Monday, January 23, 2012

The wrong question

Earlier today I was interviewed on the BBC Russian Service (it still exists but only just) about the curious story of the Palace of Westminster falling down sinking. Well, at least, the Clock Tower, which houses Big Ben, is falling down. Or something.

The story was amusing enough to crop up in a number of outlets so I shall link to the Londonist blog, which sums it all up. What with being built so near the river and having an underground car park as well as the Jubilee line extension constructed, the poor old(ish) building has cracks in it and the Tower is definitely leaning, though not as much as the one in Pisa. The Daily Wail seems to have excelled itself in idiocy by coming up with random figures as to how much it will cost to prop it all up, how much the site is worth and a quote from an unnamed insider that there is talk of selling it all to some Russian oligarch or Chinese party apparatchik who happens to be a billionaire. After that, presumably the journalists finished drinking and went home, having first filed the story.

Let's be rational, as I tried to explain to the Russians. The Palace of Westminster is a Royal Palace and, as such, cannot really be sold to anybody. The notion that MPs will simply up and depart to another building and get away with that is laughable. Nor is the news really news. Ever since the building has existed (which, in its latest manifestation is only about 170-odd years) there have been problems with it and these were, indeed, exacerbated by the two major constructions: the car park and the Jubilee line. The fact that the subject has now become important enough to discuss in a committee does not alter the fact that there is practically no time when some kind of refurbishment is not going on inside or outside the Palace. As soon as the two Houses rise, the builders and decorators move in; at any given time one can find scaffolding on some part of the outside. The chances are that the decision will be that there needs to be an investigation as to how the Tower and various other bits and pieces can be propped up at the lowest possible cost.

That, however, is the wrong question. The right question would be what exactly is the purpose of the building and all that goes on inside it.

There are several excellent libraries there, to be used largely by the members of the two Houses. Whether they are used is another matter. Finding information about legislation, both domestic and European, has become easier with the internet but there are certain advantages to being able to go to the Printed Paper Office in the Lords to ask about events, committees and reports. Furthermore, the main building (not the one that looks like a crematorium) is very fine, full of interesting rooms, corridors, statues, portraits and some of the worst paintings in the world.

The truths is, however, that Parliament no longer legislates in this country and holds the Executive to account only intermittently in the Lords and never in the Commons. The House of Lords is no longer the highest court in the land any more than Parliament is the ultimate legislator. So, do we actually need it? Or do we need it to be quite as big as it is now?

Why not reduce the numbers in proportion to the amount of work they have given away to the EU or various quangos, send the few remaining MPs to some purpose-built glass building and turn the whole place into a Museum to Democracy with actors performing some of the more stirring events of the last nine centuries? In no time at all the refurbishment would pay for itself.

Were this to be proposed seriously we might actually see Parliamentarians concentrating on what matters and that is an exit from the EU and a restoration of the British constitutional structure.


  1. Good post (again) Helen!

    Off topic: you attending BG on 1st? If so will 'look you up'.