No abiding city: a parliament building for the 21st century?

By Jill Segger
September 16, 2016

The Palace of Westminster is falling down. The vast Gothic fantasy on the north bank of the Thames is showing the wrinkles of its 150 years and is in urgent need of repair. The whole building is sinking, the stonework crumbling, the cabling dangerously outdated and there is a considerable amount of asbestos within the building's fabric.

An independent report puts the cost of repair and restoration at £3.5 billion and the time scale at six years if MPs and peers were to be moved out. If the work were to be done with them in situ, the figures rise to £5.7 billion and 32 years respectively.

Either way, this is a great deal of money and entails a massive amount of disruption. There will no doubt be much enquiry and analysis as to the least-worst option.

But may we not see this as an opportunity to create a parliament building fit for the 21st century? The housing of an elected legislature should not be done on the cheap, because it is a symbol of how we think about the importance of democracy and governance. It should be architecturally and aesthetically valuable, equipped to deliver efficient processes and designed so as enable constructive debate, minimise ritual adversarialism and above all, to enhance transparent action by MPs and accountability to those who send them there.

The present House of Commons loves its traditions. For those of us outside the daily Westminster bubble, what is sometimes presented as a kind of validation of its longevity (in reality, amounting to only 150 years) appears at best dotty and at worst outright stupid. New MPs may have to wait weeks for an office and computer terminal but they are allocated a peg on which to hang their swords. The inherent misogyny will not go unremarked by female members. The opposing benches of the debating chamber with their 'two swords-length' of separation across the Despatch Box encourages rowdy and pointlessly confrontational behaviour. Legislatures (like places of worship) which sit in the round lose nothing in the pursuit of truth and justice but may gain much in respect, parity of esteem and mature behaviour.

Then there is technology. In a modern legislature – such as the Scottish Parliament – members vote from their seats. Electronic voting not only removes the cumbersome business of filing through the lobbies to be counted, it makes it far more likely that MPs will have been in the chamber to hear a least a part of the debate around the matter on which they are voting. It also minimises the opportunity for arm-twisting by the whips, thus restoring a balance between conscience and possible intimidation.

It is not without significance that the iconic building designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin is in the Gothic revival style. The revisiting of the ecclesiastical style of the 14th century, so fashionable in the mid-Victorian era, was perceived as conferring the gravitas and authority of antiquity. Much that we claim as 'tradition' follows the same thinking and dates from the same period. Only consider some of the sentimental aspects of Christmas, often the subject of indignant defence from the Daily Mail school of theology, which are largely the invention of Prince Albert and Charles Dickens.

The Victorian-Gothic edifice in SW1 is recognised all over the world. It adorns sauce bottles, tea-towels and a great variety of tourist artefacts. That it stands on the site of the 13th century parliament of England should neither be discounted nor given too much weight. Valuing the past is not to be confused with its idolatrous worship. Here we have no abiding city, yet we frame what is to come within the geography of the temporal. It is recognising this that we may find a way to step away from the false allegiances which impede progress.

Perhaps the restoration of the fabric of a building which is no longer suitable as the home of the legislature could be re-imagined and re-made as a vital museum of the country's democratic and constitutional history and future. The often misquoted words of John Bright – a 19th century Quaker MP – are surely worth consideration. It is England, not Westminster which is the “mother of parliaments”. That womb is not yet barren.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.