5th April 2021
Restoring the palace of Westminster is proving to be rather expensive.
Exc: A leaked letter from the outgoing Lords Speaker warns that remaining in the Palace of Westminster during renovation would “import an extraordinary level of risk, take decades longer and cost far more”https://t.co/4hLgj6VBer— Ben Gartside (@BenGartside) April 5, 2021
This news prompts a thought about what is – actually – a parliament.
I happen to be a (non-militant) atheist but I have friends who are Christians who will say that a church is not a building but the people – and that a church can exists just as readily in people’s houses, or in the street, or over an internet zoom call.
A similar approach can be adopted to parliament.
The great historian of the Stuart period Conrad Russell averred that the parliaments of the seventeenth century were an event not an institution.
And this goes to the word itself – a parliament is where people, well parley.
As such, it can take place anywhere – and indeed parliaments have been held away from Westminster.
And parliaments have been held in different parts of Westminster.
It is only by sheer familiarity that we identify a parliament with a particular building.
But there is no constitutional reason why parliament has to sit in Westminster.
For example, take for example the preamble of an act of parliament:
‘Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—’
There is nothing in that introductory text which provides that the lords and the commons have to be sitting and voting in parliament.
(And, if you read the text carefully, you will also see there is nothing that says peers and commons need to have voted separately on the bill.)
So, just like a church, there is nothing which would ultimately stop a parliament meeting just as readily in people’s houses, or in the street, or over an internet zoom call.
It is, however, a measure of the sheer pressure of those dollops of Victorian nostalgia and surviving procedure on our political imagination that it is almost impossible to conceive of a parliament sitting anywhere else than that neo-gothic pile just by the Thames.
And it certainly seems beyond the political imagination of some members of parliament to conceive of their constitutional role and duties being capable of performance and discharge other than in the palace of Westminster.
Four hundred years later, it has to be be conceded that parliament now is an institution rather than just an event – but it still an institution that can manifest in a number of places and in a number of ways.
And not just in the palace of Westminster.
That so few parliamentarians can see that parliament is what one does, rather than where one is, is a cost to the rest of us of more than twelve billion pounds.
It is the cost of our parliamentarians confusing what they do for where they are.
If parliamentarians took parliament seriously, it would not matter where the parliament sat, as long as it could perform its role and discharge its duties.
Our constitution is in great part a creaking Victorian dysfunctional monstrosity – there is no need for parliamentarians to meet in one too.
Thank you for reading this post on this daily law and policy blog.
If you value this free-to-read post, and the independent legal and policy commentary this blog and my Twitter feed provides for both you and others – please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.
You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).
This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.
Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.
Comments will not be published if irksome.