Since we are all now entertaining Second World War comparisons in the battle against Covid-19, let us return briefly to May 1941 when the Luftwaffe bombed the Palace of Westminster. Rightly, the medieval Westminster Hall was saved by firefighters and the Commons chamber allowed to burn. In the aftermath, there came many calls to decamp from SW1 and build a new Parliament. Nancy Astor called for a semi-circular amphitheatre as favoured on the Continent. James Maxton, of the Independent Labour Party, wanted the chamber left as a monument to the war, with a modern complex built 20 miles outside of London ‘in good English parkland’. But Tory grandee Maurice Petherick could think of nothing worse than the prospect of a ‘Potters Bar Canberra’.
In the end, Churchill decided he wanted Parliament rebuilt in its mid-Victorian entirety: restored ‘in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity’. And, for good measure, he portentously announced that ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’
Today, Pugin and Barry’s Gothic Revival masterpiece is in tatters: the mice, asbestos, knackered fuse boxes, falling masonry, stinking loos, moth-ridden carpets, leaking gutters (all the while housing one of the world’s great fine and decorative art collections). Thankfully, parliamentarians have finally agreed to rebuild the Palace of Westminster. But, inevitably, it is going to take another five years before MPs and peers leave the site for mocked-up chambers elsewhere or the nearby Queen Elizabeth Exhibition II Centre. More than enough time for further delay and prevarication then.
So, I say: do it now. Bring it all forward. Seize the moment. Because there is no way Parliament can function in a responsible manner with social-distancing practices. Leave aside for a moment the unquenchable desire for politicians continually to touch each other – the grip and grin; the hug; the slap; the arm around the shoulder power-play; and, you know, the other stuff – and focus just on the mechanics of parliamentary life.
Churchill demanded the chamber be restored in 1941 so that it remained too small for all MPs to be seated and the drama of the House would endure: the cheers, jeers, and, worst of all, the deadly silence that can sometimes envelop the rows behind you. At Question Time, during the Budget, at a statement from the Prime Minister or any major parliamentary event, politicians are rammed together on the green benches, with MPs sometimes sitting hugger-mugger on the dividing steps. And then there are the voting lobbies: vast throngs of sweating MPs moving closely together, queuing up behind the tellers, being ‘locked in’ until the Speaker gives the word. Add to that the bars, restaurants, and canteens – as well as the mean parliamentary BMI measurement.
The Westminster authorities have responded to the Covid-19 threat by thinning out those able to sit in the chamber and having MPs relay their questions through TV monitors. At which point, the last line of defence is lost: the drama; the ‘mood of the House’; the killer question; the lobbying of ministers; the high cynicism of the press gallery – it’s all gone. The ‘magic’ of Westminster has been killed by Covid-19. Which means there is nothing now to prevent MPs heading straight to the exhibition centre and sitting two metres apart at some bleak WiFi pod, as at the devolved assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh. And then the reconstruction and rebuilding can begin, because we will certainly need the jobs and investment.
If we can build a Nightingale hospital in a fortnight, if we can design new ventilators and test 100,000 people a day (-ish), then surely Parliament can use this moment to decant itself. Politicians quite rightly urge public sector bodies and businesses to see opportunity as well as danger in any crisis, and now they can show that leadership themselves. If they don’t, then I do fear Parliament will become another museum, rather than Churchill’s beacon of democracy.
Tristram Hunt is director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and served as MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central from 2010–17.