When the Houses of Parliament burned down in October 1834, crowds of ordinary Londoners on Westminster Bridge cheered to see the destruction. Today too, politicians are held in general disrepute. In one survey, half of respondents thought that politicians are in politics only for what they can get out of it. Since the Parliamentary expenses scandal, public suspicion of MPs and Peers has been increasing. The Gulf War, austerity, increasing inequality, have all discredited the judgements of our leaders. A third of people say they almost never trust the Government. The Brexit vote has been interpreted not just as a rejection of the European Union, but also as putting two fingers up to the whole political class.
At this critical moment, building repairs are probably not the first thing on the minds of most Westminster-watchers. But the material fabric of Parliament is also in a critical condition. The famous edifice was opened in 1852, following the completion of the neo-Gothic designs of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. 160 years later, it is in a parlous state. Asbestos has to be removed. The heating, lighting, ventilation, drainage, electric wiring are all in need of replacement. Improvements are required to energy efficiency, disabled access and fire safety. Also, there is a problem with rats. The Mother of Parliaments requires not so much a face lift as a complete rebirth. And this is a problem that has to be faced soon, immediately after the 2020 General Election.
One option that has been considered is to do the work via a rolling programme of improvements, while the legislative work continues. The bill for this would amount to £5.7 billion, and it would take 32 years to complete. Far better, then, to relocate both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, enabling the work to be done in one six year block, at a cost of £3.5 billion. This “full decant” option would require the Parliamentarians to be rehoused, with new Chambers for the Lords and the Commons, together with committee rooms and all the other necessary offices. The current proposal is for a specially built chamber in the courtyard of the Department of Health, a short walk up Whitehall.
To me, this approach may be logical, it may even be cost effective, but it misses a huge opportunity to transform the public standing of our legislature and improve our understanding of its role and importance. The visibility and reputation of our Parliament would be vastly increased if, for this six year period, it left London and went on walkabout.
In centuries past, London did not have the same monopoly of power that it has today. In Tudor times, the Monarch went on regular Progress through the kingdom, whereby the people could see the Court in action, and experience majesty at first hand. Parliament itself, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, did not always sit in Westminster: on occasion, it met in York, Lincoln, Oxford, Shewsbury, Leicester, Coventry and Winchester. But today, power is concentrated in London. Despite the welcome devolution of control to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, too much still is decided by politicians and civil servants in the capital. For many years, there has for many years been a policy of moving civil servants out of London, not least to save money, but still nearly 20% of the whole workforce are based in the city.
Our Parliament itself is not only sited in London, but is also dominated by Londoners. London residents are hugely over-represented in the House of Lords. And many Members of the House of Commons are really Londoners, not residents of their constituencies, as the whole scandal about flipping residences demonstrated. Before parliament, most of them served their time in the head offices of trades unions or the political parties, or the think tanks, or in the London-dominated media, or as special advisors or researchers in parliament itself. That’s partly why this political class is so despised, and why government is so distrusted.
When I sat on the Arts Council of England in the early years of this century, the national offices in Great Peter Street were in need of refurbishment, and so for a year or more, we met in different parts of the country. We went to Cambridge and Stratford-upon-Avon and St Ives and Aldeburgh and Deptford, and held our meetings in the arts venues which we funded. We were able to meet the artists and arts administrator who we spent our meetings discussing, and to experience their creative work at first hand. It made a big impact on our thinking. A famously alooft organisation had to see things from the grassroots perspective. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the organisation adopted the mission of ‘Great Art for Everyone’ at this time. We felt oriented towards the people we served.
My vision is of the Houses of Parliament as a travelling caravan, a charabanc of power, spending a year here, and a year there throughout our United Kingdom. Over the six years of the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, our MPs and Peers might turn up in Penzance or Penrith, Norwich or Bristol, Stirling or Swansea. Like Gardeners’ Question Time or the Antiques Roadshow, our MPs and Peers would be interrogated by the people, and their deliberations would be open for all to see. This would raise the profile of parliament, and thus increase understanding of its work. It would also ensure that our rulers understood at first-hand what they were legislating about, and who they were legislating for.
Coming back to earth, I understand that my dream would be supremely difficult to achieve and expensive to execute. Security alone would be a huge concern. And people’s lives would be affected. Can we really expect researchers and librarians, secretaries and caterers, not to mention members of parliament themselves, to uproot every six months and move somewhere else? The House of Commons alone employs 1, 776 staff, each of the 650 MPs has at least one researcher or secretary at Westminster. Together with the Lords and their staff, that must amount to around 3000 people. But when the European Parliament decamps to Strasbourg each month, 5,000 people have to move. So there is a precedent.
In our cash strapped era, could we possibly compromise? Might the House of Commons go outside London for the whole six years, stationary but at least released from M25 strangulation? Perhaps to Birmingham, with its conference centre and shiny new town centre? And could not the House of Lords move somewhere nearby, like the conference centres of Nottingham or Manchester? I think that even a modest shift as this could be transformational for our polity. Our rulers would be sitting alongside the ordinary citizens of Britain, in areas which do not enjoy the prosperity of London. They would be more visible to the people who they serve.
And of course, it would be a big economic boost to those cities that housed our rulers and their staff, and the visiting journalists and the lobbyists and those coming to give testimony to the committees. I’d imagine that our great regions would be falling over themselves to welcome Parliament to their locality.
Ministers would complain, of course. They have to be in Whitehall to run their Departments. But surely it would not be too onerous for them to sit on the train and turn up to face questions in the Birmingham Chamber a few days each week? The Cabinet benches at Prime Minister’s Question Time might be more serious, if they’d had to endure the railway and experience everyday Britain, rather than the wine bars of Westminster. Things look different from the provinces.
Moving Parliament outside London, where it has been for the past 500 years, might sound complicated, expensive, and even drastic. But extraordinary measures have been necessary before, for example, in 1941, when the House of Commons chamber was destroyed by bombing.
And for me the clinching argument is that if Parliament met somewhere new, it could modernise its whole way of workingIt could leave behind the Victorian pride, pomp and circumstance and operate as a straightforward modern assembly, like Holyrood. Erskine May, the procedural guide which dates from 1844, should be rewired too. We could leave behind Black Rods and Chiltern Hundreds. Instead, we should demand constructive debate and meaningful dialogue, rather than empty benches and pantomime Prime Minister’s Questions.
Which is why I’m reminded of Oliver Cromwell’s words, when he sacked the Rump Parliament in 1653: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go”.