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A new politics? Move out of Westminster...

David Hayes
24 June 2009

The crisis that is shaking Britain's political establishment makes bold and imaginative reform look essential. Many of the proposals raised in the weeks since the "expenses scandal" morphed into a Edwin Morgan, born in Glasgow in 1920, is a poet and the Scots makar (the national poet of Scotland)

His many books include Sonnets from Scotland (Mariscat Press, 1984), Hold Hands Among the Atoms  (Mariscat Press, 2001), and A Book of Lives (Carcanet Press, 2007)                                   Edwin Morgan's archive was donated to the Scottish Poetry Library in 2009. His website is here compelling demand for "constitutional change" meet this description. But the capacity of this establishment to defuse and appropriate radical ambition - despite the best efforts of its reformers - can never be underestimated.

So what will turn the potential of "revolutionary times" into the reality of a recognisably new system? Many of the ideas widely circulated since the Daily Telegraph's publication of the expense-records of MPs triggered a firestorm of outrage in May 2009 - fixed-term parliaments, voting reform, a new second chamber, candidate primaries, a written constitution itself - are attractive. But would even they, or some substantial combination of them, be enough to deliver real change? Here, the protean ability of what William Cobbett called variously the "grand machine" and the "smothering system" to emerge more or less intact from the insurgent waves breaking against it is a lesson in what constitutional radicals are - still - up against. 

The architecture of democracy

Perhaps, though, one unexpected step can help ensure that the moment of May-June 2009 becomes something more than a great popular refusal: if a programme for reform is joined to the creation of a new parliament away from Westminster.

The argument for such a move, heard in calmer times, has not been voiced in these convulsive weeks: the sole architectural twist to the national debate has been the cod-medieval tales of moats and duck-ponds for whose construction or repair some MPs have claimed recompense.

This is regrettable, for the politics of architecture should be at the heart of any democratic reinvention. 

Buildings, places and public spaces shape behaviours, even character - for good or ill. Institutions create sentiments, nurture values, organise (and kill) enthusiasms, and predispose their inhabitants to certain kinds of discourse. These are truths known by a host of professionals - architects, designers, landscapers, and town-planners - who seek to make the environments we live, work, and play in as congenial as possible. Writers as varied and fertile as Ken Worpole (in relation to hospices and libraries), Alice Coleman (housing), Dick Hobbs (the "leisure economy"), and Catharine Ward Thompson (urban landscapes) have mapped these connections between habitation, conduct, and sensibility.

At its best (a lovely public park, say, or a good metro system) the result can be a benign cycle of efficiency, sociability and everyday delight that seems to invite the better of our natures. At its worst (a featureless streetscape or decayed high-rise) the result can be a weight of dispirit that seems to thwart every progressive aspiration.

The spaces where "politics" happens are no different. The expenses furore may have exposed the failure David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy

Among his articles for openDemocracy:

"Thinking of Cambodia" (17 April 2003)

"What kind of country?" (28 July 2005)

"William Wallace and reinventing Scotland" (23 August 2005)

"Bob Dylan's revolution in the head" (24 May 2006)

"A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism" (22 October 2008) - with Andrew Dobson                                   
"The world's American election: a conversation" (4 November 2008)

"The politics of ME, ME, ME" (9 January 2009) - with Keith Kahn-Harris

"The G20 and the post-crisis world" (2 April 2009)                                     "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009) - wth Sanam Vakil

"Cambodia: a patient waiting" (15 May 2009) - with Michel Thieren of Britain's political centre to function in a way that matches the needs of a modern democracy. But it also confirms a reality long glimpsed but only intermittently grasped: that the physical environment and enveloping atmosphere in which MPs and the political-administrative class operate are themselves an instrument of deep inertia. Without imaginative action, the deadening gothic monstrosity of Westminster is likely yet to undercut this spasm of great collective hunger for change.   

The case for a move is in this respect twofold. First, the decision to make a fresh start in a new site would itself be cathartic: a confident vote for the future in which a path is at last opened to consigning the most encrusted and ingrown practices and attitudes associated with Westminster - as much as its systemic flaws - to the "where are they now" category.

Second, a crucial defect of British democracy - and here the contrast with the United States is palpable and sobering - is that people do not feel a sense of ownership of or pride in their governing institutions. It is unlikely that even the reforms now being discussed will go far in remedying this. For it is the Westminster dreadnought itself that in time makes every liberalising programme resemble work of scaffolding rather than of transformative agency. The creation of a new site that puts architectural understanding in the vanguard of political definition may be more central to the reformers' case than many yet realise.

Look north, and east

The rules of the Scottish parliament over the publication of full details of its members' expenses have been much cited as a positive example in these weeks. By contrast, the shenanigans over the Holyrood building - the competition, the choice, the cost - offer many warnings about how not to do it. But the overall impulse, to make it new and modern, has been triumphantly vindicated.

Edwin Morgan's poem for the opening of the Edinburgh parliament in 2004, "Open the Doors!", beautifully combines a celebration of the institution itself with a warning to its legislators:

"What do the people want of the place? They want it to be filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its architecture.

....

We give you our consent to govern, don't pocket it and ride away.

We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don't say we have no mandate to be so bold."

If Edinburgh is one inspiration, Berlin's stunning Reichstag can be another. England too - for, yes, this must also be an English parliament - can aspire to a building that embodies the ethos of the unlocked democracy its people deserve. A political capital in the east Midlands, connected from London and elsewhere by new, fast rail connections; a modern, sophisticated, networked, accessible and well-serviced public complex of world standard; the result of a global competition in which the criteria of success include beauty, transport links, green space, public access, and permanent use as a hub of debate and education.

And Westminster? Turn it into what it already is: a "Museum of British Democracy", along the lines of Australia's fine and pioneering institution (see Stuart Wilks-Heeg, "MPs' expenses and the Museum of Australian Democracy", 18 May 2009). Meanwhile, the real thing can at last escape from its imprisoning gothic embrace, and free itself to the future we long for but - still - don't quite believe in.

There are no short-cuts to a task as great as the renewal of an enfeebled and tarnished democracy; no quick or easy way for the unruly subjects of these unsettled times to emerge through the constitutional looking-glass as self-confident citizens. All the more reason to guarantee that a designed infusion of light, air, ideas, energy, and people becomes an important part of the effort.

Let it also happen soon: for the idea of a relocated parliament - "a building which is more than a building" - is not an afterthought, but a calling-card for a modern democratic state that can look its citizens in the eye without shame. If reformers have the boldness and imagination to put this project at the centre of their programme, it could help ensure that May-June 2009 will indeed be a turning-point rather than yet another false dawn.

-------------------------

Open the Doors!

(a poem by Edwin Morgan for the opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004)

Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!

We have a building which is more than a building.

There is a commerce between inner and outer, between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who think about the world.

Is it not a mystery? The parts cohere, they come together

like petals of a flower, yet they also send their tongues

outward to feel and taste the teeming earth.

Did you want classic columns and predictable pediments? A

growl of old Gothic grandeur? A blissfully boring box?

Not here, no thanks! No icon, no Ikea, no iceberg, but

curves and caverns, nooks and niches, huddles

and heavens, syncopations and surprises. Leave symmetry to

the cemetery.

But bring together slate and stainless steel, black granite

and grey granite, seasoned oak and sycamore, concrete

blond and smooth as silk the mix is almost alive it

breathes and beckons imperial marble it is not!

Come down the Mile, into the heart of the city, past the kirk

of St Giles and the closes and wynds of the noted ghosts of

history who drank their claret and fell down the steep

tenements stairs into the arms of link-boys but who wrote

and talked the starry Enlightenment of their days -

And before them the auld makars who tickled a Scottish king's

ear with melody and ribaldry and frank advice -

And when you are there, down there, in the midst of things,

not set upon an hill with your nose in the air,

This is where you know your parliament should be

And this is where it is, just here.

What do the people want of the place? They want it to be

filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its

architecture.

A nest of fearties is what they do not want.

A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.

A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.

And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of 'it wizny me' is

what they do not want.

Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, you are

picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has been

almost but not quite, oh no not quite, not ever broken or

forgotten.

When you convene you will be reconvening, with a sense of not

wholly the power, not yet wholly the power, but a good

sense of what was once in the honour of your grasp.

All right. Forget, or don't forget, the past. Trumpets and

robes are fine, but in the present and the future you will

need something more.

What is it? We, the people, cannot tell you yet, but you will know about it when we do tell you.

We give you our consent to govern, don't pocket it and ride away.

We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don't say we

have no mandate to be so bold.

We give you this great building, don't let your work and hope be other than great when you enter and begin.

So now begin. Open the doors and begin.

Edwin Morgan, 2004

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