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to the Palace of Westminster, the laudable urge to preserve our history has clotted into an unhealthy attachment to the outdated and antiquated.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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The SATs strike: why parents are taking their children out of school to protest against exams

Parents are keeping their children away from school to highlight the dangers of “over testing” young pupils.

My heart is beating fast and I feel sick. I force myself to eat some chocolate because someone said it might help. I take a deep breath and open the door…

The hall is silent except for the occasional cough and the shuffling of chairs. The stench of nervous sweat lingers in the air.

“Turn over your papers, you may begin.”

I look at the clock and I am filled with panic. I feel like I might pass out. I pick up my pen but my palms are so sweaty it is hard to grip it properly. I want to cry. I want to scream, and I really need the toilet.

This was how I felt before every GCSE exam I took. I was 16. This was also how I felt before taking my driving test, aged 22, and my journalism training (NCTJ) exams when I was 24.

Being tested makes most of us feel anxious. After all, we have just one chance to get stuff right. To remember everything we have learned in a short space of time. To recall facts and figures under pressure; to avoid failure.

Even the most academic of adults can find being in an exam situation stressful, so it’s not hard to imagine how a young child about to sit their Year 2 SATs must feel.

Today thousands of parents are keeping their kids off school in protest at these tough new national tests. They are risking fines, prosecution and possible jail time for breach of government rules. By yesterday morning, more than 37,000 people had signed a petition backing the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign and I was one of them.

I have a daughter in reception class who will be just six years old when she sits her SATs. These little ones are barely out of pull-up pants and now they are expected to take formal exams! What next? Babies taught while they are in the womb? Toddlers sitting spelling tests?

Infants have fragile self-esteem. A blow to their confidence at such an impressionable age can affect them way into adulthood. We need to build them up not tear them down. We need to ensure they enjoy school, not dread it. Anxiety and fear are not conducive to learning. It is like throwing books at their heads as a way of teaching them to read. It will not work. They are not machines. They need to want to learn.

When did we stop treating children like children? Maybe David Cameron would be happier if we just stopped reproducing all together. After all, what use to the economy are these pesky kids with their tiny brains and individual emotional needs? Running around all happy and carefree, selfishly enjoying their childhood without any regard to government statistics or national targets.

Year 2 SATs, along with proposals for a longer school day and calls for baseline reception assessments (thankfully now dropped) are just further proof that the government do not have our children’s best interests at heart. It also shows a distinct lack of common sense. It doesn’t take a PhD in education to comprehend that a child is far more likely to thrive in a calm, supportive and enjoyable environment. Learning should be fun. The value in learning through play seems to be largely underestimated.

The UK already has a far lower school starting age than many other countries, and in my opinion, we are already forcing them into a formal learning environment way too soon.

With mental health illness rates among British children already on the rise, it is about time our kids were put first. The government needs to stop “throwing books at heads” and start listening to teachers and parents about what is best for the children.

Emily-Jane Clark is a freelance journalist, mother-of-two and creator of stolensleep.com, a humorous antithesis to baby advice.