What guff people do talk. To read the hysterical press which greeted last week’s pitch-invasion in the Palace of Westminster you would have thought the unguarded nature of the Commons Chamber was news to anybody. You would have thought the pro-hunt protesters had found a loophole which nobody had thought of. You would have thought something had been learnt. What next? A bomb on the London Underground, followed by a scandalised Fleet Street wail that Tube bosses have been ‘caught napping’ in their failure to frisk and X-ray a million commuters and all our bags twice a day?
Intelligent lobby correspondents — mature men and women, journalists who have grown grey in the service of parliamentary reporting — penned breathless columns expressing their outrage at the supposedly astonishing scenes. Apparently we were all aghast. Yet any one of us could at any time in the last few decades have described in every detail the possibility which last week, years later than I always expected, became a reality. For Pete’s sake, traumatised editorialisers, have you never visited the Commons? Had you never noticed that one can see straight into the Chamber from the Central Lobby when the doors are open; and it cannot be more than 50 yards?
It was sweet of the protesters to take the elaborate precaution of dressing as builders and weaving in via a side door, but unnecessary. Between the Central Lobby (to which any member of the public has access from the street) and the Floor of the House stand no more than a couple of Badge Messengers and a constable or two. If a group of demonstrators surged forward, then many would make it.
It was equally sweet of the commentators to speculate on how the protesters had learnt the layout of corridors; there was excited talk of ‘insider’ information. But there have for years been tours of the House, open to the public, on mornings when the House is not sitting. I led innumerable constituents and other hangers-on on the identical tour. The curious are taken into both the Chamber and the Division Lobbies to each side, and shown all the doors. Besides, the floor-plan must appear in scores of books.
Old habits die hard, and since ceasing to be a Member I have more than once in a fit of absent-mindedness walked the wrong way out of the Central Lobby, crossed the Members’ Lobby and approached the entrance to the Chamber before I realised where I was going. Nobody has rugby-tackled me; I’ve always been the first to notice. I’ve joked about it with journalist colleagues and with MPs. Everybody has always known that the place is wide open. To observe that the reason the IRA never bombed the Chamber is presumably because they hadn’t wanted to would not even have been an interesting remark among those who work at Westminster. It has always been obvious.
I did once write about what a soft target Parliament would make — whether for the Times, The Spectator or the Investor’s Chronicle I long forget: it must have been about a decade ago. The column aroused no interest at all, but it was indirectly conveyed to me that the article had been brought to the attention of the Serjeant-at-Arms, who had been disappointed to see such a thing discussed in the public print. I was given to understand that if I had any representations to make about loopholes in Westminster security, I should make them direct to the authorities, and in private, rather than broadcast them to the world’s terrorists. As my observations amounted to no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious, to have sought a meeting with the Serjeant-at-Arms would have been ludicrous.
But it is wrong to blame him or his department now. Commentary has seemed to imply that he didn’t notice how open the Palace is, that he was somehow caught napping. The opposite is true. The state of Westminster security has been neither a secret nor an oversight. For the Serjeant-at-Arms to have ‘informed’ MPs that their parliament was wide open would have been an insult to their intelligence. They know very well that security has been sacrificed to public access and have tacitly (and, I believe, contentedly) consented to the arrangement; indeed preferred it, for, as the poor Serjeant-at-Arms will well know, Members are always moaning about impediments to access.
If they wanted — or now want — a different arrangement, it is up to them to instruct the Serjeant-at-Arms, not the other way round. Just because he wears funny clothes does not mean he would be incapable of taking expert advice and instituting whatever security regime the House required. Peter Hain’s huff and puff about bringing in some kind of a modern, high-tech, whizzbang security supremo is no more than New Labour’s familiar knee-jerk response of appointing a ‘tsar’ for this or that, as though it solved the problem.
The problem is not of process but of substance. And the most interesting lapse last week was the less theatrical of the two security breaches which made the news. Yes, we learned from the pro-hunt demonstrators — as if we did not know — that a group of outsiders can push or hustle their way into the Chamber quite easily; but my guess is that they will have been searched pretty thoroughly (as all strangers are) in order to get from the street to the Central Lobby.
That the Serjeant-at-Arms wears tights has not stopped him from instituting airport-style security at the St Stephen’s entrance, with X-ray machines for baggage and scanning-gates with bleepers. The commentary which has suggested that these young protesters ‘could have been suicide bombers’ is therefore wide of the mark; they could have been, but would have had to content themselves with blowing up the St Stephen’s entrance, not the Chamber.
If you want to blow up lots of MPs I would suggest a missile from across the river. Or else — and this was the more important story last week — do as the Sun did, and get one of your people on to the Palace of Westminster payroll. Thousands of people, all with security passes, go in and out all the time, and they are not checked. We know that now, fellow-commentators, so spare us the astonishment if this route to mayhem is ever taken.
Double the pay-rates of these servants of the House and you could be more picky about whom you employ (and sharply reduce staff turnover) but that’s for Peter Hain to fund, not the Serjeant-at-Arms. And you could retrain all those soon-to-be unemployed foxhounds as sniffer dogs. But as things are, I have no doubt that if the IRA had wanted to, they could by now have half a dozen men working as cleaners, jobbers, kitchen porters or waiters at Westminster, and so could al-Qa’eda. Perhaps they do.
So by all means instruct the Serjeant-at-Arms to scrap the philosophy of public access to which the House has until now subscribed; but to dance around him and his quietly competent staff pointing fingers and yelling ‘Caught you napping!’ is unfair.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.