On a warm afternoon in July…
… As MPs filed into the House of Commons for the start of Work & Pensions Questions, water began pouring through a hole in the chamber’s ceiling. Buckets, blankets and covers were hurriedly brought out to cover the familiar green benches and wooden tables. Parliamentary business was suspended for an hour as staff attempted to fix the leak.
Incidents like this are almost commonplace. The current Palace of Westminster was re-built after the fire of 1834 and hasn’t had a major renovation since just after World War Two. A 2016 report found buildings were ‘riddled with asbestos’, while parts of Westminster Hall were closed in May after bits of the walls started to crumble. In the basement, Victorian-era gas pipes are laid perilously close to electricity wires and broadcasting cables. Plumbing is constantly breaking down and moths feast on those expensive carpets, fluttering around us like confetti.
If these iconic buildings have historically been a symbol of democracy, then surely their decay reflects the structural defects in the functioning of the British state. And just as the Houses of Parliament require more than a lick of paint, recent events have confirmed the changes needed in UK politics are far from cosmetic.
It’s easy to lose track amidst the turbulence of the last few months, so I’ll briefly recap. After a string of scandals finally forced Boris Johnson to resign, an internal Tory Party contest dragged on over the summer to decide his successor. As the public tried to deal with a terrifying cost-of-living crisis, the government was largely absent, offering next to nothing by way of genuine support for folk faced with the threat of rising bills.
The two months it took to appoint Liz Truss turned out to be longer than her time in office. During her 44 days as Prime Minister, her government prioritised the fevered dreams of Thatcherite think-tanks over the needs of the people, implementing a disastrous “mini-budget” which cut taxes for the highest earners, in the process tanking the pound and sending mortgage rates soaring.
Truss was forced to U-turn on much of this, but it wasn’t enough to save her. Now, at the whim of a small group of Tory MPs, Truss’s leadership rival Rishi Sunak has taken the reins. Absurdly, many of those who helped put Sunak in office were just hours before trying to inflict a Johnson premiership on us once again! And just a week after resigning from Truss’s cabinet over a security breach, her Home Secretary was reappointed by Sunak to the very same position.
Sunak is the fifth Prime Minister in just over six years and the fourth Tory leader in a row to enter Downing Street without first winning a general election. Once again, we in Scotland will be governed by the unelected leader of a party we did not vote for – and haven’t done for almost 70 years - with the threat of more devastating austerity cuts to follow.
It’s no wonder hundreds of constituents have contacted my office demanding a General Election. The SNP of course backs this call – it would be ridiculous to wait until the last possible moment for an election in January 2025, enduring more of this government’s destructive policies, before granting the public a say. But that will require the Prime Minister or his MPs to instigate it, and with the Tories trailing so badly in the polls, they’ll no doubt be determined to wait it out.
Meanwhile there is the farcical prospect of Liz Truss continuing in the tradition of departing Prime Ministers with an honours list, awarding friends and allies with places in the House of Lords. Few aspects of Britain’s parliamentary system are as antiquated and out of step with western democracy than its unelected second chamber.
Unfortunately, there appears to be little enthusiasm in the Tory or Labour leadership for getting rid of the Lords or reforming the electoral system. Such proposals have been kicked back around for decades, but time and again Westminster has shown itself stubbornly resistant to change; the two largest parties continue to act as a drag on modern democratic progress in pursuit of short-term electoral advantage.
These systemic issues are compounded by both parties’ embrace of a hard Brexit. Leaving the EU has cost the Scottish economy billions, damaged trade, squeezed household budgets and slowed migration from Europe which so benefits our communities. The SNP is now the only party with Scottish MPs advocating for our future in the EU.
Amid the dysfunction and chaos at Westminster, recommendations for the renovation of the parliamentary estate are due next year. The restoration and renewal programme has warned it is “falling apart faster than it can be repaired” - an apt forecast not just for the future of the building, but for the UK’s broken political system. ■
The basement corridors are narrow because pipes have been built on top of one another