The state opening of Parliament. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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to the Palace of Westminster, the laudable urge to preserve our history has clotted into an unhealthy attachment to the outdated and antiquated.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?

Getty
Show Hide image

What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage