What should we do with the Palace of Westminster?

The Palace of Westminster Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Palace of Westminster is said to require significant restoration work

I had to meet an MP the other day, a minister, at the Houses of Parliament.

As an ordinary member of the public, it is no longer easy to get in if you don't have a badge.

First, you queue outside what used to be the lobby entrance, on the pavement, in the dark.

Then, they let you through the gates and you join a much longer queue stretching down a metal ramp to security.

You are out in the open for as long as it takes to check the people in front of you - longer than it normally takes to cross what they call the "UK Border" at airports these days.

I'd allowed 20 minutes for the process; Big Ben banged off half an hour before I got in.

Visitors seeking to participate in the democratic process inch down that ramp, in the dark, with no protection from the elements. It is like trying to get a visa at the American Embassy in London.

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Image caption The House of Commons was designed for two-party politics

At the Houses of Parliament they've housed the security X-ray machines in a temporary looking hut, in the seeming hope that the alert (or the visitors) will eventually go away.

I suppose it is optimistic that the admission arrangements have a temporary air.

Gothic surroundings

The one bright spot to the whole visit is the eventual stroll through the magnificence of Westminster Hall, where you tread with kings and commoners.

But at the end, you toil up flights of stairs to reach the Lobby and ask for the person you are there to see. On a late winter evening, the whole place is steeped in gothic gloom.

No wonder our rulers seem so cut off from the world the rest of us live in.

Many of them spent their formative school years in genuinely gothic surroundings, at one of the public schools.

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Image caption Are the gothic surroundings of the House of Lords consonant with a modern, digital democracy?

They went straight on to Oxbridge: more old stone insulating them from everyday reality.

And then - maybe - they went into law, and straight into an Inn of Court with the same architectural imprinting.

The mock-gothic Houses of Parliament completes this progress of the dominant male soul: low lighting; pointed arches; historic nooks and crannies; rampant Victoriana, informing in some subtle way all the debates and decisions that parliamentarians take part in.

The need for change

But perhaps this experience - mine as a rank outsider, MPs as workplace users - is about to change.

We now know that the fabric of the Palace of Westminster is crumbling. The building needs an estimated £3bn of restoration work.

Maybe MPs and Lords and their attendants will have to move out for 10 years to accommodate the work. Maybe, at the end of it, they will not want to move back.

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Image caption When the House of Commons was bomb damaged in World War Two...
Image copyright AFP
Image caption ...the then prime minister Winston Churchill wanted it restored to its former glory

Perhaps they will decide to move into a complete contrast, just to see what it might be like: a building uniquely suited to a 21st Century democracy, not one so rooted in the past.

But what ought it to be?

I hope that proposals from members of the public will be welcome. Maybe even readers of this column.

It may be illuminating to think about the future of parliamentary democracy from a business perspective.

Companies of all shapes and sizes are being confronted with technology changes that they have to respond to or be overwhelmed.

But the antiquated solemnity of Parliament enables its members to remain little changed, and little challenged by the disruptions occurring outside the two chambers.

The need to rebuild the Palace of Westminster is a once-in-three-lifetimes opportunity.

Image caption Visitors to Germany's Reichstag can watch the debates from a viewing gallery directly above

A really inspiring new Houses of Parliament might emerge from an architectural prize contest opened to all comers, a familiar practice abroad but one the British seem to be wary of.

A great transparent cube was the suggestion of the MP I went to see the other day in his gothic gloom.

In the new Reichstag in Berlin, visitors can walk on top of the debating chamber and look down on MPs at work. A very different experience from Westminster's Visitors' Gallery.

And then there is the question of where a temporary parliament ought to be. Not much room in central London for parliamentarians to pitch their tent. But ministers would not want to work far away from their ministries. Battersea Power Station would have been ideal, but that's been taken.

Digital democracy

But there are bigger questions. How do these new build considerations fit into our 21st Century digital world?

Those imbued in Westminster make much of the physical surroundings: the debating chamber where members are separated two sword-lengths away from each other, for example.

When the Commons Chamber was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1941, it was decided to rebuild it as it was, rather than modernise the layout.

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Image caption Could we learn from the modern designs of the National Assembly of Wales in Cardiff...
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Image caption ...or the Scottish Parliament building in Holyrood, Edinburgh?

The then prime minister, Winston Churchill, uttered a revealing phrase in defence of this architecture which echoed the British two-party system: "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us."

This reverence for heritage is amplified by that often mis-applied phrase, The Mother of Parliaments. John Bright's original phrase refers, of course, to England as the parent, not the Palace of Westminster.

Brits tend to feel nervous about the apparent lack of real debate implied by the fan-like dispositions of continental parliamentary chambers.

A big tent?

But for too many younger voters in Britain the ritual of debate in the Houses of Parliament probably seems very stultifying. Televised Prime Minister's Questions leaves them cold.

They are used to voting on the things that matter to them minute by minute: with their thumbs, their attention span, their buying decisions.

The internet has put them in the driving seat for much of their lives, and businesses have had to respond to this and lead it.

But apart from the rise of the pollster, not much has happened when it comes to politics.

Voting for an MP who then represents you for a five-year stint in Parliament probably seems pretty remote to the new always on, always responding digital generations.

Yes, the internet is starting to change democracy in fundamental ways, and we can't yet understand how deep they will go.

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Image caption Does the very architecture of the Houses of Parliament mean that MPs are disconnected from world outside?

For the whole of the industrial era, 200 years or so - and the agricultural millennia before it - power was vested in the people who owned the means of production: land, factories, machines, printing presses, transmitters.

Now that is being quickly eroded. The workers have command of some of the methods of production that Marx predicted would take place one day, and they are gathering more control by the day.

But government is still rooted in the previous power bases: money, the law, the professions, and their physical assets.

Politicians tweet and blog, but social media does not fit very comfortably with their tight little Westminster world.

Image caption Could a future UK Houses of Parliament resemble the European equivalent in Strasbourg?

Another organisation conducting its affairs in the way that Parliament does - a business, a hospital, a school - would be forced to change by public opinion.

The working hours, the style of debate, the physical conditions for the workers, the remoteness from its constituents.

A new, big, transparent temporary Tent of Westminster might symbolise that politicians realise big changes are afoot, even if they do not yet know what those changes will have to be.

And after 10 years of camping out, maybe they would choose not to move back into their restored heritage centre on the Thames.

In a gentle but expensive way, they would have woken up to the implications of the 21st Century.

But since reform of the House of Lords has taken more than 100 years to effect, don't hold your breath as you queue for admission.

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