The silence of Westminster

I travelled down to Westminster this afternoon to begin the not inconsiderable task of reducing the piles of paperwork clogging up my desk and much of the floor space around the desk.  

The Palace is notable for being eerily silent.  There are a few members of staff around – maintenance and security and some administrative staff.  I have also bumped into two peers.  (One reported that she had seen other members during the day.)   However, MPs who sat in the last Parliament have been barred since 5.00 p.m. on Monday, other than for the purpose of coming in to collect mail and even that will not be possible after Sunday.  Staff who worked for MPs are also excluded.

Some eating outlets remain open, though after 5.00 p.m. the only ones operating are the Despatch cafe bar in Portcullis House (pictured) and Moncrieff’s cafe in the reporters’ building behind the Commons.  In the interests of writing this post, I decided to use both. 

The area at the Despatch Box looked very much as it appears in the picture.  What is normally a bustling area – staff, members and visitors occupying most or all of the tables, with a queue at the Despatch Box – was almost deserted.  There were four members of the security staff at one table on the other side of the Atrium and that was it.  A few people walked by during the time I was having my cup of tea, but otherwise it was notable for its emptiness.

Likewise, in Moncrieff’s cafe.  The cafe is at the top of the building.  I like taking the stairs because the walls are lined with political cartoons .  The cafe itself was empty apart from three (I presume) journalists, busy chatting and ignoring Sky News being broadcast on the screen. 

The advantage for me is that I get to enjoy the sheer beauty of the Palace.  It also provides an opportunity to explore the place.  I have been studying Parliament for more than thirty years and been a member of the Lords for eleven-and-a-half years, but there are still parts of the Palace with which I am not that familiar.  There are two to three miles of corridor and more than 200 staircases.  (I’m taking the figure I have been given as accurate – I haven’t attempted a count!)  It is the staircases in particular that I have not fully explored to see where they lead.  I like to think, though, that my knowledge of the geography is somewhat better than many MPs.  Some, even of very long standing, have problems in finding certain meeting rooms in the House of Lords.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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18 Responses to The silence of Westminster

  1. Carl.H says:

    The quiet of such a big historic building sounds very appealing especially with so much to explore…….and tea. 🙂

  2. FinnishCowl says:

    Perhaps the peers and Lords’ staff need to have a drinks party. When the cat’s away…

    • Lord Norton says:

      FinnishCowl: Hmm, don’t forget I’m teetotal. As for the cat being away, given our problem with mice, it would be good to have a cat in the first place.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        Cats catch mice with their claws, which they then have to sharpen somewhere… With so much carved wood around the Palace (not to mention the curtains), I’m not sure it’s such a good idea. In any case, there is apparently the additional problem that the felines “could ingest mice poison or wander around the chamber and disrupt business”.

        With regards to the latter concern, perhaps Mr Moore-Brabazon has in mind the Question Time incident in Cornwall last summer. I don’t know how Your Lordships would react to the sight of a tabby cat leaping from bench to bench, walking past the Woolsack and then climbing onto the Throne for a nap, but I have to remind you that Her Majesty is a dog lover and might not appreciate it as much as the media.

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/8973130
        http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8131264.stm

      • Lord Norton says:

        The Duke of Waltham: One thing I did not include in my ‘Who Am I?’ post is that I am a cat lover!

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        And how many cats do you have, My Lord?

        By the way, the problem seems to be (understandably) quite old:

        http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1972/mar/22/mice

      • Lord Norton says:

        The Duke of Waltham: None. My peripatetic lifestyle makes it inappropriate, or rather unfair on the animals, to have pets. Mind you, cats are intelligent creatures and the neighbours’ cats know a soft touch when they see one.

  3. The Duke of Waltham says:

    Incredibly appealing, in fact. And I cannot even daydream properly; I have plans of the principal floor in three different books, but I cannot find anything from the other floors anywhere (with the exception of miniature plans of the terrace and first floors in an English Heritage document). I suppose security plays a part in this, but if the Palace authorities don’t mind releasing plans of the principal floor, why not of the rest? Or is it just that the publishers are not interested in including them in any books because the Line of Route does not pass from there?

    Photographs are rather sparse, too. I was thrilled with the release of each subsequent virtual tour, and I have recently seen the “Britain’s Best Buildings” episode featuring the Palace (with some interesting footage of Speaker’s House), but nothing new is forthcoming, and I need my fix… *shakes uncontrollably*

    “Some, even of very long standing, have problems in finding certain meeting rooms in the House of Lords.” Perhaps they don’t care enough to look around in their spare time. I am reminded of those businessmen and -women who fly around the world but never get to see anything of the cities they visit other than the view from their hotel windows.

    • Lord Norton says:

      I a not sure a floor plan of the top floors, which are purely used for offices, would have much interest. We do, though, have a framed floor plan, hanging in one of the corridors, of the principal floor in the early twentieth century. It is fascinating to see how the use of space has changed over time, with some physical restructuring.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        The arrangement of the various offices and stairwells wouldn’t leave me cold, but in this case I am mostly interested in the three-dimensional extension of the building. In other words, I’d like to see the differences between the outline of each floor and that of the next, where the roofs are, how the volumes are articulated around the courts… That sort of thing. I couldn’t see much in the aforementioned miniature maps, but I was rather struck (if not entirely surprised) by how the usable space on the first floor is mostly restricted to the perimeter of the Palace.

        But even if this is not enough of a justification for my desire to see plans of the top floors, perhaps we can agree that there is much of architectural interest in the ground floor…

        Regarding the principal floor, I have a couple of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century plans here; having received M. H. Port’s The Houses of Parliament just yesterday, I realise that I also have a few plans from the design process, reflecting the many changes that were made even as the Palace was being constructed. The Royal Approach changed a lot, for one thing, and the area where the Members’ Dining Room is located was apparently intended to be a room for joint conferences of the two Houses.

        The subsequent changes were mostly the appropriation of the officials’ residences, which covered much of the Palace, and their subdivision into offices; the current complex geography of the building is largely owed to that. The architect, Sir Charles Barry, had planned to enclose New Palace Yard, and therefore provide offices for MPs from the start, but this was cancelled, mostly due to concerns over cost during the Crimean War. If this plan had been carried out, the western front of the Palace would be much more uniform and harmonious, but it would also have meant that Westminster Hall would be entirely obscured from view, and the Clock Tower would not be the nearly free-standing tower we know.

        Question: what is the room directly above the Peers’ Entrance? I understand that for many decades it used to be the Lord Chancellor’s office. The Lord Great Chamberlain also had offices east of the Queen’s Robing Room—is this still the case?

  4. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton and DoW,
    I imagine the city is in an unusual state for many visitors when there is no Parliament nor any Heathrow, but there is a volcano. I know that it connot be the spelling the Icelandic volcano ehich has kept commenters from emntioning it. After all which of us odes not confidently delight in spelling out the name as often as possible these days as it comes so trippingly from the keyboard.

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      Well, I’d say the closure of Heathrow would be much more noticeable than the closure of Parliament. After all, most visitors go there to take pictures of the Clock Tower and listen to Big Ben chiming, not in the hopes of meeting any MPs; those who do have business with Parliament will probably not go there at all.

      But this volcano does put things into perspective… One eruption thousands of miles away and flights all over Europe are cancelled. It seems incredibly easy to upset the plans of hundreds of thousands of people. Interesting, isn’t it, how much we’ve come to rely on easy international travel?

  5. franksummers3ba says:

    Lady Tizzy,
    It does seem that the Laki eruptions had a dsiatrous effect upon the world in many ways. But they may not have confronted the issue as wll as we can today. Pehaps paying attention is the key.

    Even if it is short-lived perhaps an Eyjafjallajokull Party in the European Parliament would be a good start. Also maybe Lord Norton should be urged by us his E-salon to organize an Eyjafjallajokull Caucus, Task Force and Special Interest Group in the Conservative Party, the Lords and the Parliament respectively. How about a motion to make Her Brittanic Majesty a Title of Benefactor of Eyjafjallajokull. Really make “Eyjafjallajokull” the rallying cry of our era. We could say the idea started here at the Norton View when it is on every tongue.

    • ladytizzy says:

      Once they give our money back, fine by me.

      The war cry needs re-working; perhaps Jaffa cakes for all?

      • Carl.H says:

        “Jaffa cakes for all”

        Now there`s a woman who knows the way to a mans heart !

        Stop Heathrow expansion group, Stop the Stanstead Third runway group and Stop Southend (Stobart) Airport Expansion are all due back from their recent trip to Iceland sometime next week. A spokesman for the groups stated they`d poked a few idea`s about but not enough for permanent eruption to occur !

  6. franksummers3ba says:

    Yes Lady Tizzy, it is winning at least!
    Before he we was a Revolutionary Thomas Jefferson was a member of the Colony of Virginia HoB. He claimed his enitre political strategy in those years was to hold a large party in which free cakes and drinks were offered to all.

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