I, like many people, have been watching broadcasts from the House of Commons and its Committee rooms recently. Some years ago when I was a civil servant, I attended meetings and committees in the Palace of Westminster so a few of those rooms are familiar to me. I had not, however, taken the public tour around the Palace until yesterday. It is possible to book places on a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour, on most Saturdays during the year and on weekdays when the Houses are not sitting. Yesterday seemed an opportune time.
The Tour extends through Westminster Hall (below right), one of the oldest parts of the Palace, through St Stephen’s Hall (formerly, before the fire of 1834, St Stephen’s Chapel and the place in which the first recognisable parliament was held in the thirteenth century), into the Central Lobby and thence along the axis which comprises the Lords’ Corridor and Lobby, the ‘Royal’ Rooms (which I had not seen before), the Lords Chamber, the Commons Corridor, Commons Lobby and the Commons Chamber. There is a lot to see and our tour took almost two hours.
This is a working building, although it is also a building which is about to fall down. The Elizabeth Tower and St Stephen’s Entrance are both shrouded in scaffolding and there was a lot of work going on inside the Palace when we were there ( and the Members weren’t ). So, the Lords Chamber was being re-carpeted, because of water damage ( the building leaks dreadfully and its basement floods regularly ) and the floor tiles of the Lords Lobby were being raise, a membrane being put down and the tiles replaced.
To me this is a place of work as well as a place full of history. To the friend who accompanied me it was a place out of time – the idea of individuals having to troop through the lobbies for their votes to be counted rather than vote electronically was completely anachronistic to her. Then, as she pointed out, the lobbies could be incorporated into the chamber, thus making it big enough to seat all the MPs ( neither Lords not Commons has enough space for all their Members currently ). Or, better still, keep the Palace of Westminster as a World Heritage Site and build a new, modern, properly functioning Parliament building somewhere else.
First let me say that I don’t think this will happen, it’s much too rational an idea. Second, that it would be excellent and might allow any number of current problems to be tackled simultaneously – like the misogynistic attitudes of many of the Members (it is only relatively recently that a cut off time of ten o’clock was introduced for debates, until then they went on until the early hours, so anyone with any childcare or familial responsibilities was stymied and Members spent rather too much time in the Bars waiting to vote). Third, if the new building was outside London it might, in part, address the impact of London as a drain upon England and the rest of the UK, sucking in resources and people.
The Palace of Westminster is, by and large, a fake. It looks medieval gothic but most of it wasn’t built until the nineteenth century ( take a look at the real thing on the other side of St Margaret Street ). Central Lobby (above) is a case in point. Those stone statues in their niches ape medieval church architecture, as do the mosaics, the windows and the (magnificent) tiled floor. It is the Victorian idea of what medieval was and its style is inherently backward looking. The traditions, like Black Rod being excluded from the Chamber of the Commons, so important to understanding the history of the Parliament and English & Welsh democracy, didn’t actually happen this building, but its predecessors. They could continue wherever the Parliament sits.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed my tour and it’s well worth doing. It costs £18 and you can book on-line. Go and see what you think.