A makeover for the mother of Parliaments

LONDON • London Bridge is not falling down, but the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace are. In recent weeks, each building has been declared unfit for habitation, with the prospect of Members of Parliament, as well as the monarch, moving out during renovations that may take decades to complete.

We Britons can't help believing there is something symbolic about both our legislature and sovereign being forced to decamp from grand, vainglorious buildings that perhaps no longer reflect our place in the world. With Scotland still threatening to separate from England and our international status in flux, political angst is clearly affecting the fabric. But to abandon these buildings - and the meanings attached to them - would be a mistake.

"If the palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild." So concludes a parliamentary report on the condition of the Palace of Westminster, seat of the Houses of Parliament. As someone with the privilege of working there, I can attest to the brickwork crumbling, the River Thames slopping into the basement, the mice scampering through the tearooms and the electricity frequently cutting out.

Of course, ensuring a pleasant environment for politicians is rarely at the top of any architect's priorities. Instead, designed in the 1830s by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the Palace of Westminster was created as a testament to British tradition and order in a period of tumultuous change.


Sadly, asbestos, damp and faulty cabling are now threatening to do to Westminster what the Nazis could not. Soon, MPs must decide whether to stay in the building during a refit projected to cost about $14 billion and take more than 30 years to complete, or exit entirely for six years, at a cost of around US$7 billion, or some combination of these measures. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The problem is that all these famous British buildings are often more popular than their residents are. Not many people have a good word to say about politicians, but the popularity of the Palace of Westminster has rarely been higher.

The mediaeval palace had burned down in 1834, but rather than celebrate the Industrial Revolution with a modern design, the architects followed contemporary fashion by returning to the past with a conservative Gothic aesthetic.

Pugin decked out the new palace in a riot of gold, crimson and gilded extravagance. The historical paintings were commissioned to highlight what the 19th-century historian Henry Hallam had called "the long and uninterruptedly increasing prosperity of England as the most beautiful phenomenon in the history of mankind".

This was a consciously British building: Above the central lobby, the saints of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland formed the defining mosaics. And it was an imperial edifice, with frescoes depicting heroic moments in Britain's march across the globe: the beginnings of British influence in India, the death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar and the triumph of Wellington at Waterloo. Westminster endorsed the moral determination and colonial certainties of Victorian Britain.

So when, during World War II, the German Luftwaffe bombed the House of Commons, Winston Churchill was adamant that it be swiftly rebuilt "in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity". Westminster Palace had become an essential part of the British psyche - a universal symbol of parliamentary democracy - that no Nazi air raid should undermine. "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us," he said.

Sadly, asbestos, damp and faulty cabling are now threatening to do to Westminster what the Nazis could not. After decades of neglect, the fabric of Parliament has reached crisis point. Soon, we must decide whether to stay in the building during a refit projected to cost about US$10 billion (S$13.7 billion) and take more than 30 years to complete or exit entirely for six years, at a cost of around US$7 billion, or some combination of these measures.

Relocating would mean no lobbies, chambers or busts; instead, some functional conference centre with PowerPoint projectors. It might even involve moving to Milton Keynes, Britain's answer to Phoenix (only, Phoenix has a better climate and more attractive golf courses).

Across St James' Park, Queen Elizabeth II faces a similar prospect. Buckingham Palace has been the principal residence of the British monarch since 1837, but with a 10-year refurbishment project costing up to US$250 million of taxpayers' money now urgent, the Queen, too, may be looking for alternative accommodation. Behind that famous balcony facing the Mall, where Allied victories have been commemorated and royal weddings and births celebrated, the palace's plumbing and wiring are failing.

Our constitutional monarchy may be just a veneer, but it still needs light and running water. A version of the author Sue Townsend's delicious wish in The Queen And I of dispatching the Queen to a social housing block might just come true - but with Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham castles at her disposal, there are other options.

The problem is that all these famous British buildings are often more popular than their residents are. Not many people have a good word to say about politicians, but the popularity of the Palace of Westminster has rarely been higher. And we MPs desperately hope that its Minton tiles, hammer-beam roofs and Gothic turrets can somehow confer public respect on us.

We also know that if we move out, there is a distinct risk that we won't be allowed back in. Rather than a crucible of democracy, the Houses of Parliament could come to sit alongside Westminster Abbey as just another visitor attraction in heritage Britain.

There is something seismic taking place amid the masonry of Westminster. Buckingham Palace and Parliament were buildings that embodied a bombastic, imperial British identity, once amply supported by a world-class army, an admired civil service and a mighty currency.

In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, the meaning of Great Britain is in doubt. Our armed forces are a shadow of their former selves. The monarch is as much a sales representative as a sovereign. And we are soon to hold another referendum, on whether to stay in or get out of the European Union.

For progressives, the crumbling of Westminster represents an opportunity to free ourselves from the vestiges of an outmoded Great Power self-image. We could replace the mediaeval Gothic castle with a functional modern building suitable to our diminished status. Others have suggested taking Parliament on tour around Britain's four nations to rebuild our waning sense of Britishness.

To my mind, it would be folly to leave. People want more, not less, democracy: greater energy in the battle of ideas and potency in their politics. We won't get that from the bleak utilitarianism of a converted sports arena.

What Westminster provides - for all its overblown pomp - is an inspirational sense of the heroism, sacrifice and magnificence of democracy. If we threw that away, we would prove unworthy of the very buildings.

NEW YORK TIMES

• The writer is a Labour Member of the British Parliament and the author, most recently, of Cities Of Empire: The British Colonies And The Creation Of The Urban World.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'A makeover for the mother of Parliaments'. Print Edition | Subscribe