John Kampfner: Don't refurbish the Palace of Westminster. Abandon it

If MPs were obliged to leave the building, perhaps they might alight in the real world


Where constitutional reform has failed, perhaps the rats and the asbestos will succeed. The prospect of a five-year shutdown of the Palace of Westminster could be just what is needed to transform the way the public looks at our politicians, and how politicians regard themselves.

One cannot blame architecture for everything, but buildings do affect behaviour. The House of Commons and House of Lords manage the twin feats of being pompous and inefficient. Most of their members jealously guard their privileges and status, while resisting all but the smallest changes. Were Health and Safety to force them out of the building that towers over SW1, perhaps they might alight at the real world.

The problem is not an excess of material comforts. There are many more glitzy places in London in which to work. Before the construction of Portcullis House, the modern structure connected by an escalator to the main palace, many MPs had pokey offices. Some still do. Portcullis is not particularly opulent. With its no-frills coffee shop as its main meeting point, it could almost be seen as normal.

The same cannot be said for the chambers and their immediate environs. The restaurants are a study in English public school naff – roasts and crumble, servile waiters and a stifling atmosphere of gossip and self-congratulation. The bars are similar, with taxpayer-subsidised alcohol to encourage lewdness and brawling (Eric Joyce was only the latest in a long line). The Pugin finery reinforces the members in their false sense of importance.

To cap it all are the officials and security. When I first started working as a lobby journalist in the mid-1990s, the only "acceptable" place to fraternise with MPs was the Members' Lobby. This is a curious anteroom in front of the Commons chamber. Doors open means you can't walk in, but doors closed means you can (work that one out for yourself); you can sit on this bench, if invited by a member, but you can't on that one. You can report what's said, but not where or by whom. And so the rules went on, dished out by usually officious men (usually men) wearing ridiculous chains around their neck.

While little of the flummery has been jettisoned (the Speaker, John Bercow, has dispensed with some of the court jester garb of his office), one aspect of the old days has been sadly lost. Even after the bombing of Airey Neave, security was relatively light. MPs, and others, could walk through the main gates with a wave to the policeman on duty. 9/11 changed that. Now it is a fortress, with gun-toting anti-terrorist squads patrolling all entrances and vantage points, and ever-intrusive officials to ensure that badges are shown at every turn. This is inevitable, perhaps, and nobody's fault. But the consequence is a further sense of "them" and "us".

Some MPs revel in the rarity of their habitat. Many find it oppressive, and even embarrassing. Some succumb to an SW1 variant of Stockholm Syndrome. Even the most hidebound have offices in their constituencies where they meet ordinary people with ordinary concerns. And yet, as soon as they breathe the stale air of the palace, they are invited to adopt a different persona.

Every summer, as the MPs and peers depart, the workmen move in. Tens of millions of pounds are spent on renovations; by the time everyone returns in the autumn, you cannot see the difference. If the reports can be believed, the wiring, plumbing and asbestos may be so bad that nothing short of a five-year removal will do. It has been suggested that they could be relocated 100 metres up the road, opposite Westminster Abbey, in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, an unprepossessing 1970s' block where companies present their annual results and think-tanks hold the odd presentation. The Chilcot Inquiry into Iraq took up residence there, and the Leveson Inquiry held some early seminars.

But why not go for something more radical? Why not leave London? In the late 1990s, some wiseacre suggested that parliament move to Milton Keynes. That is not as frivolous as it sounds. Or Manchester, or Birmingham? I'm sure a functional building could be found, with good broadband, security, enough office space and a conference centre for debating. Then what? Given Westminster and Whitehall's propensity for profligacy, the refurbishment is almost certain to come in late and over budget. After, say, 10 years, perhaps the next generation of MPs and members of the upper house might realise that, in different surroundings, they were better able to scrutinise legislation and hold ministers to account.

It is impossible to quantify the relationship between the built environment and performance. But each time I go to a more contemporary parliamentary or government building, I have a greater sense of normality. The creators of the Scottish Parliament dispensed with as much of Westminster's legacy as they could. But Holyrood should not have cost as much as it did. Perhaps a more appropriate example is the Reichstag in Germany. With its history under Nazism, then decades of neglect under communism, the building has, in its new incarnation, achieved the rare feat of blending the august with the accessible. The Norman Foster-designed cupola allows the public to look in from above – a gesture that seeks to enshrine democratic accountability with environmental sensitivity and an awareness of history.

In these straitened times, the least ambitious option is the most likely. The authorities will recoil from the idea of moving out, and will spend each summer in an ever more desperate attempt to patch and mend. Even if a brief relocation is required, they will be reluctant to change the building's ethos. Well into the middle of the 21st century, previously sensible men and women will square up to each other in the bearpit of the chamber, calling each other names by means of strange euphemisms, while lacking the infrastructure or support staff to keep a proper check on government power. But at least they'll enjoy the cheap booze on offer, while they tuck into their school lunches.

John Kampfner is the author of 'Freedom For Sale' and 'Blair's Wars'

Twitter: @johnkampfner

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence