Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The first thing Speaker Bercow should do is move the Commons out of its present dreadful, pub-like room and into Westminster Hall, the only surviving part of the original Palace of Westminster.
Years ago I was a local hack in Wimbledon and I toured the Palace with our MP, Sir Michael Havers, and a group of his constituents. The voters were pathetically impressed in a Europhobic, Battle of Britain, 'this is what we are fighting for' kind of way. I was bemused.
During the build-up to the election of the Speaker, I heard a TV reporter refer to the 'famous chair' on which he/she sits. Famous? Where? Among whom?
Then I heard ex-Speaker Betty Boothroyd on the radio talking about how much she loved 'the house'. Her pomposity was like the Great Wall of China, visible from space.
Everybody seems to think that the Houses of Parliament are a sublime and loveable architectural embodiment of British tradition. In fact, the present Palace is a ridiculous building that is about as much to do with British tradition as my iPod. Its design was a grotesque Victorian compromise between those who favoured Gothic and those who preferred classical. Charles Barry, a classicist by temperament, did the plan and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, something of a prat, did the Gothic skin and interior detailing. The plan is good and the river frontage is explicitly classical. The rest is basically a bad three-dimensional Pre-Raphaelite painting, a Disneyesque evocation of Britain as a land of knights and churches which has come, in use, to resemble two giant pubs stuck in the middle of a truly nasty and extremely pompous club for fat philistines with occasional romantic longings and an inflated sense of their own importance. Neo-gothic, unlike neo-classical, seldom works.
Westminster Hall, in contrast, is one of Europe's and possibly the world's great interior spaces. It struck me dumb the first time I saw it. The hammerbeam roof is a glory of medieval carpentry. The stone structure is almost 1000 years old and its tone is utterly different from anything else on the site. Real, muscular grandeur contrasts with Pugin's fussy mincing. The MPs, having moved into this great room, should be made to stand at all times, anything to stop them lolling like drunks on those green pub benches. Also standing, ideally on one leg, focuses the mind and would shorten debates. On entry into the hall they should be made to kneel and kiss these old stones. I am serious. Very.
My point is that many of the delusions and denials we now see in our political classes are influenced by these architectural surroundings. They live in a fake that feels like a pub and they behave like fakes in a pub. They do not derive inspiration, solemnity or a sense of history from Pugin, merely an ersatz fantasy of the past. This is reflected in the glutinous sentimentality with which they cling to their 'love of this house' or the famous Speaker's chair or some lazy identification of this feeble style with the spirit of the Blitz. They think this is tradition, but the greatest British tradition is pragmatic re-invention, not fake medievalism.
Finally, Speaker Bercow should arrange for the destruction of the Victorian Palace. Only the Hall and Big Ben - as a sop to tourists - should remain. There should then be an international architectural competition to fill the resulting gap. I am, I repeat, quite serious. The present crisis of Parliament is aesthetic before it is anything else.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 1:05 pm