If you’ve ever been to the palace of Westminster, the home of the UK’s Parliament, it’s difficult to not be struck by the enchanting architecture.

Visitors usually enter through the oldest surviving part of the palace - Westminster Hall - a giant, cavernous space used these days as nothing more than a glorified, echoey corridor. It was built in 1097, and feels like most Norman cathedrals.

Much like those ancient cathedrals of Durham or Canterbury the hall stinks of history if you care to scratch the surface. This is where Charles I and William Wallace were sentenced to death.

Up the short staircase at the end of the hall and turn left and you reach another, smaller, glorified corridor. This was St Stephen’s Chapel, where Spencer Perceval was shot and attained the dubious honour of being the only Prime Minister to be assassinated.

More handsome and ornate than Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Chapel (the reason Westminster’s Welsh name is “San Steffan”) is where the House of Commons sat until the fire of 1834 that destroyed most of the palace.


King William IV offered his least favourite house to Parliament as a solution - Buckingham Palace - though this was rejected. The palace of Westminster had to be rebuilt for the sake of history and authenticity in order to legitimise the work of government.

When the palace was rebuilt by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, their clash of styles created the Westminster that we know today. Barry’s Classical style merged with the very-stylish-at-the-time Neo-Gothicism of Pugin.

The Gothic Revival came along at the perfect time for rebuilding Parliament. The institution that refused to move from its location for the sake of history and authenticity could use the architectural language that was fashionable at the time to herald back to the old, original institution that gave the place its legitimacy in the first place.

That neo-Gothic style apes the medieval cathedrals, private schools and universities that so many MPs grew up with. For most people the nearest twin, appearance-wise, to the palace of Westminster is Hogwarts - for too many members that are elected to represent us, it’s a familiar type of architecture that represents the places they were educated and the places they built their social networks.

A quadrant isn’t just a fancy word for a square to these people, it’s the bit of grass at school that you’re not allowed to go onto.

The National Wales: Photo: PAPhoto: PA

The 1830s rebuilding of Parliament may well have been iconic, giving us the likes of the Elizabeth Tower - home of Big Ben. But practically it’s turned into a nightmare - Pugin and Barry burying metal guttering within the stonework that has started to rust. These inaccessible leaks mean that repair is impossible without destroying the palace and starting again from scratch.

Less than 200 years later the palace is being rebuilt, but because we are beholden to the charm of the old place it will be rebuilt exactly as it was. This desire for members to stay put has added to the costs of the Restoration and Renewal project as MPs rejected plans to temporarily find a new home while the work was done.

It won’t be authentic, it will be a copy of the 1830s re-build - itself a hyperreal re-imagining of middle ages architecture to suit the fashion of the burgeoning Victorian age. 

You could not find a better metaphor for the structures of power that operate and maintain the status quo in Westminster politics than the need to recreate the environment from schools like Eton, where they send the people who are ‘born to rule’, in a place that’s supposed to be where the interests of the common people are represented.

The National Wales:

Within the cloisters and grand dining halls of schools like this, debate and politics is a game, a simple intellectual exercise, not a tool for improving peoples' lives. After all, how can your life be improved when you're already on the fast track to money and power?

Meetings of the Conservative party’s MPs in Parliament take place at the 1922 Committee, where they all bang on tables when they approve of something they hear - an embarrassing spectacle more befitting the episode of the Simpsons about the Stonecutters than any organ of democracy has any right to be.

It is this committee, consisting of 14 Welsh representatives from a total of 365, that will choose the final two candidates for registered members of the Conservative party (some 200,000 people) to choose the next Prime Minister. If it’s a close contest, that contest’s winner will have a mandate only slightly larger than 100,000 votes in a country of 67 million.

The National Wales: MPs bang tables at the 1922 Committee following last month's confidence vote. (Picture: PA Wire)MPs bang tables at the 1922 Committee following last month's confidence vote. (Picture: PA Wire) Reform here is impossible. It’s a restoration project, not a development project. There will be no de-Hogwartsifying. Westminster will not have an Etonectomy.

In the absence of a written constitution, Westminster politics relies on the social contracts and “noble” rules of the upper classes where everything is done on a handshake, and the mechanism for removing anybody who has seriously broken the rules is the expectation that they do “the honourable thing” and resign of their own volition.

The events of last week have shown that “the honourable thing” does not exist in Westminster. The social contracts, power structures and rules here are as much of a charade as the pretend medieval architecture that houses them.

READ MORE: How will the Welsh Government resist ‘siege’ on devolution?

There is a constitutional vacuum in Westminster, and attempts to consolidate power, whether through the Internal Markets Bill, Shared Prosperity Fund, or the plans to strike off legislation agreed in the democratically-elected Senedd, are the death throes of a system that is no longer fit for purpose.

The building is creaking and leaking, and the institution is, too. It’s time for Wales to look for alternative arrangements.

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