Using the past to help us to understand the future of the Palace of Westminster

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Alexandra Meakin of the University of Leeds. On 9 November 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., she will be responding to your questions about her pre-circulated paper on ‘Using the past to help us understand the future of the Palace of Westminster’. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

The Palace of Westminster is in a state of advanced disrepair, and faces what was described by a Joint Committee of MPs and Peers in 2016 as ‘an impending crisis which we cannot reasonably ignore’. While a major refurbishment project—Restoration and Renewal (R&R)—was approved in 2018, the future of the Palace remains uncertain, as concerns mount among some MPs about the cost and the prospect of temporarily moving out to allow the work to take place.

The risk of a catastrophic fire, flood or failure of the essential services within the Palace has developed over many decades, as vital maintenance was neglected and the infrastructure serving the building went far past its expected lifespan. Indeed, some of the mechanical and electrical plant dates back to the building’s establishment in the mid-19th century, as a replacement for the old Palace, destroyed by fire in 1834.

The 1834 fire, as discussed previously on this blog, occurred after multiple unheeded warnings about the state of the building, a situation worryingly similar to today. It is not the only lesson from history, however, which may be relevant for current discussions. This blog posits that through historical analysis we can identify five recurrent themes that help to explain policymaking decisions relating to the Palace as a legislative building (figure 1, below).

Figure 1: Explaining policy decisions

A confused governance system has been evident in Westminster for centuries, manifested through divided patronage between the King and Prime Minister in the appointment of architects to work on the Palace in the 18th century and delays to the rebuilding after the 1834 fire caused by contradictory instructions from ministers, MPs and Peers—an issue still present today. In addition, the emotional attachment parliamentarians feel about their workplace—for example in the form of a connection to their predecessors, transmitted through the very fabric of the Palace—influences the decisions they make about its future.

This is linked to the third recurrent theme: a clear unwillingness to make radical changes to the Palace. When disaster has occurred, there has been a tendency to recreate the past: either in the exact replica of the previous Commons chamber in the 1940s (described by one MP in 1945 as taking ‘nostalgia to the stage of absurdity’), or in Barry’s design for the new Palace after the 1834 fire. These decisions then become precedent to be followed faithfully in future, a form of path dependency that explains the reluctance to move out of the Palace, the fourth theme. Finally, historical analysis shows that you cannot explain decisions about the Palace of Westminster purely by considering what was happening within the building. The intrinsically political nature of the legislature means that wider political events have influenced the policies chosen for the building.

The Elizabeth Tower covered in scaffolding, 2019; image: Ethan Doyle White, CC via Wikimedia Commons

Looking to history helps to explain how R&R became necessary but it can also explain why its future remains unclear. While the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 legislated for an independent governance structure, the future of the R&R project continues to be subject to the views of the House of Commons Commission. A number of MPs remain opposed to leaving the Palace of Westminster even temporarily, demonstrating the same attachment to the building as has been witnessed for generations. There have been repeated efforts to scale back the scope of programme, in a further sign of the tendencies towards conservatism and to reflect the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. A key lesson from the historical analysis is that major work to the Palace of Westminster has tended to occur only when unavoidable: despite the approval of R&R, it may be that history repeats itself and the ‘impending crisis’ warned of in 2016 occurs.

The threat of a crisis is one major reason why the future of the Palace of Westminster matters. The risk to the Palace is not just about the potential loss of an emblem of national identity, but also the very real dangers faced by the people working in or visiting Parliament. Former Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, has warned that ‘it is only by sheer luck that no one has been injured or killed’ to date. But the future of the building also matters for the health of our democracy. Legislative buildings are not just symbols of the institution, but their architecture, design and décor affect how people—parliamentarians, staff and visitors—behave within. Through the necessary work to fix the pipes and stonework, the UK Parliament has an opportunity to think about how it can build a legislative building fit for the 21st century, shaped by the public and designed to facilitate their engagement with democracy. Taking this opportunity before crisis occurs would demonstrate that MPs and Peers really have learnt from the past.

AM

To find out more, Alexandra’s full-length paper ‘Using the past to help us understand the future of the Palace of Westminster’ is available here. Alexandra will be taking questions about her research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 9 November 2021.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Alexandra, please send it to seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s