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).