My nastier, more vindictive side rather hopes that it will take so long to renovate the British Houses of Parliament, and the unmistakable clock tower of Big Ben, that MPs have to move out of the building for good, and are rehoused in a hideous modern shed in the suburbs. This may seem spiteful. It is spiteful. Even so, there is a good case for it.
It is a real issue. For many years the experts have known that the Palace of Westminster, which looks so good in the background of TV news reports, is close to falling down. It was not very well built in the first place. It was quite severely bombed by Herr Hitler in 1941, and rebuilt on the cheap in the lean years after the war. A very expensive attempt to restore it in the 1980s has not held off the ravages of the years. A subway line which runs beneath it is suspected of making things worse. And now they are having to silence the great bell of Big Ben to allow unavoidable repairs to be done. Experts would like to shut the whole building down for several years and send both Houses of Parliament somewhere else. The members themselves don’t want to go. Who knows where they might end up? Worse, seen against a more ordinary background, would they look as dull and undistinguished as they truly are?
Perhaps you begin to see my argument. Soren Kierkegaard is once supposed to have said, “A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age which is, at the same time, reflective and passionless leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.” If he did say it, he was a major prophet of British affairs. Unlike the French, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Cambodians, who demolished and desecrated and defaced their countries with vigor, Britain’s subtler revolutionaries have been careful to leave the symbols in place, while changing the essence. It works. A casual visitor to London might still be fooled into thinking we were the same country we were sixty years ago. All the outward appearances are the same, in some cases even improved. Our reflective and passionless revolutionaries have left all the buildings standing, the old flags flying, the Queen on her throne, the Bishops in their cathedrals. The blue policemen and the red pillar boxes, which George Orwell noted as symbols of England, can still be seen, though the police especially are nowadays best examined from a misty distance. Close to, you might see that many London policemen are bluer than ever before, but only because they sport fierce tattoos on their forearms, of the sort which most people over 50 still associate with football hooligans. This does not really tally with the old idea of the friendly, gentle bobby, but then nor do the fixed grim-jawed scowls, the telescopic clubs, pepper sprays, and in many cases sub-machine guns with which these officers equip themselves for duty. I certainly wouldn’t ask any of them the time.
Work outwards from this change and you will begin to have some idea of how much Britain has altered. The bits you don’t or can’t see are as unsettlingly different as those tattoos. Look up instead at the Houses of Parliament, all pinnacles, leaded windows, Gothic courtyards and cloisters, which look to the uninitiated as if they are a medieval survival. In fact they were completed in 1860, and are newer than the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The only genuinely ancient part—not used for any governing purpose—is the astonishing chilly space of Westminster Hall, faintly redolent of the horrible show trial of King Charles I, still an awkward moment in the national family album. But those who chose the faintly unhinged design wanted to make a point about the sort of country Britain then was, and they were very successful. Gothic meant monarchy, Christianity, and conservatism. Classical meant republican, pagan, and revolutionary, and mid-Victorian Britain was thoroughly wary of such things, so Gothic was chosen and the Roman Catholic genius Augustus Welby Pugin let loose upon the design. Wherever you are in the building, it is hard to escape the feeling of being either in a church, or in a country house just next to a church. The very chimes of the bell tower were based upon part of Handel’s great air from The Messiah: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
I worked for some years in this odd place. It is by law a Royal Palace, so nobody was ever officially allowed to die on the premises, in case the death had to be inquired into by some fearsome, forgotten tribunal, perhaps a branch of Star Chamber. Those who appeared to have deceased were deemed to be still alive and hurried to a nearby hospital where life could be pronounced extinct and an ordinary inquest held. We were also exempt from the alcohol laws that used in those days to keep most bars shut for a lot of the time, and if the drinks were not free they were certainly amazingly cheap.
In my years of wandering its corridors and lobbies, of hanging about for late-night votes and dozing in committee rooms, I came to loathe British politics and to mistrust the special regiment of journalists (far too close to their sources) who write about it. I had hoped for a kingdom of the mind and found a squalid pantry in which greasy, unprincipled deals were made by people who were no better than they ought to be.
But I came to love the building. Once you had got past the police sentinels, who knew who everyone was, you could go everywhere, even the thrilling ministerial corridor behind the Speaker’s chair, from which Prime Ministers emerged to face what was then the genuine ordeal of Parliamentary questions, twice a week. There was a rifle range beneath the House of Lords, set up during World War I to make sure honorable members of both Houses would be able to shoot Germans accurately if they ever met any. There was a room where they did nothing but prepare vast quantities of cut flowers, and which perfumed the flagstone corridor in which it lay. There was a convivial staff bar (known to few) where the beer was the best in the building and politicians in trouble would hide from their colleagues. The Lords had a whole half of the Palace, with lovely murals illustrating noble moments of our history, and the Chief Whip’s cosy, panelled office where reporters would be summoned once a week for dangerous gossip and perilously large glasses of whisky or very dry sherry, generously refilled. And high up in the roof, looking down over the murky Thames, was the room where the government briefed us, in meetings whose existence we were sworn never to reveal. Now they are pretty much public, so the real briefings must happen somewhere else, I suppose.
I saw in these places the last traces of the “tawny paradise” described by Chips Channon in his 1930s diaries. I heard in my head the roar of relief in the House of Commons as Neville Chamberlain set off for Munich, saw the late-night sittings of dinner-suited, claret-reddened members as war came, imagined the hissing, furious intrigues of 1940 and, come to that, of 1914. Though the modern population were neither as grand, as rich, as brilliant, or as raffish as their forerunners, you could see and feel on an autumn afternoon fading into evening, what real politics in a real imperial power must once have been like. And in my case, in a lonely way, you could wish for it to return, while knowing it wouldn’t. And then the phone would ring or a voice would speak and you would be back in the banalities of 1984, or whenever it was.
I got over that in time. I went away to other capitals, which were still seats of imperial power, and came back five years later to a London that seemed far smaller and more spiritless than the place I had left. On increasingly rare visits to the old Palace, I found it crumbling, cramped, full of horrible temporary structures and besieged by that insulting, miserable, depersonalised “security” which treats the whole world as a suspect. Parts of it are now open to tourism, which we are supposed to welcome but which just seems wrong to me.
As for what goes on inside it, the great adversarial parties which in my time still reflected the ancient divisions of our people, have both died. The Speaker no longer wears his full-bottomed Hogarthian wig. Members scan their phones as they sit on the benches. There is shouting in debates, but it looks organized and lifeless. The TV cameras have arrived, and sucked the life out of everything they show. But it is sadder than that. The architecture which once seemed to dignify the business of the place now just diminishes it. It appears to me, who once loved it, a mockery rather than an enhancement. I came to the bleak conclusion, the last time I went inside, that it had become ridiculous, like so many other British pretensions—from our Cold War superpower nuclear arsenal to our strange belief that we are good at sport. If it was turned into a museum, I should be sorry for the loss of an architectural wonder. But our Parliament is no longer big enough or distinguished enough to occupy it.