Restore, renew or start again?
The debate on Parliament’s refurbishment won’t be resolved until we decide how much we want to change it
Something happens when you first win an election. When the count is over and the stage is being dismantled, someone hands you an envelope – like Mr Slugworth whispering into the ear of the child who has just won a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
In the envelope is a letter with congratulations and instructions. It tells you which entrance to use to get into parliament for the first time, and it tells the security guard at the gate to let you in.
And from that moment, the very first time you step into the Palace of Westminster, you feel the truth of Winston Churchill’s words, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” You start to change.
At first, the wigs, processions and traditions seem hopelessly out-of-date – and not in a good way. They feel inefficient and exclusive. Only some people can access certain areas. There are doors you daren’t open. Even when you do, some are so weighty that they feel locked unless you know to push hard enough. Sitting facing each other feels hostile and confrontational. And it is.
But the longer you are there, the more you explore and learn from others, the more you understand and appreciate the history of the building and your place in it.
From Speaker’s chair to Queen’s throne, parliament is split between Ayes and Noes, Contents and Not Contents. The Government is on one side and everyone else is the Opposition. So they sit, vote and have their offices opposite. Votes are called ‘divisions’ (even the language is polarising) which are recorded by walking through separate lobbies. The building is a physical expression of the non-consensual politics practised within it.
The corridors are panelled with old heavy wood and hung with dark paintings of dead parliamentarians. Every creak and step is stewed in its own history. There is one particular corridor as you pass the Table Office that goes straight on to the old Shadow Cabinet room and takes you to the back of the prime minister’s House of Commons office. Usually only busy on a Wednesday, it is used after PMQs for meetings with backbenchers around a beautiful, highly lacquered table by an open stone fireplace.
Keep walking along the corridor and another door, immediately after the prime minister’s office, takes you to the rooms of the most senior clerk of the House. It’s no coincidence. When the place was built, these were the clerk’s residential quarters, and the place where the prime minister now has his Wednesday meetings used to be the clerk’s dining room.
I don’t know when the dining room was lost to the prime minister, but one senior clerk told me that it started the battle between the legislature and the executive that has been fought ever since. We will know that the balance of power has shifted when the dining room reverts to the Clerk of the House or falls into someone else’s hands.
There is, of course, a much newer part of Parliament, Portcullis House. A giant atrium contrasts with the darkness of the old building. The light wood and soft fabric wall hangings reflect the modern way of doing things: horseshoe-shaped tables in select committee rooms along a glass mezzanine to encourage less partisan decision-making and more transparency. Everyone below can see who is being questioned upstairs. Each generation adds and adapts its buildings to suit its own times.
But what is being discussed now is potentially much more than just adapting what there is. Parliament’s restoration and renewal programme is being reviewed in the wake of coronavirus to see if it can be done more quickly, cost-effectively and with a lot less disruption – and the possibilities have been increased by the hybrid-zoom experiment allowing MPs to stay in place or work from home on rotation.
Leaks, electrical fires, asbestos and falling bits of masonry are costing the taxpayer over £300 million a year to patch-up. I don’t think anyone is arguing that letting this magnificent world heritage site crumble is an option but so far there has been little discussion about what sort of building we want at the end of this process. Only when we make a decision on that can everything else fall into place.
It’s no surprise, though, that there is such a row over where parliament goes in the interim. Even a temporary building shapes you. Old ways of doing things become obsolete and new habits are formed. Peers are suspicious that the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre can’t replicate their chamber but could become a stepping stone to a permanent move to York.
novelties sneaked in under the cover of “just trying it out” might pave the way to a silent, and permanent, revolution.
MPs, on the other hand, have seen the blueprint for the perfect chamber reconstruction in Richmond House and some are asking why we can’t use this time to experiment with different formats. Others fear that novelties sneaked in under the cover of “just trying it out” might pave the way to a silent, and permanent, revolution.
It’s almost certainly a deflection from the far more difficult question of what kind of building we eventually want. That question can only be answered by working out the motivations behind the different arguments and being clear about what’s underneath.
The SNP, for example, would make a strong case for a more modern consensual and informal building. They believe that the Palace of Westminster should be left as a museum and a new parliament designed in its place, purpose-built and fit for the twenty-first century. Maybe the belief that the horseshoe-shape is the way to do things better is because they too have been shaped by parliament – the one at Holyrood.
And what of the conservatives, the people who want, by and large, to keep things as they are? How much of that is loving what you know, of belonging to an exclusive club whose arcane rules you understand? How much of it is the nostalgia of not wanting to have a rickety bus stop pulled down because that’s where you had your first kiss – even though no buses have stopped there for years?
This is the conversation that we ought to be having. And if we do, we might find that there are modernisations that can be made while important pieces of history can be preserved. But we do have to be honest about what lies beneath our ideas for a future parliament.
Winston Churchill did not hide his personal motivations for wanting to keep Parliament as it was after enemy bombs had fallen on it: “Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.”
For me, I came to love the place and all of its quirks and irregularities. I too would like to see the place restored more closely to what we have today than not. But would I say the same if it had been the European Parliament that had shaped my views? I’m not so sure.
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