Why Should We Care If Westminster Is Falling Down?

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton (@DrAlixKelso). You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.


In these austere times, no one likes the idea of spending £3.5bn on refurbishing the Houses of Parliament, yet, according to an independent report, that is exactly what it would cost to save that grand old building from disintegrating into the River Thames – and even then the figure assumes that MPs and peers would move out of the place altogether for six years while the work takes place. The Grade-I listed building is not only sinking into the soft clay on which the city of London stands, it is also plagued with asbestos, riddled with antiquated cabling, and subject to regular water ingress. It is in such an advanced state of decrepitude that its repair cannot easily be avoided for much longer. When this news was announced in June 2015, the immediate attention related to the staggering costs of refurbishment. While the repair costs are obviously no small matter, there are also broader issues underpinning this controversy, one of which concerns the democratic importance of the site itself.

The Westminster parliament is an iconic building, symbolic of our national political life, and its image is indelibly associated with breaking news stories about politics. While we may debate the merits of refurbishing a building for its historical value, the Palace of Westminster is the central focus of the UK’s democratic political life, and this necessarily changes the terms of the discussion. The gothic magnificence of Westminster serves to elevate politics as a special sort of public activity, while also imbuing parliamentary politics with a degree of ritual mystification which distinguishes between insiders and outsiders in a way that may not always be democratically healthy. The place is called Hogwarts-on-Thames for good reason.

Parliament is a key public space through which public claims are made and signals are sent about who has the right to make political decisions, and it is also the space in which political performances are enacted (Parkinson 2012, 93). The parliamentary setting is a powerful cue for the legitimation of those political decisions, which is why it matters a great deal if the building from which those cues emanate is literally crumbling around the actors who inhabit it. Yet, as a site of fundamentally important democratic activity, parliament must not only be symbolically relevant for the public, but also practically accessible to them too. On this point, the Westminster parliament does not score highly, precisely because it is viewed as emblematic of an elite approach to politics which has long been resistant to public participation. For this reason, there have been calls to radically rethink the site by turning the Palace of Westminster into a museum and designing an entirely new parliament building that is fit for twenty-first century democratic politics.

Such a proposal is clearly radical, and those embedded in the rituals and myths of Westminster are unlikely to endorse it, even if the cost of refurbishing parliament presents an excellent opportunity to consider alternative options. But there is a significant risk in not thinking ambitiously and courageously about this. The 2009 MPs expenses scandal did serious and lasting damage to our political class, and the public are unlikely to respond warmly to the idea of billions being spent to preserve politicians’ archaic way of doing business, particularly at a time when public spending continues to be slashed in the wake of the Great Recession. We should therefore care very much that Westminster is falling down, not just because the costs of propping it back up again will be substantial, but because it also presents a unique opportunity to reimagine the physical space in which we conduct our parliamentary politics and through which we express our political dreams and aspirations. Politics should be about such lofty ambitions as these. This is a chance for us to think big and test the boundaries of our democratic possibilities. While this issue remains live, we ought to at least open up a debate about what we want from our parliament building and the extent to which patching up Westminster is sufficient to fulfil our democratic desires.


Parkinson, J.R. (2012) Democracy and Public Space (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

3 thoughts on “Why Should We Care If Westminster Is Falling Down?

  1. thanks for sharing this interesting article.

    Westminster may remind us of Hogwarts with its magnificent intricacy and gorgeous arches but don’t you think it looks equally like Eton? Maybe parliament should look more similar to the places where most people live, learn and make decisions. Power is inscribed in the landscape through buildings and it’s easy to understand why Westminster is seen to be symbolic of an elitist establishment. Nevertheless the value of preserving the building in the form of a museum for posterity is obvious.

  2. thanks for sharing this interesting article.

    Westminster may remind us of Hogwarts with its magnificent intricacy and gorgeous arches but don’t you think it looks equally like Eton? Maybe parliament should look more similar to the places where most people live, learn and make decisions. Power is inscribed in the landscape through buildings and it’s easy to understand why Westminster is seen to be symbolic of an elitist establishment. Nevertheless the value of preserving the building in the form of a museum for posterity is obvious.

  3. I could not disagree with you more Dr Parkinson. The palace of Westminster is an archaic building that represents an empire that has long since been lost. Political disengagement is at an all time high and if the political elite wish to engage more with those they wish to serve, a new home of British politics is needed. It is the people of Britain who should be deciding whether to repair or develop the palace, as we are the ones who will be paying whatever happens. That it is in urgent need of repair, presents us with an excellent opportunity to British people decide where their home of politics should be, rather than the untrusted political elites.

    Of course it is not only our home of politics that is in urgent need of repair, so too is our political system. It is undemocratic, unrepresentative and it neither works for nor meets the needs of the vast majority of the British population. Perhaps it is timely that a new group is being setting up by a number of people who are concerned about how our political system fails to provide the kind of society in which we want to live. The purpose of the group is to provide a forum for anyone UK resident to come together to discuss, debate, design and build a better, fairer, more democratic system of politics that would work for all of us.

    Group meetings will happen online as webinars and anyone UK resident, can join the group by emailing the organisers at redesigndemocracy@yahoo.co.uk to be added to the list of invitees.

    Perhaps as well as a new home for British politics, we will also have a new political system.

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