A A few years ago I spent several months touring the Palace of Westminster, where 56 MPs are now said to be charged with sexual misconduct and one of them admitted to watching pornography on his phone. It was revealing. I explored its rooftops and back offices; I stood in the secret domed space above the central hall; I made my way through the maze of tunnels below the high tide level of the Thames, seeing its tangles of aging pipes, power cables and groaning Victorian sewage tanks.
Not least because of its heightened security, the palace feels like a place in itself: a small city-state cut off from the outside world. In addition to deputies and lords, there are 6,000 pass holders: caterers, clerks, contractors, political correspondents, administrators, cleaners. It (notoriously) has its own bars; he has his own hairdresser and crèche. There was even a shooting range where, until 2015, members could take shooting lessons with branch special officers. There are other workplaces that shroud workers in a sort of shadow of real life – but even the office playgrounds of American tech companies won’t serve you eclairs and steamed tea in a room. dining room or will not make available tins of snuff, as are placed outside the semicircles in the mother of parliaments.
I confess that I found the place attractive: over the months of my visits, the strangeness of it, which had seemed so extreme to me at first, began to fade very slightly. I saw how it would be possible to become a native, to acclimatize to this curious nation and its conventions – even to take pleasure in mastering them.
But even if, like me, you are a fan of neo-Gothic architecture with a soft spot for eccentric traditions, the palace is, in its current state, a very unsuitable place to run a democracy. The place has 31 elevators, only one of which is fully adapted for wheelchairs. In the House of Commons, MPs outnumber the actual seats by 223, meaning that on a busy day “you find yourself”, in the words of one MP, “sitting on the lap of a male deputy.
There is a reason why modern parliaments have real presidents; there’s a reason why their design tends to be transparent, open, airy – they’re architectural metaphors for democratic functioning, but also ways to encourage behavior to match. Westminster, on the other hand, is a sepulchral maze of heavy doors, dark hallways and artwork mostly made up of white men. In 2016, Professor Sarah Childs published the Good Parliament report. She told me then that “the building facilitates, values and rewards certain types of behaviors and performances practiced disproportionately by some men – and excludes others”.
More than that, the building is dangerous. In 2,500 places of the subdivision, it is calculated, there is asbestos. According to David Goldstone, who has the thankless job of leading the palace’s “restoration and renovation” program, it would take two and a half to three years and 300 workers to solve this problem single-handedly. A leak from a Victorian steam pipe could send this asbestos through the ventilation system, to be inhaled by thousands of workers. Fire is a serious and present danger. Between 2008 and 2012, the building caught fire 40 times; firefighters patrol the buildings 24 hours a day. Since the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt after a catastrophic fire on the night of October 16, 1834, there has not been a complete overhaul of the building. Systems (for electricity, gas, telephones, security) were quickly laid on top of each other, clogging conduits and clogging basement tunnels. With each passing day, the likelihood of disaster increases – and if you’re inclined to be insensitive to the possible fate of deputies, at least consider the cleaners and cooks beyond reproach.
All of this is fixable: at a price. If only it were not up to parliamentarians themselves to do it, perhaps progress would have been made. In 2015 it was estimated that refurbishing the Houses of Parliament – which, if you were ambitious, could not only remove the real daily risk to life, but also make it a better and more equal building for those who work there – would cost over £3.5 billion. You can see why parliamentarians would be reluctant to vote so much money ‘themselves’, even if it has nothing to do with them personally, and it is to ensure the safe functioning of parliament in the coming.
This sum, however, now looks like a bargain: with each day of inaction, the costs increase. This year the sponsor body – the board overseeing ‘restoration and renewal’, set up in 2019 by an Act of Parliament – estimated it would cost at least £7billion just to secure the palace, assuming it is vacant for at least 12 years. But such is the attraction of the palace, so seductive by its ridiculous traditions, that a rump of parliamentarians, in grotesque defiance of common sense, seem to do anything rather than leave it.
Told by the sponsoring body that staying in the Commons could potentially mean costs amounting to £22billion and taking 76 years, the Commons and Lords committees responded by deciding to abolish the body sponsorship itself, which is a lot like shooting the messenger. Rule of procrastination and delay. Reports, meetings, reviews, minutes and repetitive questions pile up: Jarndyce & Jarndyce has nothing on this. The metaphors suggested by this situation are too obvious to be rushed; you can think of it yourself. But I remember that in the 1850s Augustus Pugin, who worked with Charles Barry to design the new Palace of Westminster after the fire of 1834, fell mentally ill – as in, was actually admitted to hospital in Bethlem, dying shortly after his fifth birthday. a week’s stay there – by the demands of trying to work for parliamentarians. It is not difficult to understand why.