Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Inside The Commons

I have seen two episodes of this fascinating insight of life in the House of Commons. It all makes me conclude that York's famous son Guido Fawkes rather had a point. Now, I am not saying Parliament should be blown up - the building is far too beautiful for that. But with its miles of panelled corridors, archaic language, poky offices, mountainous paperwork and impenetrable systems, it's an establishment that definitely needs a colossal shake-up: a political revolution akin to the agitation of a snow globe or the frantic ripping of a box of confetti.

For it's an institution where applause is considered "a bit too modern". Voting is done by a head count in a lobby. Passed laws are signed off in Norman French, tied up in green ribbon and carried on foot to the Lords. Private Members' Bills to be introduced to the House are selected by something resembling a tombola. Booking a debate slot involves camping. And there are lots of silly costumes.

Snuff is on offer, but it's apparently not "weapons grade". I should think not. Who knows what the sniffer dogs checking the place out before Prime Minister's Questions would make of that, with their (as the narrator wryly remarks) "eyes to the left and their nose to the floor"? Although the dogs are more likely to root something out than the Yeoman of the Guard's ritual romp through the cellars before the State Opening of Parliament. The Yeomen are supposedly checking the basement for gunpowder, but it's so dusty down there I doubt they'd spot any gunpowder before it blew their noses off. If the snuff hadn't taken their nostrils out already, that is.
Parliament from the London Eye

David Cameron claims Parliament is half church, half museum and half school. Other than thinking, "Do your maths, David", he is certainly right about the school bit. It is full of sixty-year-old Tory toffs behaving like 1950s Etonians, with their toy wooden swords (well, OK, just the one) hanging from pink ribbon in the cloakrooms and Gladys in the tea room as a substitute Matron. ("I adore her," sighs Sir Nicholas Soames MP wistfully.) You wouldn't be surprised to find Michael Gove dunking some whip-defiant new boy's head down the toilet.

Some dub it Hogwarts, with the robed Clerk of the House Robert Rogers as Dumbledore, but it seems far from magical to me. The roof is leaking for one thing. Bills don't get passed because Jacob Rees-Mogg (in his Harry Potter glasses) always turns up to philibuster, wasting hours of Parliamentary time and a lot of taxpayers' money. It's nothing to do with charms or curses, although I expect there are a fair few other MPs muttering the latter. But like the Great Hall at Hogwarts, the terrace cafe serves a good porridge, provided you can find your way to it. There is no Marauders' Map available here. Don't let constantly looking at your phone for that all-important tweet lead you astray. The wifi is rubbish anyway.

And church? Yes. The MPs sit on pews. Or some of them do. 200 of them have to stand in the aisles. The rest come in early for morning prayers, but that's only to bag themselves a seat. Think of all the extra work the MPs could get done if they got Kirstie Allsopp in to knock down a few walls. Then there would be enough chairs for everyone and MPs could just rock up a few minutes before the start of a debate. Although the Commons only properly fills up for the Budget or Prime Ministers' Questions. Half the time key issues are being debated to an empty house, and Dennis Skinner.

Museum? There's an antique cigar lighter fixed to the wall and a statue at every turn. The archive shelving is phenomenal, and they're still only making part of Hansard electronic. There are tea urns and piles of porcelain painted with portcullises stored behind a mystery door that has to be broken into by locksmiths. The ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament is full of ritual rather than relevance.

The State Opening of Parliament is the only time when the two main party leaders seem to have a jovial conversation, as Black Rod leads them across from the Commons to the Lords for the Queen's Speech. What do they talk about? Their kids, says Ed Miliband, and how to fit a young family around the pressures of political life. I would sympathise, but I bet they have staff.

What is striking is how at home the Tories look in the tea room. Yet for 13 years New Labour were in power, and they barely seem to have left a mark on the place. Presumably they gave up and went over the road to the new-build Portcullis House to hang out in the atrium coffee shop instead. And while New Labour won't offer to let a female MP sit on their lap like longest-serving Tory Peter Tapsell, they will tell her that she has "unparliamentary hair".
Morning stroll by the Thames before work in 1999.
Portcullis House is still under construction.
The behaviour of many politicians is criticised by their own. "Disgusting," says Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham. "Pathetic" says Charles Kennedy, who I didn't even realise was still in Parliament. "Penis", says Penny Mordaunt, but that's another matter. Champion and Kennedy are referring to shenanigans during Prime Minister's questions - the jeering, and the practice of "free hits", where the Prime Minister e-mails out choice questions to his own MPs in advance, things that when asked will supposedly show him in a good light.

A lot of these MPs do genuinely want to make a difference, but I am not sure how many manage it. The system defeats them at every turn. Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow (eight miles from where I grew up), is trying to get hospital car parking charges abolished, which rather goes against his party policy. Just as it's allowed to be debated in Parliament, George Osborne offers Halfon a job so that he can't actually speak in the House about it. And in the wake of the child grooming scandal in Rotherham, Sarah Champion wants an amendment which would allow offenders to be prosecuted at first contact. Her suggestion is shot down by Tories in committee but subsequently put in by them in their own words. Champion is simply delighted that the law is changed, even if she gets no credit whatsoever for her hard work. She has in fact made a difference.

This programme has certainly quelled any Parliamentary ambitions I may have had. I can't say that they were especially burning in the first place. But I know I could not function in a world like this. It would make me want to scream. Apart from the blond twat on a bike running the shop, I would probably fare better down the river at City Hall, where there is seemingly a more modern, transparent and almost European approach to government.

View from the Monument towards City Hall (far right)
But I do love the Houses of Parliament building. It's my absolute favourite in London, if not in Britain, if not the world. I have been inside it just the once, when I took my mum on a guided tour for her birthday present one year. It was in Blair's heyday, so a very long time ago now. The security checks to let us in were fairly immense. But the tour was fascinating, albeit biased. We followed the Queen's State Opening route through the Robing Room into the House of Lords, which has to be one of the most beautiful chambers I have ever seen. And the House of Commons is surprisingly small. It really is extraordinary that it's supposed to seat 650 people. Although it does have an upstairs, which is used by the Press and invited members of the public. You don't see the gallery on TV, because the cameras are fixed to the balcony. They should, if they're not prepared to let Kirstie knock down those walls, think about moving into the much larger Westminster Hall next door, which seems to be mostly used for concerts and the occasional lying in state. Surely the coffins could go in the Commons instead? Best place for them, if this programme is to be believed.

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