The Fascinating Story of Britain’s Worst Highway

Congratulations to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their recent engagement! I’ll admit to having been surprised by the news, as I remember the last time an American celebrity tried to marry into the British royal family. Still, I certainly hope for the best for the new royal couple. I have to wonder what her family must think about the match, as this will mean that to see their daughter for the holidays, they will have to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. And then, when they arrive, they will almost certainly have to sit for hours in traffic on the M25, the most infamous highway in the UK.

The M25 is a freeway that makes a big loop around the Greater London area. It connects London Heathrow Airport, the busiest airport in Europe by passenger traffic, to the rest of the United Kingdom’s capital city of nine million people. The M25 is by far Britain’s most infamous road, with traffic that easily rivals that of American cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. It has become a punchline for many a British stand-up comedian, and such a nuisance for British travelers that some will try to avoid it at all costs.

I first learned of this highway from Top Gear, a British show about cars that I became a huge fan of a few years ago. Many a punchline was made at the M25’s expense on that show. However, I just thought the road was some ordinary highway with bad traffic. Only recently did I learn that the story of how the M25 was created, and how it ended up being such a nightmare to drive on, is actually quite the tale of how city planning can go horribly wrong.

Let’s start at the very, very beginning – the founding of London itself. The ancient Romans founded the city, which they named Londinium, in 43 A.D. For nearly a millennium and a half, the city was largely confined to the area within the walls the Romans had built, but in Tudor times the city started to experience rapid growth, particularly in Southwark, the neighborhood across the Thames River where William Shakespeare’s theater was based. In 1530, London had about 50,000 residents; by 1605, this had grown to 225,000. The city only kept growing from there.

In those days, there was no central planning commission zoning out what development went where. People just built wherever there was open land. Neighborhoods, and the roads that connected them, grew up organically. This meant that by the time the car was invented in the late 19th century, much of modern-day London had already been built up into dense urban centers. The city’s roads were built for pedestrians and horses, not for these big, bulky, newfangled machines of the modern age. This became a real problem as the car took off in popularity and everyone started demanding to own one. More and more cars were trying to use roads that were too narrow and too crowded, and traffic became a real headache.

Luckily, the Greater London Council had a plan to fix this: the London Ringways project. The brainchild of civil engineer Patrick Abercrombie, the project intended to build a set of four freeways that would form four concentric circles from London’s outermost edge to the heart of the city’s downtown (hence the project’s name). This, Abercrombie and the Council believed, would alleviate the city’s traffic problem and make the lives of every driver in London much easier. The plan was first published in 1966 and formally adopted in 1969.

There was a bit of a problem, though. Building the London Ringways, especially the inner freeways that were closer to the city center, would require clear, open space upon which an eight-lane sheet of concrete and pavement could be laid. The land chosen for this construction project was anything but clear – in fact, it included many historic neighborhoods and commercial districts. For the Ringways to be built, 100,000 people would have to be evicted from their homes. Combine this with a staggering price tag of £1.7 billion (in 1970’s pounds!), and one can see why public opposition to the project grew.

Nevertheless, the city began construction on parts of the two outermost freeways that were planned as part of the project. These were far less controversial, as they were located out in the green pastures beyond the developed parts of London. As the construction workers began the Ringways project in earnest, the city leadership continued to fight with the public over the plans, until eventually the British Parliament intervened. It was the spectacular cost of the project that ultimately doomed it – citing the exorbitant expense, Parliament cut all funding to the project in 1973, forcing its cancellation.

This still left those partial freeways that had already been built, though. Not wanting to have wasted all that time, effort, and taxpayer money, it was decided to link those bits together into a new, single freeway encircling the outer edges of London. This new highway was opened in 1986, and dubbed the M25.

This, ultimately, is what went wrong with the M25 and why it is such a congested nightmare. It is a single freeway carrying a traffic load that was meant for four!

These days, London’s city officials try to alleviate the city’s traffic problem by encouraging the use of its public transportation network instead – the famous “tube” and double-decker buses. Those who choose to drive in London are subjected to a “congestion charge” of £11.50 per day. A study in 2013 concluded that this scheme had reduced traffic congestion in London by 10%. Ultimately, though, in a city as populous and as old as London, there really is only so much one can do. So, when you go to visit your family for Christmas this year, have some sympathy for our friends across the pond who are trying to do the same.


Why Do We Change Our Clocks Twice A Year?

This morning I had to turn all of my clocks back an hour. This wasn’t so hard for some of my clocks; my cell phone updated automatically, and my wall clock has a little dial I can use to quickly adjust the time. However, the clocks in my car and on my oven are a bit more complicated, and figuring out how to change them can be quite frustrating, especially since I only change them twice a year.

Which begs the question: why do we change our clocks by an hour twice a year? Why do we “Spring Ahead and Fall Back”? What is the point of this bizarre exercise?

The idea of Daylight Saving Time – adjusting our clocks by an hour in order to have an extra hour of daylight in the summer – was proposed in 1895 by George Vernon Hudson, a famed entomologist and astronomer from New Zealand. The idea came to him while he was working a day job that had him working different shifts on different days. When not working, he would spend his daylight hours collecting insects to study, and he began to grumble that there weren’t enough hours of daylight in the afternoons. He reasoned that since, in the summertime, sunrise tends to happen before most people wake up, adjusting the clocks an hour later would make the sunrise appear to happen closer to when everyone is getting up in the morning and give people more daylight to enjoy in the evening.

People slowly started to warm to the idea. In part, this was because Hudson was not the only person who advocated such a scheme. In fact, none other than Benjamin Franklin had proposed something rather like Daylight Saving Time more than a century earlier. The first real push to turn this little idea into actual government policy, though, was in the United Kingdom, where William Willett published a pamphlet in 1907 entitled “Waste of Daylight” to drum up support for the proposal.

The first town to actually try this “Daylight Saving Time” idea for itself was Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, in 1908. In 1914, Regina, Saskatchewan decided to adopt it as well, and in 1916, so did Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That same year, Germany and Austria-Hungary became the first nations to adopt Daylight Saving Time nationwide; ironically, they did so to aid in their war effort against the very British Empire that they stole the idea from. The logic was that by adjusting their clocks and gaining that evening hour of daylight, they would use less artificial lighting and thus save fuel. Soon thereafter, the British and French adopted DST as well for the same reason. The United States adopted it in 1918.

Then, the First World War ended, and almost all of the countries that had adopted DST quickly abolished it. Why? Well, in part because it was meant as a temporary wartime measure, not as something permanent, but in part it also had to do with opposition to the scheme from many sectors of society. Here in the United States, for example, DST was supported by retailers (because workers who had extra daylight after work were more likely to go shopping) but opposed by farmers (because they had less time in the pre-dawn hours to get their goods to market) and by the young motion picture industry (because it was thought people wouldn’t want to spend their daytime in a dark theater). When World War II broke out, the warring nations once again adopted DST, once again as a temporary measure to save fuel, and once again dropped it once the war was over.

So, if Daylight Saving Time was abolished after WWII, why do we use it today? Thank Wall Street. See, New York City really liked DST and kept it around even as the rest of the United States ditched it. This meant that the stock market in the United States observed the twice-yearly clock change, and so did banks and the rest of the American finance industry. Other cities followed the Big Apple’s lead, and soon the United States was a crazy patchwork of places that did and that didn’t observe DST, and to make matters worse, there was no consistency for when DST started and ended for those places that did observe it. It became rather frustrating for months out of the year, as it became very difficult for travelers to know exactly what time it would be when they reached their destination.

To end the confusion, in 1966, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act. Under this scheme, Daylight Saving Time would be regulated by the federal government and adopted nationwide, though individual states could opt-out of having to observe it. The feds would set the starting and ending dates of DST for those states that participated. Today, all states observe DST except Arizona and Hawaii.

Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Most of Arizona doesn’t observe DST, but the Navajo Nation, an Indian reservation that lies in three states, does observe DST in order to have consistent time throughout the tribal lands. However, the Hopi Indian Reservation is located inside the Navajo Nation and does lie entirely within Arizona, and therefore doesn’t observe DST. If that wasn’t confusing enough, a tiny piece of the Navajo Nation actually lies within the Hopi Indian Reservation! This is the last remnant of the Daylight Saving Time confusion once common in the United States – if you were to travel in a straight line through this one spot, you could end up changing your clock seven times! So, nothing is ever that simple.

So, why do we still observe DST all these years later, willingly giving ourselves a twice-yearly challenge to try to figure out how to change our clocks and trying to remember which direction to turn the clock? The same reason that we adopted it during the world wars: saving energy.

About 3.5% of all electricity consumption in North America is made up of electrical lighting use by residential homes. Since the 1970s, many studies have shown energy savings from the use of DST by many Americans. However, these findings aren’t consistent everywhere – in my home state of California, a 2007 study showed no significant energy savings, which makes sense considering that what may be gained from less light usage would be offset in many of the hotter parts of the state by heavy air conditioning usage.

Whether Daylight Saving Time is actually useful or not, though, it is clearly here to stay. So, may I make a simple request of all makers of ovens, cars, and other devices with clocks on them? Please make it easier for us to change the time forward and back for an hour! Is that too much to ask?

Behind the Headline: Why is Catalonia Vying for Independence?

Boy, it has been forever since I’ve done one of these, huh?

So, yesterday, the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, announced a plan to all but shut down the government of Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain in the northeastern part of the country, and temporarily impose direct rule from Madrid. For his part, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has announced in a speech that his government won’t accept the plan and hinted that they may formally try to break away from Spain. A massive protest flooded the streets of Barcelona, the largest city in Catalonia, with hundreds of thousands of marchers opposed to Rajoy’s proposal, which must be approved by the Spanish Senate to take effect.

These events are in response to a referendum held in Catalonia on October 1, in which 90% of voters supported Catalan independence (though the vote was considered illegal by Spain’s courts and many anti-independence Catalans boycotted the vote). After the referendum passed, Puigdemont and the Catalan government wrote a declaration of independence, but then immediately “suspended” the document, supposedly to allow for negotiations with the Spanish government. Rajoy’s latest moves are in response to Catalan leaders ignoring calls by Spain to clarify their position. Both sides have accused the other of stomping all over democracy and ignoring the rule of law. Catalan protesters have announced that if Spanish authorities try to have Puigdemont arrested, they will use themselves as a human shield to stop them.

Why is this happening? What is driving Catalonia’s independence movement? Why is Spain so adamant on stopping them?

It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

A history of Catalonia (and its relationship to Spain)

Our story begins in 711 AD. Yes, really.

That was the year that Muslim armies from North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, they took over almost all of the peninsula, with the exception of a small pocket in the Cantabrian Mountains along the northern coast, where some Christians managed to hold out under the Visigoth leader Pelagius. It was this pocket of Christian resistance that would be the seed from which Spain would grow, as generation after generation fought over the centuries for the Christian reconquista (reconquest) of the peninsula.

However, Catalonia has altogether different roots. In 732, a Muslim invasion of France was defeated at the Battle of Tours by Charles Martel. His grandson, Charlemagne, was one of the greatest conquerors of early medieval Europe, and he wanted to ensure that his new empire was safe from any would-be Muslim threats, so he created a buffer zone along the border known as the Spanish March. It was here that the County of Barcelona was created, and over the centuries its power and influence expanded, thanks in part to Barcelona’s status as an important trading port in the western Mediterranean, and in part to a series of political marriages, wars, and treaties. By the 12th century, Barcelona had become the economic hub of the Crown of Aragon, a medieval federation of Catalonia, some neighboring regions, and eventually, even most of southern Italy.

The official flag of Catalonia, known as the Senyera, is based on the Crown of Aragon’s coat of arms – a gold shield with four red stripes. According to legend, when Count Wilfred the Hairy of Barcelona was wounded in battle, the French king Charles the Bald paid the count a visit to thank him for his bravery. During the meeting, Wilfred’s blood-soaked hands stained his copper shield, creating the red stripes. Today, the Catalan independence movement uses the Estelada, a flag that adds a star to the Senyera to symbolize national freedom and independence.

Of course, as we all know, in the 15th century King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile, creating modern Spain. Having said that, for several centuries, “Spain” was legally not a single country but a collection of autonomous kingdoms that happened to share the same monarch. During these years, Aragon, while unified with the rest of Spain, continued to enjoy a high degree of autonomy with its own separate laws. However, as time wore on, this autonomy eroded as successive Spanish kings demanded more centralization of political power, and eventually king Philip V formally abolished the separate kingdoms and created a unified Spanish nation-state in 1716.

This is a large part of why the relationship between Spain and Catalonia is so complicated. Catalonia was its own separate thing for centuries. It has its own national culture, its own traditions, its own cuisine, its own holidays, and even its own language. In fact, the Catalan language is actually more closely related to the dialects of southern France than it is to Spanish. Yet, at the same time, Catalonia has been a part of Spain for hundreds of years, and numoerous generations have thought of Catalans as fellow Spaniards.

In living memory, however, the real touchy hot-button subject is the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Franco promoted an ideal of Spanish nationalism that emphasized unity and rejected diversity. Spanish national culture was “whatever Franco happened to like” (flamenco dancing, bullfighting, the Roman Catholic Church), and all other traditions were banned and suppressed. Catalonia, which had sided against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, was especially targeted. The use of Catalan in public was banned, as were traditional Catalan dances and festivals. This is a part of why the soccer team FC Barcelona came to be so popular; for many Catalans, it was the only legal way to express their national pride and sort-of voice their distaste for the Franco regime.

After Franco died and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution was drawn up that, among other things, allowed the Spanish government to grant various regions of Spain autonomy and self-government. This is why Catalonia is able to elect its own regional government with control of many local affairs. That is, until these latest developments happened.

So, why is Catalonia seeking indepedence now?

In a word, economics.

The Great Recession hit Spain especially hard, and it has suffered from a major unemployment crisis as well as ballooning public debt. Yet Catalonia has, by and large, managed to weather the storm, and it is one of the most well-off parts of Spain, with a robust manufacturing sector and plenty of tourism. Catalonia alone is responsible for 20% of Spain’s GDP.

Madrid has taken full advantage of this, using billions of euros of Catalan tax money to help prop up struggling regions elsewhere in Spain. This is completely natural and rational from the Spanish government’s point of view, and indeed, using resources from better-off parts of a country to help those in worse-off areas is perfectly normal in many countries. Here in the United States, there are many states that depend on money from the federal government to function, but a few, such as New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, and Kansas, actually pay more in federal taxes than they get back in federal spending. I’m certainly not aware of any major secessionist movements in Kansas right now.

The difference is that many Catalans don’t see themselves as Spaniards (thanks to their own national culture that evolved separately) and don’t trust Madrid (due to the decades of repression under Franco). To these Catalans, it is completely unfair for them to be paying for the rest of Spain – they want their taxes to pay for Catalonia’s needs. They feel Spain is an anchor that they are forced to drag, and would be better off going it alone.

Having said that, some economic experts question whether Catalonia really would be better off without Spain. If Catalonia gains its independence, it will need to provide for itself those government services that Madrid currently provides, such as a military, embassies around the world, and the like. About a third of the products Catalonia makes are sold in other parts of Spain, so there is an immediate question regarding trade across the new Spanish-Catalan border. An independent Catalonia would also be outside the European Union, and if it wants to stay in the EU it would have to apply for EU membership. Mind you, being admitted as an EU member requires the unanimous consent of all existing EU members, including Spain. You know, the very country they would have just gained their independence from?

Still, Puigdemont seems adamant in pursuing Catalan independence with zeal and determination, reportedly even over the objections of other leaders in his own political party and government. What will be the outcome of this latest political crisis? Will Catalonia gain its independence or will Spain succeed in stopping this train in its tracks? It looks like we will all find out soon.

What even is Oktoberfest, anyway?

Today is the first day of October, and already pumpkins are on sale at the local farmer’s market, the stores are selling Halloween decorations and candy, and almost every craft brewery in America is rolling out its seasonal “Oktoberfest” beers. In various cities and towns across America, Oktoberfest celebrations and festivities are being held as we speak. There is even one near where I live.

All of which begs the question: what is Oktoberfest? Is it just some fancy way of saying “October”? A traditional harvest festival? An excuse to drink beer?

Actually, it celebrates, of all things, a wedding.

On October 12, 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The Bavarian royal family decided to celebrate this royal wedding with a giant public festival in a field in front of Munich’s city gates. The celebration lasted for days, ending with a huge horse race.

It was this last decision that proved fateful. Otherwise, the festival would have just been a one-time wedding party. However, the people of Bavaria loved the horse race and wanted another one the following year, and the city of Munich was happy to oblige. In 1811, an autumn harvest festival, featuring a horse race, was held. This was the beginning of Oktoberfest’s history as an annual event held in Munich in the fall.

Ironically enough, given its name, these days the original Oktoberfest in Munich is held in late September. These days, it largely resembles a state fair here in the United States, with roller coasters and rides, games, and food.

And, of course, beer – the one thing the festival is by far the most famous for. See, the early Oktoberfests happened to coincide with the invention of lager beer, which many at the time saw as superior to the ales that people had been brewing since ancient times. However, lager needs to be brewed in cold conditions, and in an age before refrigeration, that meant you had to wait until fall to start making it. Thus, Oktoberfest became, in part, a celebration of the changeover from ale-brewing to lager-brewing.

That’s why Oktoberfest is so closely associated with beer culture, and why so many breweries carry “Oktoberfest” beers. However, if you attend the Oktoberfest in Munich, you won’t find any of those beers anywhere. See, only a small handful of breweries in Munich are actually permitted to sell their beer at the festival. After all, it’s the city’s festival, and they want to promote their city’s business!

So that’s the story of the original Oktoberfest… but what about other Oktoberfest celebrations here in America and around the world? Well, over the generations, thousands of Germans emigrated to America, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries. As one might expect from people who have journeyed thousands of miles to start a new life in a strange foreign land, these German immigrants would often get homesick. So, they began to hold their own “Oktoberfests” in the lands where they now lived, in order to celebrate their German heritage. Today, the largest Oktoberfest celebrations are in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Blumenau, Brazil, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

It’s sometimes funny how history and culture works out. Sometimes, you find out that things you might not have ever considered before have truly bizarre origins. Like a big, international celebration that millions participate in today existing because of a wedding and a horse race.

Strange Politics: The House of Lords

Sometimes, when you look at America’s Electoral College, our complex primaries, the U.S. Senate’s filibuster and cloture rules, and other seemingly bizarre aspects of how our nation’s government is run, it makes you wonder why we have such an antiquated political system that inherits so many of its rules from centuries past. Then you look at the British political system, and you realize that we learned it from the best!

The British political system dates back to the Middle Ages, and it shows. The ridiculously elaborate State Opening of Parliament ceremonies are a perfect example of this – functionally, it is just the Queen formally opening the year’s session of the British legislature with a speech, but it involves a day’s worth of people in funny-looking uniforms marching to and fro performing centuries-old rituals. It is quite the show for tourists.

Yet it isn’t just the ceremonies associated with the British Parliament that has holdovers from long ago; its very organization is based on medieval principles. Parliament is made up of three parts: (1) The Queen, (2) the House of Commons, democratically elected by the British people to represent the general public, and (3) The House of Lords, representing the British aristocracy. Yes, even in the 21st century, the British government maintains as one of its core institutions a body that draws its legitimacy from feudalism.

The official title of this legislative body is… (*deep breath*)… The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. (Whew!)

Yeah, I’m just going to call it “The House of Lords”.

Its members are referred to as “peers” because the British system of nobility is officially referred to as the Peerage of the Realm. No, I have no idea where that term came from; the word “peer” means “someone who is your equal” and comes from the Latin word for “equal”. This is rather odd considering that British peers are anything but equal – not only do they supposedly outrank ordinary commoners, they have a complicated rank structure in and among themselves! Dukes outrank marquesses, marquesses outrank earls, earls outrank viscounts, and viscounts outrank barons. What’s more, even within the same rank of nobility, there is an elaborate internal hierarchy, with older peerages being above newer titles, and English peers being above Scottish and Irish peers.

Still, no matter where a particular peer fits into this ranking system, those who sit in the House of Lords have an important job to do. They review bills passed by the House of Commons before those bills become law. Now, the House of Lords can’t actually block the House of Commons from passing a bill into law – only the Queen has that power, and she has never once exercised it – but the House of Lords can revise the bill, make amendments to it, and even send it back to the House of Commons with their objections and the implied message “Let’s try this again, shall we?”

Unlike the House of Commons, whose membership is fixed at 650 MPs, the House of Lords has no set limit on the number of peers in its membership. As of this writing, there are 798 peers in the House of Lords, all of whom serve for life. The meeting area for the House of Lords is much nicer than that of the Commons, and its peers sometimes wear fancy ceremonial red robes.

I’m a-lookin’ super fine!

Being a peer is a sweet gig. You get to make everybody address you by a fancy title, you get a coat of arms, and you get £300 a day from the British taxpayer to pay for whatever expenses you may incur as part of your job. In 2015, Baroness Wilcox was criticized for claiming that £300 a day for “travel expenses” even though she lived within walking distance of the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament meets. Oops.

So, let’s say you want to be a peer in the House of Lords. How do you get the job?

Be a bishop of the Church of England – 26 bishops of the Church of England, the official state-run religion of England whose “Supreme Governor” is none other than the Queen, get seats in the House of Lords automatically as part of their jobs. They are referred to as the “Lords Spiritual”, to distinguish them from all of the other members, who are known as “Lords Temporal”. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York get seats, as do the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester. The remaining seats are given to the bishops with the most seniority.

Because this guy looks like a politician, right?

So, how do you become a bishop of the Church of England? Officially, you are picked by the Queen, but in practice, she picks the person whose name is recommended to her by the Prime Minister, who in turn recommends the person at the top of a list of suggestions provided by a committee made up of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and other high-ranking church leaders. In essence, if you aren’t an Anglican priest with many years of pious service to your name, the odds of you being picked are slim to none.

Be a hereditary peer – On the other hand, the easiest way to become a peer is to inherit the job from your parents. This is what most people think of when they think of the British aristocracy – the nobles who live in giant estates and pass their titles, lands, and coats of arms on to the next generation when they die.

There are two hereditary peers who automatically get a seat in the House of Lords when they inherit their titles: the Earl Marshall and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Ninety additional seats in the House of Lords are reserved for other hereditary peers, elected to office for life by the rest of the members of the House of Lords.

Earn a Life Peerage – The vast majority of the members of the House of Lords, however, are so-called “life peers”. As one would expect from the name, life peers get a fancy title and a coat of arms just like hereditary peers do, but can’t pass these on to their children. Life peers always are given the rank of baron, are allowed to sit in the House of Lords automatically upon their appointment, and are given their title by the Queen as some sort of reward for public service.

However, it isn’t quite that simple. There are actually two kinds of life peers, who are selected in different ways. For simplicity’s sake, I will call them “people’s peers” and “political peers”.

  • People’s peers are chosen by the Queen on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, a non-partisan body that selects people on the basis of their expertise in some important field or their outstanding achievements. They include engineers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, journalists, professors, and athletes, among others.
  • Political peers, in contrast, are chosen by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. These are almost always former cabinet ministers, MPs, and political party leaders whose peerages are a reward for their political service. In practice, of course, Prime Ministers almost always pick peers from their own political party and on occasion will create peerages to pack the House of Lords with their supporters to tip the balance of power in their favor. Tony Blair picked 357 life peers, Gordon Brown 34, David Cameron 242, and Theresa May 17 (so far). Needless to say political peers make up the majority in the House of Lords, and are the most controversial. Some have been accused of functionally buying their peerages by donating large sums of money to the Prime Minister’s political party.

Of course, there are a few additional rules that apply to all of the above. To sit in the House of Lords, peers must be at least 21 years old, and a citizen of the UK, Ireland or one of the 53 countries in the Commonwealth, an international organization of former British colonies. Also, you can’t sit in the House of Lords if you are going through a bankruptcy or have been convicted of high treason.

The House of Lords is, without a doubt, one of the strangest political institutions I have ever run across. A holdover of medieval England in a modern democracy, it is a perfect showcase of how history can still shape the modern age. Though there have been numerous moves to reform it over the decades, it is just so quintessentially British that I have no doubt it will continue to play an important role in British politics for the foreseeable future.

Cat Flag would just like to take a moment to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of recent hurricanes. If you want to help, the American Red Cross is actively working to help those affected and has a page to take donations here that go directly to helping victims of Hurricane Irma.