Tristram Hunt

This old House

India’s parliament may be about to move out of its rickety old building. Can anyone imagine ours doing that?

This old House
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‘If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.’ Heartlessly, this concludes the latest official report into the restoration of the Houses of Parliament. Four thousand miles away in New Delhi, it’s the same story. The Central Public Works Department has declared the constitutional masterpiece of Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker equally unfit for habitation. ‘We badly need a new parliament building,’ complains government minister Jairam Ramesh. ‘This one simply isn’t functional and is outdated.’

In the oldest parliament democracy and in the largest, the challenge is the same: what on earth to do with our Grade I* legislatures? Do we preserve or decant; modernise or historicise? But the competing solutions proposed by London and New Delhi offer a telling insight into two contrasting national psyches.

In SW1, the situation is critical. Forget the obvious signs of decay — the mice; the leaking roofs; the wafts of sewage. Deep in the belly of Charles Barry’s 1830’s Gothic wonderland, the infrastructure is in meltdown. The steam and condensate systems are beyond life expectancy. Explosions from the boilers risk the cabling and water pipes. The vertical risers are ridden with asbestos. And like a decaying hulk, the Palace glides on with gallons of water swashing around its basements.

In New Delhi, the fabric of Parliament House’s gorgeous, fortified sandstone is equally frayed. Proceedings in the Rajya Sabha have been suspended during budget debates because of unspeakable smells. Office additions have blocked off emergency exits, while unauthorised alterations threaten structural stability. And like at Westminster, there is a tangible sense of decay along the corridors and chambers — made all the more stark by the new cityscape of luxury hotels and boutique office complexes springing up across Delhi.

So after decades of fudging it, the British and Indian authorities have decided to evacuate their parliament buildings while major restorative work is undertaken. Or in the bureaucratese of the House of Commons Commission, ‘a staged comprehensive modernisation with full decant when essential’.

And MPs don’t like it one bit. In the Members’ Dining Room, colleagues shudder at the thought of being decamped into the corporate, Excel-spreadsheet tedium of the Queen Elizabeth II Centre or the cavernous, echoing environs of Church House. In New Delhi, the old guard are equally appalled. ‘This is part of our tradition and history, and as the oldest member of Parliament, I will protest and oppose any move to bring it down or shift its seat,’ the Father of the House, Gurudas Dasgupta MP, has announced.

What is surprising is the ardour so many MPs feel for their legislatures given the low regard the buildings have for them. When Barry and Pugin designed the new Palace of Westminster, their priority was to champion hierarchy and order, not democracy and liberty. The conservative aesthetic of medieval Gothic, the gilded extravagance of the Lords Chamber and the splendour of the Royal Gallery were all in stark contrast to the cramped, spartan and often inaudible Commons Chamber (with only the narrowest provision made for press and public).

In India the Parliament building was, in fact, a rushed afterthought, as Britain had little intention of allowing self-government when Lutyens started planning New Delhi in 1912. And for all its columnar, coliseum brilliance — with circling verandas leading to the spacious elegance of the upper and lower houses — Lutyens and Baker’s real passion was reserved for the stunning majesty of the Viceroy’s House and the imperial hauteur of the Secretariat blocks. Democracy was never much of a motivation in the development of New Delhi.

The 1940s changed everything. Nehru’s declaration of Indian independence from the Council Chamber in 1947 swiftly sanctified the Parliament building in the national consciousness. In Britain, it was even more seismic: the May 1941 Luftwaffe bombing of the Commons married democracy to Westminster Palace, under the benediction of Winston Churchill. ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,’ he declared in the aftermath, before arguing passionately for the Commons to be restored ‘in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity’.

That meant countering the demands of Nancy Astor for a semi-circular amphitheatre as favoured on the Continent: ‘the death warrant of parliamentary democracy’. It also meant fighting off relocation, as proposed by James Maxton of the Independent Labour Party. He wanted the chamber left as a monument to the war, with a new, modern parliament built 20 miles outside of London ‘in good English parkland’. Tory grandee Maurice Petherick could think of nothing worse than the prospect of a ‘Potters Bar -Canberra’.

The arguments are strikingly similar to those of today. What is different is that while politics has rarely been held in lower esteem, public ardour for the Palace of Westminster has never been greater. Barry and Pugin’s masterwork is benefiting both from our cultural affection for Victoriana, and an understandable aversion to a Scottish parliament-type post-modern mélange. We unloved MPs now cling to its hammerbeam roofs and Minton tiles as one of the last rafts of public respect. And we know that if we left it, they might not let us back in.

In India, recent corruption scandals and legislative deadlock have left politics in equally poor odour. But at least their political class has the confidence to shed nostalgia and conjure — James Maxton-like — with a future Parliament building reflective of the New India. ‘The present structure was built in the pre-Independence period, when there was no real democracy,’ argues the young Orissa MP Baijayant Panda. There is ‘no harm in using the existing structure as a museum’, but for a modern, democratic India ‘new facilities must be built’.

Here, the House of Commons Commission has ruled that out. Instead, we await years of muddling through, a few terms in the Great Methodist Hall, and then hopefully return — like Tom Driberg MP did after the wartime restoration, to rediscover ‘a serenity, a robustness, and a certain homeliness — all, in combination, peculiarly English, peculiarly Parliamentary, true to the nature of the Commons Chamber and of the debates therein’.

Some years hence, we shall be back in the Gormenghast fantasia of Pugin and Barry, while forward-looking New Delhi has shed its colonial, Lutyens shackles. And, like almost every other MP, I’m fine with that.

Tristram Hunt is a historian and Labour MP.