Tristram Hunt: Thorny questions ahead in this Parliamentary debate
WE HAVE only been back at work a week, and it is already falling apart. Parliament, of course – not the Coalition Government (well, not yet). Subsidence from years of tube trains rattling past have left Big Ben tilting 18 inches from the vertical and parts of the building sinking into the Thames. The walls are infested with mice, phone reception is non-existent and when the heating occasionally cranks into gear, burst pipes are frequent. Only last week, offices had to be evacuated as a small fire exposed layers of asbestos.
So it was no surprise to hear that a Parliamentary committee is now hard at work trying to modernise the Palace of Westminster. But with options under discussion including building a new parliament, the solution is far from obvious.
This is not the first time questions have been asked about the building's future.
In the 1830s, Parliament was rebuilt in its entirety after it was gutted by fire. Then, on the night of May 10, 1941, the Commons Chamber and Westminster Hall – Parliament's enormous medieval vestibule – each took a direct hit from German incendiary bombs.
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As the inferno tore through the Palace, the fire brigade faced a difficult decision about which of the two buildings to save.
As the scene for so much of our history, including the trials of Sir Thomas More and King Charles I himself, it was right that the firemen chose to save the 11th century Westminster Hall and its spectacular hammerbeam roof.
The consequences for the House of Commons were devastating, a smoking void in the heart of the palace where the debating chamber used to lie.
Rebuilding during the war was impossible. Yet Winston Churchill, pictured left, was keen to have a plan approved immediately, predicting that post-war politics might be "very fierce and violent" and therefore a poor time to make decisions about a building he saw as vital in shaping the nation's character. "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us," he said, before arguing passionately for the Commons to be restored "in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity".
Of particular importance were the shape and the size. The semicircular amphitheatres favoured by most other nations were dismissed as alien to the British tradition of two-party democracy.
The Chamber, Churchill insisted, should be deliberately too small for all members to fit in without overcrowding, lest it lose its unique "intimacy".
It took the first woman Member of Parliament, Nancy Astor, to point out that this design might also have other effects, arguing: "I have often felt that it might be better if ministers and ex-ministers did not have to sit and look at each other, almost like dogs on a leash, and that controversy would not be so violent [in a semicircular chamber]." A sentiment perhaps more in tune with the Coalition spirits of our time.
Relocation, too, was raised. The leader of the Independent Labour Party, James Maxton, argued that the chamber should be left ruined as a historic testament to the war. He suggested building a modern, new Parliament instead, 20 miles outside of London "in good English parkland" and furnished with a railway station, car park and aerodrome of the "biggest scale" possible. Unfortunately for Maxton, his colleagues did not share his vision, with Tory grandee Maurice Petherwick fearing a "Potters Bar Canberra".
In 1943, what Churchill wanted, he got. As a result, we still have our Commons debating chamber so admired around the world.
Today, we need to think the same way. Improvements are needed to this early Victorian monument if our Parliamentary democracy is going to function properly. But it certainly should not cost the £3 billion some are punting around. We should move out for a couple of years while the asbestos is dealt with, the subsidence sorted, and the wiring replaced. And then head back into the bear-pit.
But the real opportunity comes with the temporary relocation. As I understand it, Stoke-on-Trent City Council are looking to vacate the Civic Centre from 2015. Why not move the Palace of Westminster to the King's Hall? Who knows, they might just stay.