There may not be a politician alive who can match Boris Johnson when it comes to understanding the beguiling power of impractical grands projets. As Mayor of London, he got away with steadfastly opposing every realistic avenue towards increasing the capital’s airport capacity by talking up “Boris Island,” the fabled estuary airport he had absolutely no power to bring about. (Presumably he has that power as Prime Minister, but we’ve heard no more about it.) Next, he finessed his shafting of Northern Ireland’s unionists by becoming a vocal enthusiast of building a road and rail bridge to Ulster. After that, he sent signals to the North by floating the idea of building the northern sections of HS2 first – before approving the London to Birmingham section. It is much to be hoped that his current musings about relocating the Houses of Parliament to York stands in this same tradition of substituting words for action.
The best that can be said for this proposal is that it’s an improvement on the earlier version, which was to move the Lords to York on their own. This plan betrayed a woeful lack of understanding about the functioning of Parliament and the relationship between the two Houses, and was perhaps entirely without international precedent. Even countries such as South Africa, which divides the branches of government between different cities, keep the legislature intact.
Such a division of personnel would also have made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to appoint peers to the Government, as they would struggle to discharge their duties in London and be held accountable in their now-distant chamber. On the face of it, moving both Houses northwards solves this problem. Assuming you can find two suitable chambers – and there’s no mention of such in any of the reports – the two could theoretically keep up some semblance of their proper relationship. But fully decanting Parliament would lead to a whole host of its own problems, not least of which is that now ministers from the Commons too would suddenly be having to account for themselves in a Chamber some distance from their departments.
The only way to avoid this would be to bring all of Whitehall north too. But this would vastly increase the amount of real estate – and thus, the expense and impracticability – of the whole proposal, not to mention being a huge distraction to a Civil Service which will be simultaneously grappling with a host of new ex-EU powers, Covid-19 and its aftermath, and whatever Year Zero is being cooked up by Dominic Cummings.
Unless the mooted ‘Government Hub’ slated for York is actually code for ‘New Whitehall’, this all seems very unlikely to happen, even by the standards of stories doled out to newspapers. Besides which, what would be the benefits? It is naïve to imagine that ‘Westminster’ is automatically in tune with the challenges of wherever it happens to be situated. ‘London’ may, in aggregate, be an extraordinarily successful part of the country but it is home to plenty of hardship.
Moving the bubble to another city won’t make it any more permeable. The BBC’s complex in Salford – blessed with excellent transport links to London – shows how self-contained (and self-defeating) such an exclave can be.
Nor should a Government supposedly preoccupied with attracting the best and brightest to the Civil Service overlook how many staff major media organisations lost and risk losing with their own moves: last summer Channel 4 reportedly faced up to 90 per cent of staff refusing to relocate to Leeds. You can bring the jobs to the north, but are there the people in the north for the jobs, and if not, would they want to move there?
Perhaps Covid-19 will change everything, but up until now – and since Sir Humphrey’s time – people have proven unwilling to sacrifice their social networks and all the amenities of the capital for the sake of a top-down regional balancing exercise. This certainly includes a great many MPs and peers. If London was to become New York – the great social and cultural and business capital, but not the political one – and Parliamentary Newtown was relegated to being Washington DC before the lobbyists took over, who’d move there other than natural clientalists? What a troupe to attract, let alone create conditions where they can naturally fester. You’d end up with a city of SpAds.
And whatever you link of London’s central place in our national life, there is no escaping the fact that much of the country’s transport infrastructure is centred around getting people to and from the capital. Whilst York may be closer to much of the North, not to mention Scotland and Northern Ireland, as the crow flies, it would actually be more onerous for many MPs to commute from there to their constituencies (a point which was raised when the initial, Lords-only proposal first appeared). The simple truth is, if you look where the UK’s population actually lives, they live towards the south. Are the people meant to follow their politicians, body, baggage and soul, should parliament and Whitehall slope north?
To cap it off, it seems extremely unlikely that what Northern voters are crying out for is for Westminster to be transplanted, at vast expense and inevitable delay, a bit closer to them. The money could and should be much better spent on smaller, more useful projects, such as those identified by the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s ‘Great British Transport Competition’, which actually cater to the region’s real needs.
By contrast a late, over-budget, white elephant of a Parliament would hang around the Tories’ necks at the next election, a physical embodiment of the Party’s hopeless priorities. The idea that such an enormous project would be well-managed is not one suggested by the way politicians and the state have dealt with the pandemic.
The only comfort is that the Prime Minister almost certainly grasps all this. We can probably count the York Parliament with the Boris Island and Carson’s Causeway as one of a practised illusionist’s conjuring tricks. Parliament, after all, belongs in the capital. And by every metric – historic, economic, or cultural – London is it.
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