Parliament is an event and an institution – but not a building

5th April 2021

Restoring the palace of Westminster is proving to be rather expensive.

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.


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33 thoughts on “Parliament is an event and an institution – but not a building”

  1. And it might be that another shape of chamber – the hemicycle for instance – might be more conducive to rational debate.

    1. I agree. The current set-up of the two opposing sides, two sword-lengths apart introduces a more confrontational politics than it is healthy. More modern parliament chambers have been built in the hemicycle shape and all so with considerably more natural light. (Eg Strassbourg EP, the new Reichstag and the Scottish Parliament)

  2. Indeed: and the Parliament of Scotland met in a variety of locations during its varied history.

  3. Move it to Tamworth as once recommended by Ian Martin – centre of the country and perfect for levelling up.

  4. I’m always struck by the symbolism of the Palace of Westminster being encased in scaffolding. It’s falling down and so is our constitution.

  5. Exactly. And I have to say, when you walk around the place, as I did a few years ago on a background tour, you see how old, decrepit and dangerous the place is. Any other building would have been evacuated now at the behest of the fire brigade. And the methods of working, especially the voting and communications systems are primitive. All this does is keep parliament ineffective and dependent on the government. Get it out of there, if possible permanently, and find or build a decent place or places to go. Knock down County Hall and build a new Parliament Building fit for Global Britain, why not? Or something a bit smaller to adjust for the impending loss of the Scots and Irish contingents. ? Or indeed, lease something from ‘WeWork’ , anywhere in the country, on a rolling basis. But do not leave it as it is, especially during a ‘renovation’ that has no brief to reform the parliament, but only its buiding.

  6. The venerable member of the 18th Century will surely balk at such perfidious deliberations.

  7. First-time commenter. Spot-on and thought-provoking as always. Reminded me of the discussion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about ‘what is/where is the university?’ It’s certainly not a place, although it’s perhaps convenient to have a convenient place in which to locate it; in fact it’s a notion or a state of mind, and where it happens doesn’t matter. Does it matter where a company board or C-suite sits itself to make its decisions? Does it matter where a legitimate court of law convenes itself? If MPs convened in a bus-shelter and voted on a show of hands that would be legitimate to me.

  8. Indeed why should there even be a building. Once you get rid of the building where MP’s meet you reduce the importance of parties and the whole machinery of party control.
    Then MP’s would have to reach their own views on the issues before then and form coalitions with other MP’s from other parties. The legislature, with judicial oversight of fundamental rights, duties and responsibilities would be sovereign not the executive.

    1. Steady on! Next you’ll be proposing that the whole malarkey of division bells and absent members stampeding blindly for lobbies to register their vote for legislation whose very name is unknown to them isn’t the purest and most sacrosanct enactment of the population’s collective will and wisdom.

  9. Indeed. Just as a company is not defined by the buildings that it occupies, be it an office HQ, a factory, a warehouse or what have you. Few if any companies attach themselves so rigidly, either physically or culturally, to such a defined venue. When economic circumstances change, companies are usually happy to relocate, be that just around the corner or to an entirely different country, if necessary (there are several recent examples related to trade, and no doubt plenty more to come, but let’s not go there!). Business goes on and the company is still the company. An MP who considers the Palace of Westminster as intrinsically linked to the governance of the U.K. is probably more concerned with their own personal experience than their social contribution.

  10. The Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany met for fifty years in a converted teacher training college in the suburbs of Bonn. I remember it being pointed out to me on my first visit to what was then West Germany, as we drove past. I might not have noticed it otherwise. For a while the plenary sessions took place in a former waterworks nearby (see the photos in the German Wikipedia article ‘Bundeshaus (Bonn)’).

    Of course it was meant to look temporary, so that people remembered that its ‘true’ home was the then-divided and occupied Berlin. But I don’t think its reputation suffered from its humble premises.

  11. I’ve argued before for a new building similar to those in Scotland and Wales. It should be built somewhere like south Yorkshire and Ministries and other government could radate out across the north with fast broadband and rail links being added.

    In one move it would do much to rebalance the economic geography of the UK.

  12. Parliamentary seats in minor places have been tried plenty of times. I’m not sure I see very much economic rebalancing from it. You generally get a wealthy small city. But nothing much goes on there but the business of government, and it doesn’t seem to be the start of something. The economic powerhouses carry on. Ottawa, Canberra, Brasilia, The Hague, Bonn, Abuja, Naypyidaw, Akmola-Astana-NurSultan. Nor in US states: Sacramento Ca, Albany NY, Harrisburg Pa, Topeka Ka, Tallahassee Fl, etc.

    And we could definitely do without any kind of repetition of the unbelievable cost overruns on Holyrood.

  13. “It is almost impossible to conceive of a parliament sitting anywhere else than that neo-gothic pile just by the Thames”.
    You hit the nail on the head here.
    The antique Victorian building is manifestly unsuited for modern Government yet the parliamentarians who inhabit it cannot bear the thought of leaving even on a temporary basis. Until that attitude changes we are likely to little progress on this as so much else to do with the way we are governed.

  14. Just as a flag is only a piece of cloth, the Palace of Westminster is only a building. The current palace is only about 150 years old anyway.

    Question for the historians: there were separate parliaments in Scotland until 1707, mainly meeting in Edinburgh, and in Ireland until 1800, mainly meeting in Dublin; but when is the last time the (UK/British/English) House of Commons or House of Lords met outside of Westminster? Was it the Oxford Parliament of 1681?

    (That was about the time the Tories emerged as a political party, from the “Abhorrers” who supported James II (and VII) to succeed Charles II, and opposed the Whiggish petitioners and exclusionists of the “Country Party”.)

    I was going to ask when they met outside the Palace of Westminster but I think that was when one or both houses met at Church House in Westminster in 1940 and 1941, during the London Blitz. For most of the time during the Second World War, after the Common chamber was bombed in 1941, the Commons met in the Lords chamber and the Lords met in the Robing Room. They did not return to their proper places until 1950 and 1951 respectively.

    Before the old Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, the Commons had mostly met for about 300 years in the old St Stephens Chapel (roughly where the Central Lobby is now), and the Lords since 1801 in the White Chamber or Lesser Hall (a little along from the Great Hall, where Old Palace Yard is now) and before then in the Queen’s Chamber (demolished in 1823). While the new palace was being constructed around them from the 1830s to the 1860s, the Commons moved to the White Chamber, and the Lords to the adjoining Painted Chamber (both of which needed to be re-roofed first). But did they meet elsewhere outside the palace precincts during this period?

    In practical terms, it hardly matters where the Commons and the Lords meet for the next few years: both are thoroughly in thrall to a governing party that seems content to rule by decree.

  15. In agreement on the whole with your comments. I can’t read the original Telegraph column (thanks to the paywall) but I have a few comments to make. The first is that when a column has the the word ‘could’ in it I tend to take the same approach with articles which ask rhetorical questions in the headlines. It usually means the writer is guessing and probably wrong.

    More importantly though, Westminster still needs to be repaired, parliament or no parliament. I don’t think anyone could get away without doing so. And I suspect the bulk of the costs is in that repair work rather than with simply parliament still trying to sit there.

    Then there’s the issue that if they were to move somewhere else, we live in a post 9/11 world where the security would need to be ramped hugely. It is already in place at Westminster, I’m pretty certain it isn’t anywhere else where they could meet at least, not to the level needed to protect arguably our most important leaders.

    Finally, although I love the spirit of some commentators suggesting Tamworth etc., the fact remains that MPs will come to London because, well, London. Nowhere else quite has the infrastructure to house 650 MPs and their entourage with all the very real ‘behind doors’ work which goes on – formally and informally.

    To have anywhere in the country other than London (even Tamworth!) ready to receive and deal with the whole parliament mechanism and media circus which goes with it AS WELL as the repairs to Westminster…I suspect the costs could be just as much or more than the alleged £12 Billion. But as I’ve said ‘could’, I may well be just guessing…

    1. Actually I disagree. Fundamentally. It is my view that the UK is totally and utterly unbalanced, inasmuch that the political, economic, financial, cultural and all other types of life is concentrated in Greater London-shire and the South East. It does nothing for the quality of life of people living there, it makes for long, expensive and exhausting commutes, while living in shoe-boxes and let’s not talk about air and water in the area.

      Additionally, it sucks the life-blood out of the other regions of the UK.

      It would do the country the world of good, if the Queen moved to Sandringham, the Prince of Wales to Wales, the House of Lords to Carlisle and the House of Commons to Newcastle. The Beeb is already doing some (half-hearted?) attempts with Salford, but definitely more could be moved to elsewhere.

      1. Exactly. Once the economic capital was London, the political capital was Westminster and they were separate. Now they are all part of a single south-east bubble. It’s as if the US Congress was in New York, it adds to the pressure on housing and transport infrastructure.

        We can either try and move all the different private companies in the City (and plenty would probably move abroad) or we can move the whole machinery of government. There’s plenty of space and the land is cheaper away from the south-east!

        1. Westminster and the City are very close together. Even before they became physically linked, they were both part of the South East “bubble”. You would have to go back to Henry II/Richard I to find a time that a different location was the most regular royal and government residence – Winchester. That had a lot to do with the large Angevin Empire in France: Winchester was closer to Normandy. With France largely lost, Henry III, gravitated to Westminster (he did so also for religious reasons).

          1. Not sure I agree with this.
            Winchester was the Saxon capital city in as much as there was a capital city, the monarchy tending at this period to be peripatetic. London, however, since the Romans was always the main trading entrepot with the Continent. One of the first things William 1 does post conquest is to overawe the City by building the Tower.
            I believe the monarchy settled in London because that’s where the money was not the other way round. Of course, political and economic/ financial power feed on one another as is the case even to this day.

          2. London was important to the Saxons and Danes as well. William built the Tower to keep control of the city and trade, and since he was on a quasi war footing for much of the time, for defence. But the axis of power was via Normandy and beyond. The crossing was to the Solent. That kept Winchester and places on the way North important. Henry II built up Windsor rather than Westminster precisely because it was on this axis but close enough to London if needed.

            Remember that the Angevins spent more time in France than England until Henry III. It is only after the loss of France that the English monarchy, now Plantagenet, pivots to focus inwards. Indeed for some time it is French invasion and French linked insurrection (De Montfort and De Mortimer) that draw the kings away from Westminster. Certainly this is the case for Henry III. Edward I continues this but on the offensive first in Britain and then Aquitaine.

            One feature that distinguishes England from the emerging continental nations is that the heavily centralized Saxon system quickly led to a far less peripatetic form of government. The Kings certainly travelled to show themselves and maintain control but Westminster starts to be a real centre of government post John. Note that the monarchy never settles in London itself: to this day it is the City of Westminster.

            Regardless, the predominance of the South-South East dates well before Westminster becomes the most permanent part of the government.

      2. Claudia I don’t disagree with you at all. Your points are all valid, just as DAG’s are too. However, that doesn’t distract from what I feel certain are facts: Westminster will still need repairing; the infrastructure for parliament moving elsewhere (security etc.) is just not there; and you’re unlikely to persuade 650 MPs to move somewhere that doesn’t have the vast range of facilities that London has. All your points are absolutely true and I’m making no value judgements in my points, just saying these are the very real issues that are there and, I suspect, the costs to offset them would probably come just as high.
        I’m reminded of my job interview when I came to teach at a school in West Cumbria. The interviewers weren’t in the slightest worried about my teaching ability. They wanted to know why I would want to come there when there was nothing to do in the area. As it happened, I enjoyed eight happy years there and only moved to do voluntary work abroad. I then came back and am still here now. But I saw many teachers come and go because there was no infrastructure to appeal to young adults. Similarly, our hospital struggles to recruit doctors for the same reasons. It may be totally wrong (I, for one, love Cumbria), but it is still a fact that most won’t want to work here. Simply, move Parliament to almost anywhere you like and you’ll see a dearth of MPs taking part.

        1. Unclear if DAG is simply noting that it is silly to claim as the dotard MPs do, that Parliament cannot exist outside Westminster Palace during renovation or if he is really advocating the notion that it should move permanently.

          His historical gloss is a spin, perhaps just to spark debate: using the royalist Oxford parliament is hardly a good example since it was a civil war necessity. Westminster was the predominant location from Henry III onwards, even though government continued to be peripatetic for much longer. Alternative locations tended to be associated with war in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France, or unrest (de Mortimer, Edward II, Richard II).

          The whole debate, DAG included, misses the positives. The very expensive renovation of a national heritage building is an opportunity to promote craft skills from all over the UK that will then be available for work on old and new across the country and even export. With a bit of thought youth schemes can be incorporated. It makes little sense to move Parliament out of London given the huge extra expanse of moving all the supporting apparatus – Strasbourg is an example of just how wasteful and pointless an exercise this would be. But there are large enough buildings to accommodate each chamber.

          DAG suggests that “tradition” is working against pragmatism but really they are aligned. It would be extremely expensive to move to say Tamworth. Splitting ministries from the chambers cannot be efficient even with Zoom. And there is a value to the institutional and emotional permanence of Westminster. Whether DAG likes it or not, tradition and familiarity are part of institutional strength. While it was the SC that upheld Parliamentary sovereignty against both May and Boris, popular support was very much rooted in a sense of tradition.

        2. When Australia became a Federation they overcame rivalry between the different state capitals by establishing a completely new national capital, Canberra. Did any politicians refuse to go there?

          1. I see your point but, fairly obviously, Australia is a totally different set up to the UK. Not least your words ‘federation’ and ‘different state capitals’ giving significant clues as to this difference. As other learned comments to this post show, Westminster is mired in history and tradition – points much endorsed and valued by the majority party. Australia has a completely different set of dynamics.

            Don’t get me wrong, good luck campaigning for a new capital of England! But I think it would gain little to no traction. Perhaps under a Labour government…no chance with the current one.

          2. Western Australia initially voted not to be part of the Federation at all. The need for Canberra arose because each state had direct ties and rights with Britain and so finding neutral capital, just like DC, was necessary.

  16. Well, upon each dissolution since the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, The Queen has given “Our Royal Proclamation [to] make known to all Our loving Subjects Our Royal Will and Pleasure to call a new Parliament to be holden at Westminster” but there seems no reason why the Privy Council mightn’t advise Her Majesty to call for things to be holden elsewhere. (cf for similar former practice.)

    Admittedly the form of writs to summon bishops (lords spiritual) is governed by subordinate legislation which provides for a statement that the parliament is “to be holden at Our City of Westminster” but this is subject “to such variations as are…necessitated by the circumstances”
    so there would seem to be leeway to vary the place.

    Writs summoning peers (lords temporal) are governed by prerogative, so no problem with the wording there. Constitutional Experts might frown if a parliament were summoned to meet outside the realm. Perhaps the Supreme Court would adjudicate if the location were suspiciously inaccessible.

    Until 2011, the Representation of the People Act firmly required writs issued to returning officers to state that The Queen had “ordered a Parliament to be holden at Westminster” on a specified day but now newly elected MPs are left to work out for themselves when and where to turn up. Hopefully they will have caught sight of the Royal Proclamation in the London Gazette.

  17. “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.”

    Likewise a synagogue, perhaps more so because the building is far less relevant than in Christianity. (Incidentally Judaism in one important sense is atheistic too in that God is never defined and is both male and female and neither.)

  18. It would be difficult to fault the argument in the post.
    While the parliaments of UK of GB, UK of GB+ I and UK of GB and NI appear to have invariably met at Westminster, this isnt a legal requirement. The Old English Parliament had met away from its usual location before it abolished itself in 1707. Ditto the Old Scottish Parliament.

  19. A good example of a parliament being “people and not place” is the French Third Estate in 1789 which – when locked out of the official chamber by Royal Troops – met at a tennis court nearby and pledged an oath “not to separate and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the Constitution of the kingdom is established”. It was soon calling itself the “National Assembly”, and it marked the beginning of the end for Royal supremacy in France.

    1. Yes and no. The Estates General had not met since 1614 and it was not a regular event before that. So it didn’t have an “official chamber” behind the one that was allocated specifically for the assembly called by LVII. Meanwhile the Parliament of Paris was meeting in its designated place which it had used for centuries but to was effectively overthrown by the National Assembly.

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