Barnett Cocks is not a household name, and the book he wrote was never really going to make it onto the bestseller lists. He was, however, Clerk of the House of Commons between 1962 and 1974 and his book was entitled A Mid-Victorian Masterpiece. The book’s title gives little sense of the frustration and anger that seems to infuse every page, every line, every word. It also gives little clue to the book’s contemporary relevance. That is, until one notes that ‘The story of an institution unable to put its own house in order’ provides the sub-title of the book and the dominant line of argument. The contemporary relevance is linked to the recent publication by the Joint Committee on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster regarding the planned multi-billion pound programme of work that is due to begin in 2020.
The focus of the Joint Committee has been on how to allow the works to take place in the most timely and efficient manner and in this regard they have made the undeniably correct decision that ‘get out and get on with it’ is the best course of action. ‘To where?’ and ‘for how long?’ – let alone what exactly ‘a parliament fit for the twenty-first century’ looks like – remain questions that can now be explored in the next phase.
If only it were that simple! The Joint Committee’s recommendation must now be debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament: if rejected, then we really will have written the latest chapter in the story of ‘an institution unable to puts its own house in order’. The outcome would be chaos infused with denial. The twist in the historical tale is, however, that doing nothing is no longer an option. As the Independent Options Review of 2015 put it, ‘the risk of catastrophic failure is increasing…a major failure of the existing service infrastructure is inevitable’. Parliament, it would seem, is in crisis at exactly the point when democracy is said to be in crisis (think anti-politics, insurgent parties, populist candidates, growing political disaffection, etc.) and the economy in a post-crisis phase (think austerity, restraint, the tightening-of-belts, etc.). Crisis, crisis everywhere.
And yet the political adage reminds us that a good crisis should never be wasted. A glass-half-empty can quickly become a glass-half-full by replacing narratives of (negative) crisis with interpretations of (positive) change. This is not a flippant point. The Palace of Westminster is a historic royal palace (part of a World Heritage Site and Grade 1 listed building) that has evolved through a typically British process of evolutionary adaptation and ‘muddling through’. The problem is that this evolution has not kept pace with the broader society and, as a result, a serious gap seems to have emerged between the governors and the governed. Previous attempts to close this gap through a slightly faster or more strategic approach have generally failed due to a combination of issues that include: a culture that is generally resistant to change, denial that significant works are needed, the fragmentation of governance and responsibility within the Palace of Westminster, and the impact of short-term partisan loyalties. These are exactly the issues that Sir Barnet Cocks rails against in his explanation of why Parliament has been so poor in keeping its own House in order and they are issues that the contemporary reform agenda needs to be aware of.
The debate and vote on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster should be viewed as a window of opportunity for redefining and revitalising parliamentary politics in the United Kingdom. Only the most disconnected sections of the political class can deny that change of this nature is urgently needed. The debate is also not about the physical fabric of the Palace of Westminster. The prospects for change will be denied and wasted if the debate becomes one of bricks and mortar. The debate is about whether we have a class of politicians who are brave enough to stand up and argue that democracy costs and that it is an investment in our collective future. The Joint Committee has shown bravery to reject the idea that the necessary work to the Palace can be undertaken while Parliament continues as before—at great long-term cost to the taxpayer. The debate over a restored Palace of Westminster is about social value, as much as it is about economic cost. It’s about connecting people with their Parliament, and democratic change above and beyond continuity. Let’s not let this opportunity go to waste.
Matthew Flinders is Chair of the Political Studies Association and Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He also leads a research and public engagement programme called ‘Designing for Democracy’ www.designingfordemocracy.com