Goodbye Hogwarts, and good riddance
According to the website of the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme it “has been established to tackle the significant work that needs to be done to protect and preserve the heritage of the Palace of Westminster and ensure it can continue to serve as home to the UK Parliament in the 21st century and beyond.”
While I have no problem with the first proposition the second raises grave doubts in my mind. The fabric of this extraordinary building, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, obviously needs to be conserved but no amount of restoration and refurbishment will ever make it fit for purpose as a properly functioning parliament for a modern democracy. They say you can’t polish a turd, but rolling it in glitter won’t help either. The building simply isn’t suitable for its function — and that has little or nothing to do with its current state of disrepair.
Previously, I occasionally carried out work for an MP in Portcullis House, the modern office block across the road from the old Palace building. I found it a decent enough working environment and have no cavil with it. But the old building is appalling to work in: gloomy, airless, cramped and thoroughly oppressive. Its public school-educated denizens doubtless find it a comfortingly familiar environment but to anyone from the real world it’s the stuff of nightmares, and Gothic ones at that!
If Guy Fawkes really was the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions it’s a pity (architecturally at least) that he didn’t succeed in blowing it sky high. Imagine a replacement parliament building designed by Inigo Jones! It might have ended up looking something like the Queen’s House in Greenwich (allegedly the inspiration for the White House in Washington DC) rather than the absurd, pompous, overblown, pseudo-mediaeval folly we now have as a result of the rebuild following the catastrophic fire of 1834.
True, Sir Christopher Wren, John Vardy and Sir John Soane all had a stab at adding a touch of classicism to the old Palace complex (and, boy, was it complex!) but to little avail. The Hogwarts-ringer we have now fails to raise the mind to loftier ambitions, crushes the spirit and risks stifling innovative impulses. It’s a minor miracle that any half-way decent or enlightened legislation makes it out of this dismal mausoleum at all.
What does Sir Charles Barry’s 1836 redesign of the Palace of Westminster tell us about the aspirations of the ruling elite in the white heat of the Industrial Revolution under a Protestant Queen Victoria I wonder? Was it all about promoting decent (ie British) Christian values, linking them to the traditions of British democracy and constitutional monarchy whilst harnessing them to the nascent Imperial project in order to consolidate Britain’s position as the first global superpower? It’s not just Barry’s fussy architecture and Crace and Pugin’s overblown décor that thwarts progress; it’s the reactionary attitudes embedded in the Palace’s very fabric and layout.
Any self-respecting modern parliamentary democracy, whether uni- or bi-cameral, operates out of horse-shoe shaped chambers. The Palace of Westminster enshrines adversarial politics at its core. Even allowing for the fact that the House of Lords at least has its cross benches, this is governance as bear-pit! Indeed, the strip on the floor of the House of Commons marking the distance for avoiding sword clashes across the gap between opposing benches should tell us everything we need to know about this building.
Its status as a Royal Palace is also extremely problematic. It carries a centuries-long weight of patronage and feudal, fawning subservience; continues ludicrously outmoded observances and inauthentic rituals and leads to what one wag described as a “sorry little summary of flummery and mummery” - in other words a parliamentary pantomime.
So what’s my solution? Basically, after MPs and Peers are moved out for the lengthy restoration process in the 2020s, we should never let them back in again. Design a fit-for-purpose new parliament building (and not necessarily in London) whilst using the time for a root-and-branch reform, including long-overdue abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with a senate [if at all]. While we’re at it, we could also implement the disestablishment of the Church of England and abolition of the monarchy, or at least the monarch’s role as Head of State (though I would see that as an added bonus and not essential to the process of constitutional modernisation.)
And what of the future of the restored building when it finally reopens after its £3billion, five-year (inevitably £6billion, ten-year) refit?
I say open it as a theme park, incorporating a daily animatronic re-enactment of the old State Opening of Parliament and the Speaker’s Procession. That’s where these absurd and arcane practices belong: as ‘infotainment’, not at the heart of a functioning Western democracy.
At least such a visitor attraction in the modern age would be interactive, in a way that our current democracy demonstrably isn’t.
PS: I saw a television news broadcast from the Central Lobby the other day where a chef in full whites walked past in the background. This image brought to mind the character of Swelter in Mervyn Peake’s ‘ Gormenghast’ novels. Maybe that’s a more fitting simile that Hogwarts?