The mother of parliaments

Earlier this week I attended a reception in Portcullis House next to Westminster station and then the prayer breakfast in Westminster Hall in the palace of Westminster itself. Afterwards I was given a tour of the house – that's the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Its a very odd experience because it is such an odd building. Often called the mother of parliaments it is about the average size of a secondary school and feels a bit like an overdressed public school. The interior decor is bizarre – the style is Gothic with Elizabethan touches. Its a temple to a Victorian ideal of what Britain's greatness consists of. So there are lots of paintings and statues. Actually the whole assembly is more than a little kitsch.

What impresses is that these are a kind of OTT interface for the most extraordinary cultural capital. The guide who took us around barely scratched the surface – but when you consider that she could casually point to where a German bomb demolished the end of the building and that just outside 10 yards away Guy Fawkes was hung drawn and quartered.  And the hall you walk through to gain access to the palace used to be the commons and it was there (blink and you'll miss it) where the abolition of slavery act was finally passed. If you don't know the history – none of this means anything.  It was a vivid reminder to me of how much British culture depends on cultural capital. You are expected to know it – if you don't then it just feels like a crumbly hospital like building inside (which by the way) is sinking into the Thames!

The other surprise was how accessible it was. The security is hardcore. But the public have to be able to see that fair government is taking place – and to make petitions to MPs – you have the right to walk in and hand a petition to your MP which would be tabled in the house by the end of the day (no I couldn't believe it either) In the event the guides and security people spend more of their time chasing around the swarm of schizophrenics who descend on the place with instructions from the queen, God the prime minister and everyone else. But they have to let them in! Extraordinary place.  




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