I quite liked Bernard Porter’s suggestion in the London Review of Books that MPs should be removed from the Palace of Westminster during its impending refurbishment. But not for the reason he gave. To suggest that it is only by relocating parliament that “they would see the shuttered-up shops, the desolation caused by deindustrialisation, as well as the many positive and promising aspects of provincial life” is to miss – probably deliberately – a fundamental point about the nature of our politics. Take a look at some of the more progressive moments in our parliamentary history. Maybe they had to drag Disraeli around the Potteries in order to pilot the Reform Act of 1867 but I can’t be sure. My A Level History finished in 1860.
The MPs that meet in the House of Commons are representatives of constituencies. Even if you despair of the world’s foolishness, as Porter appears to, you have to appreciate that the people who actually sit in the Commons DO spend some time in the places that they represent. Indeed, as we found out during the expenses scandal, it is something our politicians do all too well. Now you may not agree with the policies they produce but it is not simply a case of them being oblivious. It’s not the physical proximity of the political class which makes them out of touch with the voters, but their ideas. Porter’s suggestion does have something to it though.
The recent debate in the House of Lords called by Dame Betty Boothroyd is revealing. The prompt to the debate was UNESCO’s threat to withdraw World Heritage site status to the Palace of Westminster because of tall development’s at the Shell site and the adjacent Elizabeth House. Where you might imagine that there would be some discussion of how a city balances its need to move forward with its need to conserve the past, the discussion though shows how incapable parliamentarians – admittedly the old pointless ones – are of addressing this and quickly return to a discussion of the parliament’s status as a monument.
The Lords main response is to consider the UNESCO comments within the context of the impending refurbishment to the Palace of Westminster. §In one way it is understandable, after all the early cost estimates suggest it will cost £3 BILLION to get parliament up to scratch, although An independent assessment of options is being undertaken currently by a consortium led by Deloitte Real Estate and including AECOM and HOK. But perhaps understandably given that they are old relics too, the talk turns mainly to the status and the history of the parliament building itself. Lord Dobbs made liberal use of quotations about the destruction of the previous building from a popular history by Caroline Shelton, The Day Parliament Burned Down. Shelton is herself is head archivist at the parliament. The discussion shows people trying to merge their role and their status with the physical structure of a building.
This strange fetishisation of the parliament as a monument is more than just an accidental quality of a single debate. It was telling that last year it was announced that the statues of former prime ministers that stand in the House of Commons, the lower house of the British parliament would need to be protected from members of Parliament who touch them for luck, particularly an effigy of Winston Churchill which has been rubbed away at the knee by tribute-paying fortune-seeking Tories. This obsession with the material qualities of the parliament-as-monument is likely to increase over the coming years due to the renovation.
We will also hear more about the story of the parliament’s origins as we move into the refurbishment phase. In addition historians are turning to the relatively unknown story of its chief architect Charles Barry. Shenton herself is writing a book which tells his story particularly in relationship to his role as chief architect of the parliament. And yet we must consider that whilst the structure itself is being refurbished this is not the same as the institution itself being addressed.
Porter’s suggestion for an itinerant parliament makes us wonder: is a monument the best place for a parliament? The debate in the Lords shows how individuals within an institution can use their relationship with a monument to dispense with their individual agency to address the reality of our built environment: to discuss the competing demands on our city. When Cedric Price made his quick design for a Pop-Up parliament – the first time, I have found the term “Pop-up” being used in relation to architecture – he was clearly addressing this feature. He wrote at the time: “if we want an efficient parliament, let’s give it a whole efficient building to work . . . replace the present historic monument with an up-to-date structure – flexible, accessible and dispensable.”
It is an intoxicating argument. However, – let’s be honest – it is extremely unlikely. We are too attached to the Palace of Westminster to ever conceive of moving our democratic institutions from it, let alone replacing it. Still, I believe that it might be beneficial for parliamentarians to forget the physical structure of the place and consider its achievements in an abstract but ultimately more enduring way – universal suffrage, representative democracy – rather than events that have been enshrined in the material fabric of a structure.