We talk constantly about political white elephants; vanity projects undertaken by Governments in an attempt to appear hip and down with the kids. To the public, they are often seen as an enormous waste of money put forward by politicians concerned solely with their material legacy and it is hard for many people to see the direct benefit of these schemes, particularly at a time when they perceive front line services to be under threat.
The £4 billion restoration of the Palace of Westminster is not one of those projects.
Last week the Commons approved proposals put forward by the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster which would see Parliament “decanted” into various other venues from 2023 in order for essential maintenance work to be undertaken. The project aims to prevent this historic building from sliding slowly into the river Thames or succumbing to an electrical related incident due to its archaic wiring.
While this plan has the broad support of members of the public and parliamentarians alike, some have expressed outrage at the thought of spending £4-7 billion on a building which is arguably no longer fit for purpose. Both Graham Stringer and Alex Salmond have voiced their support for a new parliament, with Stringer suggesting that the Palace should be sold off and turned into a “museum of democracy” and for the Government to take up residence “outside of the M25”.
Some of their arguments actually have merit. It is not very often that a building designed to give a political voice to the masses lacks the facilities to actually cater for them but then relishes its inability to perform its most basic function. One would hope that in a modern democracy each member would be able to participate in debates without having to jostle their way into the chamber seven hours before proceedings begin in order to get an acceptable seat. So it is unfortunate then that the idea designing a new parliament for a modern Britain is so politically toxic.
The simple fact is that any building designed to replace the Westminister Palace would not be Westminister Palace. The Parliamentary estate has such an intense and intrinsic link to the development of modern British democracy that to retire it from active service would be a politically devastating move. When I think of political representation, democracy and debate, my mind does not wander to Washington, Athens or Þingvellir; it conjures images of Victorian bell towers and green leather benches. While we may despair at the decisions made by governments, they are detached from the legacy of the building itself.
That is why the restoration of Westminster is of vital importance. It is a uniquely unifying object in the mind of the British public and while one day we may opt to relocate to Bolton, we have a duty of care to preserve it as a monument to democracy.