Members of Britain’s Parliament have been arguing about whether to run away from home.
Why? Well, they come from a broken home. The Palace of Westminster, where they meet, is without too much exaggeration falling apart. To give a fairly random example, on April 22, a stone angel dropped a chunk of stone some 230 feet (that’s 70 meters, or in technical terms, a long damn way) to the ground. If this was the angel’s opinion of the government’s immigration policy (rough summary: we only want immigrants who are just like us, and we don’t really want them either), or on what it’s doing to the National Health Service or public services in general, I couldn’t agree more. Either one is enough to make the angels weep. Also enough to make the angels throw blocks of stone.
I don’t know how much the stone weighed. Enough to flatten a government, but angels have lousy aim, more’s the pity.
Westminster Palace isn’t–as the British measure these things–old, but it’s old enough to need £3.9 billion in repairs. Give or take a few hundred million, because the costs always escalate. But why should friends quibble about money, especially small amounts?
Let’s do a bit of history before we talk about what’s broken:
The first palace on the site was built in 1016,
Whether 1016 is a start date or a completion date, I haven’t a clue–construction slow back then–but it happened so long time ago that we don’t really need to know.
Then the Normans conquered the country. They looked the palace over and said, “Nice place. We’ll take it.”
Only they said it in French.
That building burned down in 1512, under Henry VIII. Fire is not a slow process, so one year more than covers it. It was rebuilt, but Henry’s eye had wandered–he had a short attention span–and he’d moved to a different palace. It stopped being a royal residence and was used by Parliament and the royal law courts.
It doesn’t sound like the place was a good fit for Parliament even then. The Lords met in what had been the queen’s chamber, then moved into a larger hall when the George III expanded the peerage and they couldn’t all stuff themselves in any longer. The Commons didn’t have a chamber of its own at first because they were, you know, commoners. They were supposed to feel lucky that they were allowed in at all.
The new building burned in 1834. The replacement incorporated what survived of the old palace (I think that’s medieval replacement; as far as I can figure out, nothing was left of the older old palace) into a gothic-style monster that spreads along the Thames.
“Monster” isn’t a comment on the architecture. I know zilch about architecture. It’s just big.
William IV (no, I don’t know anything about him either; ask me about commas; I’m pretty good with commas) didn’t like the new building and when it was almost completed he offered it to Parliament, which said thanks, Bill, but it really doesn’t work for us either.
But it turns out that nothing else worked for them either, and tradition exerts a powerful pull, so against its better judgment, Parliament moved in.
In 1835, the king opened parliament by assuring them that the fire had been accidental. Who said it hadn’t been? No one that I can find reference to, but there’s nothing like denying a crime to make the world wonder.
And there we’ll leave Parliament for a century or so, with its members following arcane traditions and running around in fancy robes and silly costumes.
During World War II, the building was bombed fourteen separate times. That was not by accident.
Which brings us to the present day, when it’s not London Bridge that’s falling down but Westminster Palace.
What’s wrong with the place? The roof leaks. Sorry, make that roofs, because it has loads of them. The gutters and downpipes are corroding. The stonework’s decaying. Angels are throwing things. It’s full of asbestos. The plumbing’s a disaster. Very few of the 4,000 windows close well. “The heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated and improvements to fire safety are needed.”
What’s more, the building was made of Anston limestone, which was cheap and easy to carve but it decays quickly, and time’s caught up with it.
One source says the House of Commons only has room for one wheelchair. Another says wheelchair users have to sit in the middle of the chamber in both the Lords and the Commons. Take your choice. Either way, it’s a problem.
Other than that, everything’s fine. Except for the “vast quantities of combustible materials. This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids [the architects] created to aid ventilation, had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.”
The wiring hasn’t been replaced since the 1870s. If the steam pipes blow (they’re older than all of us put together and the steam puts them under pressure), they’ll scatter asbestos in all directions. Grease from the kitchen is leaking onto pipes that carry the electrical wires.
Oh, and there aren’t enough seats for all the MPs. It’s infested with mice. And it caught fire forty times between 2008 and 2012. Four or five people are always on fire patrol. A former cabinet minister called it a death trap. And did I mention the plumbing? It smells bad. And backs up regularly.
It’s not that no one’s tried to maintain the palace, but maintenance can only be done when Parliament isn’t in session and the repairs have been slower than the decay. And, of course, not enough money was dedicated to it. To get the place in working order, they’ll need to pack the Members of Parliament and the Lords into separate boxes (the Lords’ box is lined with ermine; the Commons is just, you know, a very nice box) and move them out so some real work can go on.
In February, against the advice of government ministers, who wanted to form a committee to think about preparing to get ready to study the situation, MPs voted to move out so the work can start.
A decisive move, only they’re still there. Moving out will take a full Act of Parliament, which is “unlikely to happen before 2025.” I think that means the repairs starting, not the act, although you couldn’t prove it by me. An Act of Parliament has to be approved by both houses and then the queen has to wave her magic feather over it. It doesn’t take seven years unless the queen’s trapped in amber.
Some older MPs, primarily Conservatives, don’t want to move out during the work because–or so say the younger MPs who favor the move–they don’t want to serve out their final years in temporary quarters. But staying while the repair work goes on around them could boost the cost to £5.7 billion and stretch the work out so it takes forty years.
If the place doesn’t fall down first.
Some MPs and Lords worry (and others hope) that a move would kill off a few of the more arcane rituals associated with Westminster. Like what? Like the speaker of the Commons opening the day’s session by parading to their meeting room (sorry–it’s called a chamber but I can’t seem to call it that), together with the trainbearer, the chaplain, the secretary, and the serjeant (that’s how they spell it) at arms, with I’m not sure which of them calling out, “Hats off, strangers.” Like each newly appointed speaker being dragged up to the speaker’s chair. Like the doorkeeper calling, “Who goes home?” at the end of the day’s session. Like placing boxes of snuff outside the Commons’ and Lords’ meeting rooms, or MPs having to place a prayer card on a seat to reserve it because (and we’re back to that again) there aren’t enough seats for them all to cram in.
Ah, but there’s more: One elevator can’t be used when the Lords are voting, and there’s a staircase that only MPs can set foot on. And a blue carpet that you can cross but not loiter on. Plus a room where you’re sometimes allowed to speak and sometimes not and little hooks for MPs to hang up their swords. The Lords have ribbons for theirs.
How do you hang a sword on a ribbon? You’re on your own there. I’ve never tried.
Politically, voting either to move out or to stay is enough to set a politician’s skin twitching. Inevitably, the people who elected them will ask, “You just voted to spend how many billion pounds to spruce up your workplace?” But every year they put off the work adds something like £100 million to the cost.
This is complicated by the government’s inaction on the many high-rise apartment buildings around the country (they’re called tower blocks here) whose siding (called cladding) turns out to be flammable. This came to light when one, Grenfell Tower, burned to a tall and horrifying cinder ini June 2017, killing many of the residents. Cue government handwringing, pious statements, and long-lasting inaction.
But yes, quick pious statement and we’ll go back to the important things: Should the palace be rebuilt exactly as it is, only updated and functional? Or should changes be made?
Like what changes? Well, women MPs complain that the seating’s built for male-size bodies, leaving short women with their legs dangling. (Speaking as a short woman, I can testify: Your back hates you when you sit way that for long.) Or the bars. Do they keep them all?
What bars? Parliament must be the country’s most alcohol-soaked workplace. Once Lords and MPs have hung up their swords (or possibly before, I wouldn’t know), they have a choice of almost thirty bas. Not everyone can drink at all of them. Some are only for lords. Some are for MPs. Journalists drink at a different one. The mice drink at another. The Lords at one point declined to merge their champagne order with the Commons’. It would’ve saved money but they were afraid the champagne wouldn’t be as good.
The public subsidy for all that is $8 million. Exactly why we’ve changed from pounds to dollars for this is beyond me, but it’s okay because we’re bilingual here.
Alcoholism and embarrassing incidents are–well, let’s not say they’re common, let’s say they’re not uncommon. I’m not sure how much of a difference there is between the two but the second one sounds better.
In addition to the bars and cafeteria(s?), there’s a hairdresser, a gym, a florist, another bar, a post office, a travel office, more bars. . . . You’d hardly have to set your well-shod foot in the real world except to convince your constituents that you think only of them.The palace was built at a time when a gentleman belonged to a gentleman’s club, and it seemed natural to recreate that atmosphere.
In spite of the building’s perks and symbolism, some MPs would rather start over someplace else and have proposed building something new instead of rescuing the palace. It could have enough office space, room in the House of Commons for all the MPs, and functional plumbing. The current building could become a museum, they say.
There’s also been some suggestion that politics might be less adversarial if the Commons’ meeting room were shaped like, say, a horseshoe instead of having ranks of benches facing each other. On the evidence of American politics, I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for that.
In the meantime, Big Ben–the big honkin’ clock at the top of the building’s tower–is in the process of being repaired to the tune of £61 million, which is twice the original estimate. The clock’s expected to stay silent until 2021
Why does that need to be done? Cracks in the masonry, leaks, rusting metal, not keeping good time, the possibility that clock itself could hurl itself to the sidewalk in despair.
Is it more pressing than fixing the rest of the building? I’m not sure, but it can be done without decanting–as they put it–the entire parliament and all its support workers into something resembling the real world.