The last year or so I have probably visited Parliament a dozen times but always from the outside. I’ve been in before when I was about 10 years and remember bits and pieces of the interior and especially inside the famous clock tower of Big Ben and the unusual scenario of being deafened by the bell whilst looking through the opaque glass clock face towards the street below.
However I’ve long since wanted to return there and my wife had never been inside at all. After several years of thinking about returning and mentioning it in passing to our local MP who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times since the 2010 election, we were very excited to receive an invitation to visit the Mother of Parliaments.
It wasn’t just us on the tour as our MP Richard Harrington is a big believer of encouraging everyone into politics and to get involved in the system regardless of their political affiliation which I think is fantastic. He’s been running several tours and with many booked out, we did quite well to get ourselves on a small tour of a about 15-20 people.
I had spent all day thinking back to how I hadn’t been to Parliament since my school trip and that going on a coach into London was itself rathe like being on a school trip when I met an old friend from school who I had barely seen since the trip itself and not at all for 25 years. How strange!
We arrived at Parliament just before 7pm and after being waved through the first police check-point made our way to the security check-point, much like an airport security check but with much more polite officials and none of the mad scramble to get in and out as quick as possible. With security completed and a visitor pass round my neck, I actually found myself inside Parliament! It was a very cool feeling that everyone else couldn’t quite believe either.
To illustrate just how Parliament really is open to everyone and easy to enter (with good reason) my wife had made her own way here after her work and despite wondering if she would have any problems getting in, she was there inside the ancient Westminster Hall when I arrived before we went into a meeting room where Richard welcomed us all personally.
It was all much more friendly and informal than we had imagined with drinks and cakes waiting for us and Richard gave an introductory talk to us explaining why he entered politics and about life in the Palace of Westminster. He was extremely down to earth, interesting and impartial and we all got the feeling he really was passionate about his work and helping normal people with their problems and also getting involved themselves.
Richard also explained about the merits of both career politicians and those who enter into Westminster later to life having had a career in business, education, the military, charity or whatever else. Apparently the first few days of becoming an MP are particularly hard as there isn’t really any mechanism to show new MPs the ropes and he compared it to taking your school exams one day and then the next morning going straight to university with responsibilities, meetings and correspondence right from the off. He even mentioned someone who won an election in the European Parliament and they were met outside their house in the middle of the night with a car containing ministerial papers and the like.
Richard was worried about boring us but it is fair to say we all found it rather interesting but after 20 minutes or so he led us off with his two of his young assistants on the tour itself. Westminster is so full of history, arts and architecture you could really take photos of everything. Though photos are allowed in many places, there are also many where photography is not permitted even in places that are routinely filmed on television or in documentaries. Richard joked that though he didn’t mind me taking photos himself, the police in some of the rooms might have a different opinion and so as tempting as it was to take photos in some places, I decided not to as everyone was being so nice and kind to us anyway besides which as we were later to be told several times, we were not just welcome back any time but it is our right to to return when we need to as well.
The first highlight we went to was the House of Lords and whilst walking there I had a brief chance to chat to our MP about the recent Parliament documentary series which both he and ourselves were a big fan of as it showcased behind the scenes footage and lots of informal work with various politicians from the Prime Minister downwards and though some had more extreme views than others, they all seemed to be hard working and good people and almost the opposite as how the media portrays them.
The chamber of the House of Lords is one of the most breath-taking places I’ve ever visited. Sumptuously decorated in gold around the area where the Queen sits and with beautiful dark red leather benches and ornate old oak panelling underneath a very, very high wooden roof under which are statues of knights, coats of arms and everything else you might imagine from a medieval hall except now TV show or movie I have ever seen has quite had anything quite as magnificent as this.
I stood near the entrance at what was once the Dock when the Lords was also used as the highest court in the land. The Lord Chancellor sits on what is known as the Woolsack which is a reminder of how medieval England gained its wealth and later importance from the wool-trade. From the Romans until the Georgians, it was our famed climate that made our lands so fertile that the quantity and quality of the wool from the sheep that was important long before the modern age of industry.
The House of Lords has a public viewing area where anyone can come to watch and listen to the debates. Television monitor screens are throughout Parliament giving details of who is talking and on what debate and as the schedule is publicised days or even weeks in advance, you can attend for something you find interesting.
On the first floor above the debating chamber is a little rail and curtain just a few inches high which was set up to protect the modesty of the wives watching their husbands in the debating chamber below. As our MP joked, having an inch of ankle visible back then would be almost like sitting naked there today!
The Houses of Parliament have several hallways or lobby’s where various corridors and chambers come together from different angles. Outside of the House of Lords is the Peers Lobby where one can meet with a Lord or deliver mail etc. Everyone is allowed here and it is no doubt where the phrase “to lobby” originates from. It’s important to differentiate the phrase to lobby which indicates you want to influence an individual and “to petition” as general petitions are for the entirety of the Commons or Lords respectively.
Not too far away is the Central Lobby which has a theme of unity in it as it is the one place where MPs and Lords might reasonably meet as usually neither are permitted in each others chamber. The Central Lobby is a very ornate part of the building and has a chandelier that weighs 3 tonnes hanging from the ceiling. Above the 4 arches are the patron saints of the 4 nations that make up the United Kingdom; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well of statues of pretty much every monarch up until the 19th century.
Just down another corridor is the Commons Lobby. If you ever want to meet your MP, this is the place to come to and providing he or she is in Parliament, every effort will be made to find them for you. It’s always best to inform them that you’d like to meet them first though! This is also where MPs have their mail and their 650 mail boxes light up if there are any papers or envelopes inside.
As with the other rooms here, aside from the beautiful floors, ceilings and entire furnishings in almost all of Parliament, one of the highlights of the Commons Lobby is the statues of some of the 4 most important Prime Ministers of the 20th Century along with smaller ones of the others in the 19th and 20th centuries. The big 4 are David Lloyd-George, the fiery and passionate Welshman who led the country in WW1 and was earlier instrumental in improving the conditions of the poor. Then there is Sir Winston Churchill who amongst many other things, led the country through its darkest hour in WW2 and again several years later. If you think that Churchill is looking particularly Churchillian then you’d be right of course. Parliament was severely bombed by the Luftwaffe in WW2 and this statue is based on his pose on seeing the damage. In fact the archway behind these two statues looks rather damaged and rough, this is because Churchill had it rebuilt using debris from the destroyed chamber so that later generations would be reminded of how their forebears kept faith in democracy even through war, nightly bombings and the threat of imminent invasion.
Besides the other main archway stands Clement Atlee, the first Prime Minister after WW2 and the one responsible for creating the modern Welfare State and starting work on all the problems our country faced when peace arrived. Finally there is the unmistakeable Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famous for amongst other things for her free-market economics that transformed the country and playing a major part in ending the Cold War. Quite where Tony Blair, David Cameron and his successors might go is hard to say!
After ogling another room full of history, we finally went into the chamber of the House of Commons. This is where our MPs sit on the famous green benches with the Prime Minister, Ministers and MPs of the government on one side and the Leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Ministers and MPs on the other (along with more minor political parties). Most famously this is where Prime Ministers Question Time takes places with its boisterous questions and answers. It was clear to most of us that the Commons chamber is smaller and much less magnificently decorated than the Lords though probably still finer than many other debating chambers. This is partly due to the need to keep costs down after reconstruction from the bombing damage but also historically reflects the much greater grandeur and importance of the Lords over the Commons.
Again an upstairs seated area is available for visitors though sadly the main section is now glassed off after a series of disruptions of campaigners throwing flour and other things down on the MPs below. However Richard told us that a smaller area is available without the screen and that persons known to their MP are allowed to sit here if there is room.
People might notice the red lines along the carpet by the front benches. Traditionally these lines are two sword lengths apart and politicians are expected not to go past them towards their political foes. This is where the phrase ‘Toe the line” comes from.
There is a large table in between the government and opposition benches with two Despatch boxes from which it is expected senior politicians will address the Commons. Inside the boxes are the Holy Bible and other things involved with MPs swearing an oath prior to their service. The table also holds The Mace which is a symbol of the Monarchy and towards the back is where the officials make a written note of every word ever spoken in the debating chamber.
At the back of the Commons chamber is the chair belonging to The Speaker. The Speaker is the most senior person in the House of Commons and it is his job to maintain order and select the people to speak in debates. As well as being The Speaker, he is also an MP albeit one who has the honour of being the only one to have a residence in the Palace of Westminster. During debates, all politicians address The Speaker as it is officially to him that they make their points. On the back of the Speakers Chair hangs a number of green bags which in times gone by people would leave letters and petitions in for The Speaker to collect at the end of each day and prepare to debate the following day. It is from here that we get the phrase “In the bag”.
These days there are a number of Deputy Speakers but for centuries there was only The Speaker and as he wasn’t allowed to leave the chamber whilst debates went on, the seat is actually also a toilet and historically the speaker would have pulled a curtain round to cover him so the debates could continue as he did whatever he had to do.
When the Commons chamber was rebuilt after WW2, all the Commonwealth countries contributed elements to the furnishings and so different parts showcase the workmanship of nations such as Australia, India, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and many others. It’s interesting to note that there isn’t actually enough room for all the MPs to grab a seat, this is intentional and is meant to add to the passion and atmosphere of the Commons rather than have a quiet and sedate Parliamentary chamber.
When a motion is passed in the House of Commons, The Speaker asks for those who support the motion to shout ‘Aye’ and those who opposing it to shout ‘No’. If there is an obvious winner then The Speaker will declare it, usually though it is hard to distinguish who the winner is and so instead MPs go and vote in person. Most Parliaments have long had some form of electronic voting but in the UK Parliament not only is there no such thing but such an idea is not even being considered. To cast their vote, MPs will leave the chamber and have two lobby’s to walk through, one where those who vote ‘yes’ walk and one where those who vote ‘no’ walk. MPs give their name to the official in each lobby and their names are literally blanked off a list. They have exactly 8 minutes per vote to get themselves from wherever they are in Parliament into the voting lobby. This style of voting has gone on for centuries and the reason why it no one really wants to change it is because it gives an opportunity for all MPs of every party to meet and discuss points with government ministers or senior party members. Surprisingly this system works remarkably well and allows everyone to meet the relevant stakeholder that they need to to further the cause of their constituent.
Retracing our steps slightly, we went back through the House of Commons and the finely decorated corridors to St. Stephens Hall which as the name suggests, used to have a religious function. This room is heaving with history. This room is where King Charles came and kicked over the Speakers chair who refused to tell him where the four MPs were that the king suspected of plotting against him. You can still see where the chair used to sit. The King was forced to leave Parliament empty handed and gossip ran through London that the King had been either humiliated or put in his place depending on their point of view. As such the way was set for the Civil War which went on to inspire pivotal movements such as the French Revolution and American Declaration of Independence.
The hall is lined with statues, one of which has a figure with a slightly broken spur on it. This is because around 100 years ago, Suffragettes infiltrated Parliament and chained themselves to the statue as part of the long campaign to give women the vote. Though the chains were cut off, one of the statues was slightly damaged but never repaired. In fact in the basement below the hall Emily Davison illegally hid herself in a cupboard overnight. The next day the Census was taken and switch every census, everyone had to list the address that they spent the previous night. As a publicity stunt, she managed to get her address on the census as being the Houses of Parliament and so came slightly closer to having women in Parliament.
Finally our tour of Parliament was nearing an end and we moved along into Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the building dating from the 1390’s. The Hall is a vast open space with a fantastic roof and though less sophisticated in its style of decoration, feels every bit as important and impressive as the newer sections. Amongst other things the Civil War ended here with King Charles found guilty and sentenced to death. The hall is also used where those who have a State Funeral lay in state, recent funerals include Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and just last year former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was interred in the adjoining chapel the night before her funeral. The hall is also used for historic occasions such as the addressing of both houses in Parliament by the most important of foreign leaders such as Nelson Mandela.
We’d been in Parliament for several hours and seen many of the main sights but our MP Richard Harrington informed us that if we wanted to see inside the Big Ben clock tower or have a tour more focuses on the art and treasure of Parliament that we were all very welcome back in the future though with the General Election looming in May 2015, no-one can say whether Richard will retain his seat but I for one wish him well and a big thank-you to him and his team for a great tour. However things go, we will remember our tour around Parliament for a long time to come and I think it did enthuse everyone who visited to get more involved in future as well as helping see MPs in a much more human light than the one dimensional television interviews or newspaper reports. It may have taken me 30 years between my first visit and my second but I’ll be sure to visit again and maybe watch some proceedings much sooner than another 30 years.
I hoped you all enjoyed the tour, feel free to ask if you have any questions. I didn’t take any notes so I hope I remembered most of it correctly! If you’re coming to London be sure to look me up if you want a private guided tour around the outside of Parliament and many other great places in London.