Parliament Belongs in the Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster is in trouble. The splendid Perpendicular Gothic building designed by Sir Charles Barry is showing its age, and it will have to undergo lengthy and expensive renovations in the not-too-distant future. Whatever happens, it’s going to be messy. The repair bill will be in the billions, and the Commons and the Lords will likely have to move elsewhere during the renovations. Not surprisingly, some have argued that this is the perfect time for Parliament to leave the Palace of Westminster for good and set up shop in a shiny new edifice.

The Palace of Westminster by Mgimelfarb (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Palace of Westminster by Mgimelfarb (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That would be a mistake. If Parliament left the Palace of Westminster for a new building, it would probably end up in an antiseptic edifice of steel and glass since that seems to be the architectural zeitgeist of our age. But the Palace’s Gothic grandeur is more than just a treat for the eyes. It’s a reminder that the British constitution has been shaped by centuries of history (the oldest part of the Palace, Westminster Hall, has been around for over 900 years!). There’s something wonderful about the fact that peers and MPs have been debating affairs of state on the same spot for so many centuries. That link with the past would be diminished if the Palace became a museum.

For over 160 years, the Palace of Westminster has been a fitting stage for the drama that is British politics. With any luck, it will continue to be at the heart of Britain’s political life for many centuries to come.

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2 Responses to Parliament Belongs in the Palace of Westminster

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    This is an issue on which I am wholly in agreement with Matthew Flinders. It is time to turn the Houses of Parliament into a museum, a museum of democracy if you like, but to stop pretending that it is fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The failing of both the Commons and Lords is the shape of the Chamber, which creates an adversarial environment. We have seen both in Scotland and Wales that semi-circular chambers work just as well for law-making, while no-one considers the bear-pit that is PMQs to be any sort of advertisement for democracy – it is merely reality TV with politicians instead of celebrities.

    I would like to see a new Parliament building just outside Birmingham, the one place outside London where there are good transport connections to everywhere. There is plenty of space near the NEC and an international airport on the doorstep.

    • jasonloch says:

      I’m not a fan of PMQs either, but I don’t think that a horseshoe-shaped chamber is necessarily the answer. After all, the House of Lords has a similar setup to the Commons, yet it is a much less rancorous place. The shortcomings of PMQs are ultimately due to the culture of the Commons, and while the layout of the chamber certainly influences the chamber’s dynamics, MPs could change the tenor of PMQs today if they really wanted to. But it’s seen as a quintessential part of British political culture, so people are reluctant to tamper with it. The media’s focus on PMQs doesn’t help, either. It reinforces bad behavior since MPs know that causing a ruckus in the chamber is a good way to get publicity.

      There are ways to lessen the adversarial nature of the Commons without resorting to a wholly new building. Moving away from plurality voting would be a good start. As it stands now, there’s very little need to build consensus in the Commons since a single party usually wins a clear majority. If there were greater political diversity in the Commons, politics would likely be less adversarial and more consensus-based since the Government would need support from other parties to pass legislation.

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