Monday, May 18, 2009
Relics, on life support.
Conservative Politicians aren't supposed to be radicals. Tradition and maintianing the status quo are supposed to be hard-wired into our DNA.
So I would imagine that I might be a bit of a lone voice in suggesting that the entire Palace of Westminster is dangerously close to making itself unfit for purpose.
The trouble with all great institutions is that over their very long lives they can become self-serving, and obselete. Over the years traditions and customs that were introduced in response to a particular need become pointless and anachranistic and yet our obsession with past greatness means that we hang on to them regardless. We are not alone in this, of course, the great Christian religions suffer exactly the same affliction and as a result suffer exactly the same fate - dwindling engagement by the modern public.
Much that goes on in the House of Commons falls into this category. The place is a labrynthine building filled with obscure and equally labrynthine customs - in many cases that now inhibit free debate and restrict the Parliament from doing what it is supposed to do.
Ordinary members of the public who occasion to watch the proceedings on TV or even more infrequently -visit to watch their law makers at work- see an ancient ritual couched in 19th century language that seems utterly alien and unrelated to their lives.
Like Tower Bridge our Parliament building is a bit of a fraud. It was built in the 1830's, the Georgians created some of the finest archetecture since the Romans but Pugin designed Parliament to look like a building hundreds of years older, a dark forbidding church-like monolith.
Compare and contrast our Parliament with Holroyd House, or the London Assembly Building both modern debating places made for the 21st century. Here you will see (easily- because unlike the unward-looking Westminster- both buildings are light, open, accessible and made of glass) normally dressed people talking to each other in language that you will understand, they sit behind desks, in a semi circle and have modern tools to hand, computers, phones, email to do what they are supposed to do, represent their constituents views.
When the Germans bombed the Commons chamber in 1942 there was a decision to restore the building brick by brick rather than modernise it, more recently another opportunity was missed. The recently completed Portcullis House was built in exactly the same style as Parliament itself, secure and closed - inward looking and private. A modern castle designed to keep it's occupants safe from the hoardes of peasants at the gates. What a pity the authorities didn't form a new light, and open debating chamber when they had the chance.
But the fabric of the structure is less an issue than the activity that goes on there. Because of the raw anger against almost all sitting MP's I have a feeling that the next Parliament will have a record number of freshmen and women taking their place. A new Parliament made up of a majority of new MP's might just be able to bring itself to modernise the practices of the place in a way that no Parliament has done for nearly 200 years, in the process proving to a sceptical public that what happens there is important and relevant to their lives.
I hope so because change has to come. Whatever happens to Speaker Martin this week, whatever they current House decides to do about expenses, mere tinkering at the edges is not enough.