The idea of closing the House of Commons for five years will, I suspect, be popular with those who see in this a chance to move the MPs to a lifeless, European style semi-circular chamber that supposedly encourages them to co-operate. The current Commons chamber is divided by the length of two swords, a deliberately adversarial system. It is a bear pit, rough and merciless. Personally, that’s how I like it, and that’s how it ought to stay.
The idea is that moving MPs to another arena would save money as the Palace of Westminster is refurbished. But you can bet a new chamber would be kitted out in ways that suit your average MP: they’d have a chair each, no doubt, and a desk like most other parliaments in the world. You don’t have to believe in Feng Shui to believe that this would be a calamity. When the chamber took a direct hit in the Blitz, Churchill wanted it to be rebuilt in exactly the same way. He told the Commons:
‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. The semi-circular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes. I am a convinced supporter of the party system in preference to the group system.’
I spent a year reporting on the Scottish Parliament, and am still recovering. I was an advocate of devolution and imagined all kinds of fiery debates. Instead it was like a dentist’s waiting room, more ‘hamster wars’ than a battle of ideas. There was a seat for everyone, even a desk to write at and a little button to press when they voted. It made sense, technically, but all drained the place of any sense of life or combat. Nowadays the MSPs even clap each other after a speech is made. No wonder that in 2000 Alex Salmond quit Holyrood and went back to Westminster, where politics was more vivid.
An important feature of the Commons chamber is that it does not have space for all MPs, and even then the benches are half empty most of the time. If they moved into a chamber which accommodated them all, the scandalously low attendance record would be there for all too see – not that any TV channel would show it, as the atmospherics would be as bad as those of the Scottish or European parliaments. The three million people who have watched Dan Hannan’s brilliant speech (for which he won a Spectator/Threadneedle award) will have noticed the empty desks behind him and the bloodless atmosphere of the chamber. That’s not what we want for Britain, not even for a few years.
So even if it costs more, my vote is to keep our MPs in the bear pit.
PS Nadine Dorries tweets that “what we have is unique and passionate. The rodents are a problem, though.”