This morning’s Telegraph reports the latest twist in the ongoing debate over Parliamentary repairs – a dire warning that Parliament might “burn down” if the decision isn’t made as soon as possible.
It looks a bit like somebody is trying to bounce the Prime Minister into a decision before she’d had an opportunity to master the brief on this issue. Happily, Theresa May does not seem the sort to allow this to work, and she should not.
Because transplanting the Commons and the Lords out of their current building is not something to be done lightly, for it risks doing irreversible damage to their historic character.
Much to the disgruntlement of some, Parliament is not just another place of work and moving it is not the same as temporarily moving the office of an ordinary company. It is one of the oldest and certainly most influential legislatures in the world, and with that comes a range of conventions and traditions that are much tied up with its location.
It’s true that Parliament has sat outside the Palace of Westminster before. From 1941 both houses sat in Church House, now a conference centre, after the Palace was bombed during the Second World War. Getting them back into their proper places took until 1950, and in the process bequeathed us a new tradition: the still-popular Speaker’s Procession through Central Lobby.
But that was before the present modernisation fad had taken hold. In 1940 both the Conservatives and Labour were equally cognisant of the value of our unique national institutions (perhaps especially so, in light of the bombs).
After the war Clement Attlee would embark on a very radical agenda indeed, but it didn’t include the sort of endless constitutional cosmetic surgery we see called for today. His Labour thought it natural to fit their ambitious efforts to transform the country alongside its traditions and quirks.
This attitude was summed up very well by George Orwell in his wartime tract The Lion and the Unicorn:
“What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”
The modern left’s disconnect with patriotic feeling is oft discussed, not least by more perceptive left-wing commentators, but its constitutional outworking is often too narrowly analysed in terms of devolution. Equally significant is the desire for an entirely modern, ‘rational’ Parliament.
Our great crime, in this view, is to do things in ways that they’re not normally done, and the solution is to import: separation of powers, elected senate, and a codified constitution from the US, plus coalition politics from continental Europe (the truly radical want this packaged in a horseshoe-shaped chamber in a glass building somewhere).
Not that this sort of attitude is confined to Labour, as John Bercow eschewing of the traditional Speaker’s robes attests. Such uniforms help to subsume the individual office holder into the role of the office, which is very important for a neutral, chairmanship role like that of Speaker.
It’s surely no coincidence that that the ditching of this layer of anonymising officialdom has coincided with a counter-productively and inappropriately personalised Speakership, and Bercow’s successor would be well-served to reverse course.
This would provoke some squeals from the constitutionally fashion-conscious but that’s all these complaints really amount to: fashion statements.
There is usually some talk of accessibility, but there is not a voter in the land who is sufficiently engaged to care about the Speaker’s robes, or the Lords’ ermine, who is not sufficiently engaged full-stop. If you asked voters to list their priorities most would likely run out of things to say before they thought to mention robing.
Some of our representatives think that the ceremonies, outfits, and Norman French, like the monarchy, are demeaning to grand and important people such as themselves.
In truth, that is very much part of their value: a humbling reminder to our rulers that they are simply the temporary custodians of a democratic inheritance grander and very much older than any of them, that serving your country in Parliament is not a normal job, and that if the British people want them to take an oath to an old lady more popular than any of them then that’s what they’ll bloody well do.
All of which is notwithstanding the fact that no amount of change will prevent future generations of reformists finding things to dislike (and future conservatives things to cherish, in fairness). Claims that any settlement is entirely rational and universal always prove Ozymandian in the end.
So May should take careful stock before she allows Parliament to vacate the Palace. And should she decide to do so, it should be on condition that the traditions and customs of both Houses are preserved and revived when they are transplanted back into their proper home.
The Prime Minister must demand, and receive, proper safeguards to that effect. No cost savings on preserving the body of our legislature are worth taking risks with the soul.