|Posted by Mark Cantrell on April 12, 2014 at 10:10 AM|
Has Parliament interred the body politic in a tomb of grandiose vanity?
After a recent work trip to the House of Lords (his very first), Mark Cantrell was left wondering if the Mother of Parliaments isn't more like a museum or a mausoleum dedicated to a bygone age, rather than a living legislature standing up to the challenges of a modern world
AFTER the armed guards at the gate it was easy, or so I thought. I hadn't counted on the security checkpoint inside; the mugshot it scanned for my pass caught me at my flustered worst.
The only thing missing was the horned helm; with that, I'd have been the fur-clad Northern barbarian I felt. As it was, I looked dishevelled; hair out of place, hot in my winter coat. This was London, where the bright young things were dressed for Spring, not the colder climes of an early morning start from 'oop north, so I arrived at my destination anything but cool and collected.
But I was in. So, obviously, I didn't look like a threatening barbarian. The man I'd arranged to meet was waiting somewhere in the cloakroom, as if such a word suitably describes the polished brass and wood opulence within; sure, it was where the assembled Lords and Ladies hang their coats, but this was a veritable palace among cloakrooms. I was half expecting Harry Potter to pop up out of the woodwork.
Instead, there was my host. I felt like a tourist, and a misplaced one at that, but I was in Westminster for work, not a sightseeing tour. All the same, my host took me on a quickfire scout around its hallowed halls.
The place is a warren; it takes two years to learn your way around, I was informed. By the time we'd navigated a few twists and turns, I well believed him. If it takes time to figure your way about, the same can be said of gaining any appreciation of its interior. There is so much to take in it leaves you breathless; even a humble corridor is a feast of architecture and history, art and the accumulated trappings of power.
By modern standards, the House of Lords is gauche, but it's rich in detail. Whatever you feel about the place itself, and what it stands for, whether you want to just admire the architecture and the art, or shake your fist at the accreted class privilege of centuries, then you seriously need to just pick a spot, stand still, and gaze slowly around you. There's just far too much to take in otherwise.
Sadly, a glance is more or less all I had time for on my little whistlestop tour, as my Lordly guide walked me briskly through the highlights of the House of Lords, complete with a genial and informative commentary. In a way, it was a fascinating preamble to our discussion later, when I grilled him about housing policy and the politics of it all; for now I listened to his anecdotes, and tried to absorb as much of the ambience as sensorial osmosis would allow.
In the Lords' debating chamber itself, I found the forum rather smaller than television or photos really manage to convey. The Queen's throne, meanwhile, seemed lacklustre in comparison to what we perceive on the box during those State occasions when the monarchy presents itself in all its garish ceremony; flat and lifeless, to my mind it stood like an afterthought as I accompanied my host into the chamber. Still, with all that gold leaf and adornment, it represented some serious bling.
Beyond the chamber, more corridors and hallways, some of the latter large enough to take an arrangement of comfy seats for the ennobled ones and their guests; plenty of space for the tourists to mingle too, but they're cleared out once the sessions begin, and then emptiness reigns. There is, perhaps, a metaphor there for Londoners to mull over, as the cost of living and the price of housing conspire to make the city all but a haven for the richest, at the expense even of the merely affluent, let alone the poor – but more on that later.
From the walls, as my guide leads the way, gaze portraits of monarchs past; Sir Francis Drake peers out from one Elizabethan age to another. Statues and finery; all of it the residue of an Empire gone to join the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, the Byzantine, the Roman in the mists of history, yet in this place it somehow clings to some half-alive memory of faded triumphs; Pax Britannia still echoes here. And maybe that's part of the problem.
Onwards, and we passed through the robing room, as I think of it. I forget what my host actually called it; another point jostled from my brain by the seething crush of detail, but this is the room where the Queen is dressed in her regalia ready for State occasions. On the far wall, roped off, was a lesser throne, if it can be called that, where the monarch sits.
The covering is the self-same fabric that Queen Victoria sat upon in 1854. Quite why that little factette stuck in my mind is hardly a mystery; the irreverent thought that the cloth has seen a lot of Royal cheek over the years couldn't help but provoke an internal chuckle.
No let up from my host, meanwhile, who I think has a quiet pride in the place, and in his sense that the Lords are removed from the grubby politics and combative diatribes of the Commons; he regards himself not as a politician but as a Parliamentarian, a subtle but important distinction that is best set aside for our purposes here.
Instead, let's continue the tour – it's drawing to a close now, in any case – as he took me through yet more corridors. These were lined with books, so many books, in splendidly understated bookcases that reached to the high ceiling; in stark contrast to the ornate and richly textured environs I'd seen thus far. I would challenge any bibliophile not to feel their pulse quicken at the sight.
This corridor-come-library was an overspill from the House of Lords' library proper, and walking beneath the quiet presence of those bookcases I was struck for the first time – I don't mind confessing – by the sheer majesty of books. This is a presence – no, an authority – that no digital medium will ever be able to manifest; walking this corridor is a reminder that a book is not data, no mere content, but a thing in itself and lacking this corporeal substance, an ebook is but an ephemeral ghost.
There are many ghosts, it seems, in the Houses of Parliament. Walking through its interior for the first time, it struck me what a fantastic museum of British history it represents (as seen through the eyes of the elites that have stalked these halls), if given over to that purpose; yet here it stands as a living legislature, trapped in a bubble of time between the Britain that was, and the new nation that has emerged around it. But still, for all it extrudes into the latter, it remains very much a remnant of the former.
The thought was slow in coming, mulled into existence in the hours and days since my departure, but it struck me that much of modern UK politics are conducted within the confines of a mausoleum dedicated to the glories of yesteryear. Somewhere, somehow, like a pearl accreting around grit, the Houses of Parliament is a neverwhere of its own making.
This can't be good for the health of British politics. Remember those echoes of Pax Britannia; I am left wondering what affect the almost subliminal, but utterly insistent, presence of the reminiscences of past glories has on the mindset of those engaged in the political processes conducted within. The Houses of Parliament stand like a monument to Britain's historical presence on the world stage; it's interior forms a veritable temple to bygone days of Imperial vanity, neither quite capture the realities of the United Kingdom in the 21st Century.
As the MPs in the Commons and the Lords in the upper chamber go about their business – day after day, year after year – does it seep into their subconscious and into their thoughts, subtly shifting their perceptions of Britain and its place today in the wider world? Do the accumulated trappings of former times – of imperial mastery and past Parliamentary pomp – invade their dreams to leave them yearning to recapture some of that spirit of ascendancy?
For sure, some will defend the continuity that the preserved traditions and artful trinkets in the House of Parliament represent, that sense of history, but of course there are others who see the need for reform; even so far as to take modern British politics out of this museum and into a forum more suited to a 21st Century, post-imperial nation.
For me, for now, the questions are perhaps moot; I'm just here to share a few of the thoughts prompted by my little work-related tourism trip, but given the reason for my visit – to talk housing and the related political questions around this most vexing issue, maybe those problems are rooted in this strange confluence of eras that seem to merge in Parliament.
Questions it might have been interesting to put to my host, had I mulled them into being in time for our scheduled interview, but housing is becoming a critical issue for a city that still boasts of being a globally important venue for high finance and international business. Yet, as few people can be unaware, the cost of finding a home is slowly crippling this strident, bullish metropolis.
Politics, and the politicians, are steeped in the grandeur of an age when London, the United Kingdom, and the Empire appeared unassailable. For Londoners – and indeed the country beyond – securing a decent home at a price they can afford (that doesn't bankrupt them), whether to buy or rent, is becoming an increasingly unassailable dream. Slow and sure, but gathering pace, Londoners are losing their grip on the city when they live and work; with them London, this collection of self-styled venerable institutions of political and economic power, is losing its grip on the present – and its future.
Forget the oligarchs, and the aristocrats; the high-flying business barons, and the global fiefdoms of finance capital mastered from this metropolis, without we 'little' people, London – or indeed the House of Parliament, the City, Government – cannot function even as a dusty old museum. So, we're back to that analogy of the mausoleum.
The Houses of Parliament, my host told me, stand as Target Number One in the eyes of international terrorists looking for a shot at destructive spectacle. You'll see why from his description, painting a fiery description fit for a Hollywood blockbuster; picture that gargantuan architecture broken and ablaze, the clocktower housing Big Ben shattered and spewing flames, the red raw glow of the inferno lighting up the river banks and reflecting off the Thames.
Symbolic and startling, such devastation. Little wonder at the armed police and heavy, if discrete, security to keep this perceived threat at bay. But there's another very real threat to the sanctity and permanence of this ancient institution.
Ultimately, a lack of housing in the capital that ordinary people can afford may prove to be the greatest threat to the continued relevance and purpose of the Houses of Parliament; one that no amount of armed guards will ever be able to defend against.
10 April 2014
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