Keep the protesters out of Parliament and we will diminish our democracy

It is encouraging that a few youngsters still think the House of Commons matters enough to gatecrash it
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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to the pride the British used to take in their famously phlegmatic character? Just when did it evaporate in the heat of our brave new security world with its fears, its panics and its timidity?

The House of Commons has survived much worse assaults than an unscheduled appearance by Otis Ferry. Shortly after I was elected, the IRA detonated a bomb just underneath my office. We never knew whether it was by chance or design that they had positioned it immediately over a gas main, but the result was an inferno which set alight the mediaeval timbers of Richard II's Great Hall. You can still see the crack caused by the heat in the old masonry. I lost both my filing cabinets in the blaze, with the consequence that to the despair of successive generations of staff I have never since seen the point of filing.

The Commons though went about its business unruffled. We did not put up barriers between Parliament and its public. Nor did we give the IRA the satisfaction of spinning into panic. By comparison, this week's brief intrusion of five misguided protesters is small beer. There was no permanent damage to the fabric of our venerable buildings and no offence to any of our persons, other than a passing affront to our sense of our own dignity.

It is not as if this is the first time there has been an interruption to business in the Chamber. A couple of decades ago some gymnastic women abseiled on to the floor of the House from the public gallery in an altogether more impressive display of athleticism than the pointless scampering around of the hunt supporters. Dom Mintoff's daughter made a much less pleasant impact by tipping two plastic bags of horse manure over the balcony above our heads. The interruption to business was longer than this week's episode as we insisted on the House authorities vacuuming the upholstery before we resumed our seats.

It is testimony to the dismissal of both those incidents as the irritating behaviour of oddballs that no one can remember what either of them were trying to protest about. However, this week's demonstrators are to be rewarded with a top-level security review and, if speculation is to be believed, may be immortalised as the people who prompted a ban on traffic around Parliament Square and a barrage on our river frontage.

I read that David Blunkett wants our doorkeepers replaced by armed policemen at each end of the entries to the Chamber. Does anyone really believe that we would feel any better about Parliament this week if Otis Ferry had been shot dead at the door of the Chamber? Or for that matter that it would have been possible for the Commons to complete the day's business after such a tragedy? If there really are the extra police spare in Britain, I would rather they were on patrol on the streets of my constituents than standing outside my workplace.

It is already evident that one recommendation of any security review will be that we liberate our doorkeepers from their tails, if only because of that most modern arguments that it looks bad on telly, and from many passing exchanges with them I suspect many will be heartily relieved to be offered modern dress. But their eccentric garb should not obscure the reality that they did their job effectively by bundling out the demonstrators with minimum violence. I would much rather the Commons preserved that low-key response than have riot police in helmets bludgeoning protesters on the floor of the House as well as outside Westminster Palace.

It is though inevitable that there will be changes to security in the Commons. What makes it inevitable is the massive, disproportionate publicity awarded to "a security breach" in a media that is now obsessed with security and in terror of terrorism. So much prime-time exposure and front-page coverage has been expended on both the purple flour bombs from Fathers 4 Justice and on the floor-walk by the hunt supporters that we are doomed to copycat behaviour. The unmistakable message from the media is that a moment's irritation to the House of Commons will secure 10 times more publicity than a day's peaceful demonstration.

Parliament must take sensible precautions to protect itself from those who are tempted to repeat the gambit, but it must also keep a sense of proportion. Otis Ferry is not Osama bin Laden. An over-the-top reaction could do more permanent damage to Parliament as an institution than anything he achieved by his ephemeral demonstration.

On a television bulletin on the incident I watched an interview with "a security expert". (It is a curiosity of the medium that any lay person interviewed on television is transmogrified into an "expert".) His advice was that the Commons must develop a secure, sanitised cordon which the public could not penetrate. Well, up to a point. But I did yearn for an interview to provide balance with "a democracy expert" pointing out that the whole point of Parliament is to represent the public and express their concerns, and it therefore must be accessible to the public. We cannot square a fortress parliament with an open democracy.

The real threat to our democracy is not from the occasional annoying behaviour of eccentric cranks but from the widening gulf between Parliament and the mass of normal people who no longer have confidence that it represents them or can offer a remedy to the problems in their lives. In one sense it is almost encouraging that a few youngsters still think Parliament matters enough to go to all that trouble to gatecrash it. Most of their generation did not even take the trouble to vote at the last general election. They, and many of their parents, too often perceive Parliament as irrelevant, out of touch and obsessed with its own party games.

The well-known collapse of trust in Government is only one part of a much wider loss of public confidence in political institutions, including Parliament. The recent opinion poll for the Joseph Rowntree Trust revealed that two-thirds of the public believe our political system needs a great deal of improvement and a majority regard Britain as less democratic.

What ought to worry MPs is not the rare, passing moment of being upstaged by a demonstrator, but the prolonged, steady erosion of the public's sense of ownership of their parliamentary democracy.

The top priority for Parliament is to connect with the people who elect it. That will only be possible if it is user-friendly to the public and if MPs work and live in the same society and share the same risks as the people they represent. Wrapping Westminster in even more concrete blocks, razor wire and armed guards will only provide an even stronger symbol of its growing remoteness from ordinary people.

It will also be an act of defeatism. Turning our Parliament into a citadel of the security industry will be an admission that the terrorists have won. Out of fear and apprehension we will have done their job for them of closing down some of the openness of our democratic society.