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A new home for politics?
Charles Barry’s Palace of Westminster is a beautiful building imbued with the memories of generations of political power brokers; with every footstep taken around its gilded corridors, the echoes of history made and in the making can be heard.
I can recall my first visit there as though it was yesterday. On a school trip to London in 1971 as a 10 year old living in Stockton-on-Tees, I visited the House of Commons and was given a tour by our local MP, then Labour frontbencher Bill Rodgers (now Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank). I listened intently as he spoke with great enthusiasm and passion about the history of parliament and the building. Even now, when my work takes me into that place, I still feel a thrill walking into the Members’ Lobby and along the Committee Corridor, surrounded by all that history.
Today though, I wonder whether the weight of history and tradition that surrounds our parliament building gets in the way of the conduct of politics for the modern era. Only time will tell whether our coalition government’s desire to usher in an era of ‘new politics’ becomes a reality cemented through political transformation such as voting reform, an elected second chamber and fixed-term parliaments. In a spirit of optimism I hope that all this and more will come to pass.
In a more plural and collaborative politics, our adversarial House of Commons looks like an anachronism, with its face-to-face benches, carpets marked with red lines to keep the Opposition and Government two swords’ lengths apart, and the absurdity of insufficient room for every MP to have a seat. We have already had a glimpse of modern politics in the new buildings inhabited by the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales – surely it is time to be bold and have the same in our Mother of Parliaments?
I suggest that it is time to blend the spirit of new politics with the imperative of resource efficiency and the solution may lie just a few minutes down the Jubilee Line from Westminster: Olympic Park, Stratford, could be converted into a new parliament building. Despite all the talk about ‘legacy’, I have no doubt that we will be saddled with a stadium that nobody really needs after the 2012 Olympics. Perhaps we can have an architectural competition to reuse the Olympic Stadium by converting it into a new home for parliament, and not only that, we can deal with the MPs’ expenses issue once and for all by providing them with weekday accommodation in the Olympic Village. Given the ease with which this area is reached from Westminster, it would not be too painful for government officials and lobbyists to jump on the Tube for meetings, and perhaps there might be some partial relocation of the political hinterland from Westminster as well, aiding the regeneration of East London. There would be plenty of room for peaceful protesters, too!
It could all be rebuilt to good energy-efficiency standards using recycled materials and would provide a modern, sustainable home for our decision makers, making good use of a site and buildings that might well be neglected otherwise.
As for the Palace of Westminster, it would make a wonderful museum of democracy, maintaining the opportunity to visit and be inspired by Britain’s political history while the modern-day business of democracy takes place up the road in a new, hemi-circular chamber worthy of the new politics we aspire to, one that encourages collaboration and reflects more accurately the diversity of life in Britain today.
Maybe this sounds far-fetched or simply naive, but when did our forefathers let tradition get in the way of making bold decisions? Our democracy needs the modern-day equivalent of a Brunel or a Stephenson – or indeed a Charles Barry – to be given the chance to do something special, resourceful and modern and create a parliament we can all be proud of.
It’s over to you, Dave and Nick...
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