The state opening of Parliament. Photo: Getty
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Maybe we don't need to move Parliament to Hull. But we do need to overhaul its alienating traditions

Woven into the very fabric of Westminster are assumptions about who the building – and, by extension, our democracy – is intended to serve. The lack of convenient disabled access and the shortage of ladies’ loos in the old palace are daily reminders that parliament wasn’t built with those groups in mind.

My earliest political memories are of Betty Boothroyd telling bumptious middle-aged men to be quiet during PMQs. Then, late last year, I interviewed her for Radio 4’s Week in Westminster. From the moment she swept into the studio in a cobalt-blue fur-trimmed coat, I was undone. What a woman.

Boothroyd had come to talk to me about the threat to parliament’s Unesco World Heritage status caused by high-rise developments along the South Bank. There are also concerns about the building itself: it has a rat problem, an asbestos problem, and a chronic shortage of space for the nearly 1,500 MPs and peers (and their staff). What would be lost, I wanted to ask her, if parliament decamped from Westminster?

Baroness Boothroyd is the best-qualified person in Britain to answer this question: she has worked in parliament since 1956, starting as a secretary, before returning as an MP and then a peer. “I was always thrilled to walk across Westminster Hall,” she told me. “The sheer thrill of walking across that great hall to go to work.” She talked about standing reverently in front of the great Armada Portrait of her heroine, Elizabeth I. “I never cease to be thrilled about it . . . What a privileged life I’ve had. I want to preserve that for other people and other generations.”

Much as it pains me, this is where the formidable Betty and I must part ways. Because, when it comes to the Palace of Westminster, the laudable urge to preserve our history has clotted into an unhealthy attachment to the outdated and antiquated. Any attempt to drag parliament into the 20th century, let alone the 21st, is treated by a certain cadre of MPs as a heresy akin to taking a leak on the Bayeux Tapestry.

The most obvious example of this came in 2011, when Speaker John Bercow ruled that the building could probably cope if one of the subsidised bars was turned into a crèche. The bar in question – Bellamy’s – only became part of the parliamentary estate in the 1990s but that didn’t stop a mass outbreak of pearl-clutching and anonymous briefings about the terrible expense. Never mind that it’s not very modern or inclusive to ask parents to work late into the night without any childcare facilities – if it’s the money that worries people, perhaps we could start by decommissioning the 25-yard shooting range in the House of Lords basement?

Woven into the very fabric of Westminster are assumptions about who the building – and, by extension, our democracy – is intended to serve. The sashes to hang your sword in the cloakroom may be a quaint relic of an age long gone, but the lack of convenient disabled access and the shortage of ladies’ loos in the old palace are daily reminders that parliament wasn’t built with those groups in mind.

The BBC’s recent eye-opening documentary Inside the Commons triggered another thought. I watched Jacob Rees-Mogg take to the pettifogging regulations like an impeccably suited duck to water, while other backbenchers who had been, say, bricklayers or heads of charities cheerfully admitted that they found the whole thing completely barmy. And I realised: all the by-laws, the prayer cards to mark your seat, the juvenile heckling in the chamber . . . that comforts a certain type of person, because it reminds them of public school, the Oxford Union, the Travellers Club. They’ve already survived a decade of spotted dick in the canteen and people in silly outfits talking Latin.

I find all this deeply unnerving, because I love history. Love history. Some Commons traditions are definitely worth preserving: every time on Queen’s Speech day that Black Rod is turned away from the House, it reminds us that we have a democracy only because our ancestors fought to disobey the monarch. So I feel a twinge every time someone suggests that we should kick MPs out and make them set up shop somewhere else. The Scottish Parliament building is beautiful – that ceiling, that location – as is its Welsh equivalent, but wouldn’t something be lost by clearing out the green benches and replacing them with a semi-circle of Ikea’s best blond wood?

Looked at dispassionately, the arguments for relocating parliament are persuasive. Andrew Adonis has made the case that moving the institution to a northern city would break London’s stranglehold on power. The former Policy Exchange director Neil O’Brien, now an adviser to George Osborne, agrees. He pointed out in 2012 that: “London is effectively New York, LA and Washington all rolled into one – the capital of finance, culture and politics.” Now, the campaign group Generation Rent has semi-flippantly suggested that the palace could be turned into 364 affordable flats for hard-up Londoners, and selling Portcullis House would generate £500m. Parliament could be shipped off to somewhere like Hull.

Generation Rent's proposal

It won’t happen, of course. There will be enough trouble trying to persuade MPs to move out temporarily while £3bn of essential repair is done to the building: most would prefer that the work be done around them, even though this will cost more. There is also much sniffing about a new education centre turning parliament into a “tourist attraction”, as if many of those tourists aren’t the voters they are elected to represent. The irony is that, if the Commons does crumble into the Thames, it will be largely because the ultra-traditionalists resisted any kind of modernisation for so long.

At the debate in November where Betty Boothroyd raised Unesco’s concerns, the Conservative peer Michael Dobbs recalled that the only reason parliament was rebuilt was that it burned down in 1834. “I am told that when the roof of the House of Commons fell in as a result of the fire, the crowd looking on burst into spontaneous applause,” Dobbs said. “We politicians should know our place.” 

 

Now read the proposal to turn parliament into flats at CityMetric.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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