The most famous parliament in the world is falling apart. That neo-gothic pile on the banks of the Thames needs a multi-year, multibillion-pound restoration. But it’s not just the building that’s in disrepair: the institution itself cries out for a thorough overhaul.
Yesterday, when MPs left Westminster to plunge into the election campaign, John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, survived a slimy government manoeuvre intended to make his own re-election unlikely. Bercow’s personality may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he has been a genuinely reforming Speaker. Over the fixed term of the next parliament, he should lead a renovation not merely of its stones but of its democratic functioning.
If you were to ask me spontaneously to identify the symbol of German national identity, I would probably say the Brandenburg Gate; for Poland, perhaps the Royal Castle in Krakow; for China, the Tiananmen entrance to the forbidden city, still decorated with an outsized portrait of the tyrant Mao. For Britain, it is the Houses of Parliament. Even when you have stripped away all the layers of mythology and self-congratulation, the pioneering and continuous history of parliamentary government – which eventually became representative democracy – is something particular to England and, subsequently, Britain.
The historian John Maddicott traces first mentions of an English “parlement” back to the 12th century. He argues that by the 14th century the extent of deliberative participation in monarchic government was unique in Europe. In the 17th century this parliament asserted its power over the monarchy, in two very English revolutions.
To be sure, there never was a golden age; there never is. We are told that when the old parliament building burned down, in 1834, the crowd applauded as the roof fell in. When John Bright talked in 1865 of “the mother of parliaments” he was actually referring to England, not to parliament itself, and lamenting the fact that so many people were still denied the vote………
It is not just parliament’s buildings that require extensive renovation
Timothy Garton Ash