In Which I Go To Parliament
I’d been inside the Houses of Parliament without a tour guide one before, to the House of Lords for a wedding – the children of Right Honorables can get married there – but I hadn’t been in the other side, the House of Commons. So when my friend Suzi was invited to an event with a Plus One, I jumped at the chance.
Parliament is open to all UK residents through a variety of different programmes and events. Guided tours take visitors into both the Commons and Lords chambers and Westminster Hall, as well as up the Clock Tower. You can also attend debates in both Houses and watch committee hearings. This, however, was a chance to chuck down booze on the river terrace at the MPs expense and hear a couple of speeches that sounded interesting.
Entering the building is now as complicated as passing through US customs, and involves metal detectors and having your picture taken for a badge. After the astonishment of Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Hall and the central open square, you re-enter through a far less spectacular part that takes you past endless meeting rooms where people were either having dinner, holding meetings or drinking, all attended by waiting staff. In fact, the biggest surprise was just how many people there were inside.
The smell of institution dinners was overpowering – a little like being in a care home – as waiters delivered endless plates along a cream corridor. A marquee on the Thames terrace revealed the purpose of the event – to relaunch the London Magazine, once a Whig magazine that boasted Wordsworth and Dickens among its contributors.
Unfortunately, things got strange after that. First up was the Hon. Jacob Rees-Mogg MP on “The Current Mood in Parliament”, who didn’t talk about that at all, but attempted to turn the gathering into a Tory rally by braying about the London magazine now being in ‘safe Conservative hands’.
A glance through the magazine itself reveals that it has become a bland catalogue of property-porn and pretty pictures aimed at the rich clients who sit in Harley Street waiting rooms (I can’t tell you more as there were, strangely, no free copies knocking about).
The rest of the speech consisted of stitched-together aphorisms, completely contradictory statements and a guarantee that we currently had ‘the best party leaders we’ve ever had in Parliament’, before ending with some nasty-minded schadenfreude about the collapsing EU.
After the faintest smattering of applause it was the turn of Dr. Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, on “What Future for the Arts in Britain?”, who wasn’t as unpleasant but didn’t stick to the brief either, rambling on about people paying for special exhibitions when they should be looking at resident collections, and how everyone pays too much attention to modern art and not enough to the classics, specifically Titian.
When I give a talk I at least make an effort to cover the subject in question. Perhaps there’s something about being in the Houses of Parliament that encourages weird soap-box complaining – in which case, heaven help our debating chambers.