Why don’t we relocate Parliament to the Derby Roundhouse?
I know, we love a bit of ambition but really?
I’d like to think there is method in the madness so bear with me while I build my case…
Last month, on Thursday 4 th April 2019 to be exact, the House of Commons was holding a debate on how HMRC might reclaim unpaid taxes when water began to drip, then pour, through the Chamber’s roof, soaking MPs. Pretty quickly it was realised this needed serious attention and so the sitting was suspended for the day.
The symbolism of the leaky roof and consequent abandoned debate was not lost.
Something is rotten in the Palace of Westminster but it’s going to take more than a bucket and lick of paint to fix it.
I don’t just mean the building itself – which on the evidence from my recent visit appears near to collapse – but, there is also a growing sense that our whole parliamentary democratic system is need of fundamental review and overhaul.
Now, this isn’t a column on Brexit (I gave my take on that dream in the winter 2018 edition of Agenda) but the Brexit debacle – its origins, the referendum and subsequent parliamentary sclerosis – has exposed our political processes to a kind of test to destruction, which it is failing.
The rest of the world has been watching us with a mix of, first amusement and more recently concern, as debate after debate ends in deadlock. That logjam may be forgivable - and at some point it will surely be broken - but the daily circus of the Punch and Judy show put on by many MPs, together with tired idiosyncratic conventions, does not reflect a healthy modern 21st century democracy.
In fact, the Speaker - sitting in an oversized chair belching out instructions about the ‘ayes having it’ and ‘unlocking the doors’ - has become something of an international oddity. He is mimicked apparently by schoolchildren across the world, thinking they are watching some new version of Harry Potter.
For many, the leaky roof was a metaphor too far.
The political stability and pragmatism of the UK, so often lauded as an exemplar, is getting lost.
Both the House of Commons and Lords are divided, political parties are divided, as are communities and even families.
Instability and uncertainty has suddenly become the norm as people try to match the apparent normality of their day-to-day with the psycho-drama played out on TV most evenings.
My point being that Brexit has turned out to mean many things, except perhaps Brexit. It has become a de facto proxy for something, anything, else, much of which has sat beneath for years, or even decades, and is only now beginning to surface.
This includes feelings of being left behind by the progress of globalisation. It includes fear of change and fear of the unknown, underpinned by inequalities in wealth and power. These fears are real, many people are genuinely concerned for themselves, their families, friends and communities.
Some say that the cause of the current edgy zeitgeist lies in the 2008 crash, which I’ve always described not so much as an economic heart attack but an economic stroke with random and unpredictable consequences expressed over time.
I suspect the roots are much deeper; 2001 and its subsequent War on Terror, the 1989 ending of the Cold War and its ‘end of history’, even 1945 and the victory of World War 2.
Truth is, we do not have the benefit of the perspective of distance and time furnished to historians in the future but I do know that this period will be closely studied, analysed and argued over for centuries.
The current angst didn’t just happen overnight just as it won’t be solved whenever Brexit is.
Which brings me back to the rotten state of Parliament – the palace as a property, the democratic process and the Derby Roundhouse.
I’ve visited the Palace of Westminster many, many times.
On my first visit, as an 18-year-old student, I was absorbed by its history, gothic grandeur and hushed and heavy corridors whispering the DNA of democracy.
A few weeks ago, on my most recent visit, I was shocked by its sheer shabbiness, the sense of chaos outside and inside as well as the broken tiles covered in gaffer tape - you know, the type generally found in cheap supermarkets not in one of the homes of democracy.
Isn’t it time to address not just the physical renewal of the Palace but also to re-engage our democracy with the people it represents?
Now, there is a plan to renew the whole parliamentary estate and, like all UK grand projects, it has been talked about for ages. Its costs escalate quicker than Lionel Messi’s goal tally – current figure is £4bn, though I’d suspect nearer £10bn when all said and done – but no substantive work has been undertaken as the Place of Westminster is a workplace visited by over 1million people each year.
The plan is to shut the whole building down for the period of work, estimated at 10 years. To start this, both Houses were meant to decant in 2022, though the earliest date being discussed now seems to be 2028.
The terrible fire at the Notre Dame in Paris has acted as an alarm bell for many (the Palace of Westminster has roughly 10 fires start up somewhere on the estate each year) introducing some urgency into the process.
Meantime, in London, they debate about where both Houses might sit during the decant – candidates include the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, Richmond House or even a pop-up on Horse Guards.
Now, here is a thought - why don’t we take Parliament on tour, at least for the duration of the works?
If our democracy is broken, if people feel disconnected, if there is a north-south divide, if there is fear of the break-up of the UK, then why not move the legislature out for a decade and engage with the regions?
As things stand, the legislature is moving a mere few yards away at vast expense and the cosy Westminster bubble remains unaffected, many would say disconnected.
Just as the FA moved England’s football games around the country whilst Wembley was rebuilt (the game against Mexico at Pride Park Stadium still holds the attendance record) so could both Houses sit, for periods of six months at a time, in buildings located across the country.
A competition could be held to identify the 40 locations required and, of course, in Derby we could easily offer the Roundhouse or the Derby Arena – both perfect for parliamentary sessions in the round (a structure found in all democracies except our antiquated adversarial face-to- face Chamber as it happens).
I know there are logistical issues; safety, security, capacity etc etc but I simply don’t buy easy SW1 bleating.
Many countries base their political capital away from their biggest cities (Australia, Brazil, Canada and the United States for example) and I see nothing but positive reasons as why the UK should at least flirt with the idea. Is it really such an outrageous thought that we should not even consider it?
If successful, the Upper House could remain on permanent tour with the current location of the House of Lords becoming an income generating tourism attraction.
Yes, the economic benefit of such a move for the regions would be great and in many respects rebalancing the economy should be argument enough.
However, I feel the real benefit of Parliament on Tour may not be best measured in GDP and GVA but rather in a reimagining of politics, with a re-engagement between Parliament and the taxpaying communities, a midwifing if you like of our political system into the 21 st century.