Friday, November 05, 2004

House Points is back

People standing for election to party committees cannot appear in the party newspaper while voting is taking place, so today's issue of Liberal Democrat News is the first I have been able to write in for a while. Here is my first House Points column of the new season.

Stranger but true

Last week BBC2 began to repeat the BBC4 series "Britain's Best Buildings", and the first programme looked at the Palace of Westminster. It was introduced by Dan Cruickshank, who has just the combination of enthusiasm, mild eccentricity and lightly worn learning that makes great television presenters.

He taught us a lot. Notably, that the Commons has a two-sided chamber because MPs originally met in a chapel at Westminster and occupied the choir stalls. They bow to the Speaker's chair because it occupies the place of the altar. When you consider its present incumbent, that makes them a primitive tribe indeed.

But there is a virulent disease that afflicts people who talk about the old pile by the Thames. And Professor Cruickshank had it bad.

You could hear it in his language from the start. He called Westminster "a symbol of a free people, of democratic government and of political continuity". There is something about the place that leads people to make questionable claims in overwrought language. Somewhere at the back of the minds is a desire to sound like Winston Churchill. If Cruickshank's introduction had gone on longer he would undoubtedly have slipped in the phrase "this island race".

And you could see it in the way he walked. If it is possible to caper and fawn at the same time, then Cruickshank did it. As he explored the grander rooms - the Speaker's House, the Queen's Robing Room, the Royal Gallery - he pranced with glee, practically rubbing himself against the plusher fittings, while all the time looking for someone he could bow to.

Cruickshank ended by calling Westminster "a building that is in a very special way a people's palace". It is nothing of the sort. It was built as a royal palace and, though it was substantially rebuilt in the nineteenth century and after the Second World War, that is what in essence it remains.

The latest news is that members of the public will no longer be referred to as "strangers". At the same time the Commons authorities are planning to build a glass screen to cut the Public Gallery off from the chamber.

Very New Labour that. You can get away with the most outrageous actions as long as you have learned to couch them in the right, officially approved language.

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