On Parliament’s decision to vacate the Palace of Westminster
Edward J. Gillin, author of The Victorian Palace of Science, discusses the history of the Palace of Westminster.
Parliament’s recent decision to vacate the Palace of Westminster, passed in the House of Commons by 236 to 220 votes, might not be that surprising given the estimated £5.6 billion cost of modernizing the building. But historically speaking, this really is a surprise. In the past it’s taken a devastating fire in 1834, and a Luftwaffe raid in 1941, to get Britain’s MPs to vacate their palatial home. Throughout the early nineteenth century, especially in the 1830s, the calls of radical politicians for a new building at a new location were vehemently rejected by Tory and Whig alike. And now, in 2018, this question of architecture and location once again unites and divides, drawing together unlikely alliances between parties.
Just sixteen votes the difference, but Parliament will now almost surely be moving out. Like their Victorian predecessors though, this is a reluctant move, with the evacuation not expected until at least 2025; by then, many MPs will have been removed by the ballot before they have to leave for the refurbishment. Those who sit in Parliament from 2025 will have to work within temporary accommodation, and miss out on the splendours of Augustus Pugin and Alfred Barry’s Gothic fantasy. We have been here before: from 1834 until the late 1840s, Britain was governed from a temporary Parliament, while the present building was under construction. If the vagrant MPs of the late 2020s are looking for comfort, they might do well to look to the Victorian experience of temporary accommodation. Parliamentarians, especially the Lords, were incredibly impatient for Barry to finish the building and move into their new debating chambers. Yet at the same time, Whigs, Tories, Liberals, and radicals generally agreed that besides sublime architectural taste, their new palace should be a place of dignity and cutting-edge technology. New gas lighting, experimentally-guided atmospheric control, stone selected for its geological credentials, and instantaneous, electrically-regulated clocks displaying precise Greenwich time, not only promised comfort, but suggested that this Parliament building, though medieval and ecclesiastic in appearance, was something quite modern. For these projects, various governments of differing political creeds, employed some of the nation’s leading scientific authorities, including Michael Faraday, geologists William Smith and Henry De la Beche, the Astronomer Royal, and several eminent experimentalists. Behind these appointments was a shared ideal: that a modern Parliament should draw on, and even embody, the latest scientist knowledge.
Perhaps then, moving out in order for the palace to be modernized and revamped (and most likely saved from collapse) is something Victorian politicians would have approved of. They were, after all, keen to legislate in a modern building, rather than a shrine to a romanticized past, while maintaining a sense of history and tradition. Above all, they wanted to wield power with dignity, and however you see it, there is little dignity in governing from a decaying ruin. There is a magic to this building which should not be lost, but it also has to be fit for purpose. Keeping the Palace of Westminster as our parliament, while modernizing it, could be a rather Victorian compromise: it would preserve a sense of history while still being functional. Nevertheless, I’m not at all sure the Victorians would have voluntarily vacated their palace – MPs do get rather attached to the architecture of this place.