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to the Palace of Westminster, the laudable urge to preserve our history has clotted into an unhealthy attachment to the outdated and antiquated.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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder