dwell on past events.
Despite these historic proceedings, the BAPG program did not focus exclusively on current events in the United Kingdom; the parliamentarians were quite interested in the ongoing race for the presidency, U.S. gun laws, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the differences between the U.K. and the U.S. campaign finance systems.
In addition to meetings on The Hill, the parliamentarians traveled to congressional districts where they met and discussed these topics of intrigue with local Americans. Parliamentarian Angela Crawley, a member of the Scottish National Party, traveled to Representative Scott Peters’ district in San Diego where she marched with the representative in the LGBT Pride parade and spoke with Truman Fellows on national security concerns.
As a member of the Meridian team working on BAPG, I led the parliamentarians up and down the Hill to the congressional meetings, desperately clinging to remnants of physical endurance still lingering from my cross country days. While waiting with a few U.K. parliamentarians in the lobby of one representative’s office, fretting about cancellations and hastily re-arranged meetings, an intern changed the lobby’s TV from C-SPAN to the BBC in an apparent attempt to make the parliamentarians feel at home. As I looked up from the day’s itineraries, I saw BAPG alumna Theresa May take the podium and present her first speech as the second female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, joining more than 385 exchange alumni around the world who are current or former heads of government or chiefs of state. BAPG is more than an exchange of insights and pleasantries among representatives—it is the manifestation of a profound connection between two nations and their shared history spanning almost 250 years.