If we want a healthier politics, we should reconsider the design of parliament
Charlie Burton is a journalist based in London and is a Senior Commissioning Editor at GQ.
In 2025, the British parliament is expected to leave the Palace of Westminster for the first time since World War Two. MPs will move down the road to Whitehall and set up temporary digs at Richmond House, formerly the home of the Department of Health, to allow restoration to be carried out at the Palace. It’s a huge undertaking: the refurbishment won’t be completed until the 2030s and is expected to cost around £4 billion; Richmond House will have to undergo extensive construction work to make it fit for purpose. The magnitude of the task is reflected in the setting up of an Olympic-style delivery body to oversee the project.When MPs voted to move ahead with this course of action last year, you would be forgiven for wondering: might our dear leaders take this opportunity to imaginatively and progressively re-think the design of the Commons chamber? We’ll give you one guess. Not only will the new Houses of Parliament be exactly like the old, but the temporary accommodation at Richmond will also recreate the current situation, even down to the green benches. This is a wasted opportunity to experiment. When such a moment last presented itself, after the Commons was struck by a German bomb in 1941, Winston Churchill instructed Giles Gilbert Scott, the man behind the red telephone box, to recreate it exactly as it was, dismissing out of hand any possibility of remodelling. We’ve had to wait a lifetime for another chance to reassess the status quo, and politicians have slavishly taken the same blinkered approach. That’s not just unimaginative, it’s also a dereliction of duty. Theorists have long shown that the layout of a parliament has a direct effect on how politics is done, so ought we not investigate whether a new physical architecture could improve our political system? Lord knows it’s not exactly in rude health.
The current Commons format does have its advantages. As the architects David Mulder van der Vegt and Max Cohen de Lara argue in their book Parliament (2016), the debating chamber clearly distinguishes the party of government from the opposition and, as there are more MPs today than when it was first designed, the sense of its being packed-out leads to more vigorous debate. However, it also promotes an atmosphere of conflict – and at a time when Brexit, social media, 24-hour news, bad faith actors and the multitude of other ills afflicting our democracy are entrenching social divisions, perhaps we need a format that encourages a greater mood of consensus and compromise. There are a number of alternatives available. There’s the semicircle, for instance, in which seats fan out from a central point; this has been adopted across Europe, from the French Assemblée Nationale to the German Bundestag. Then there’s the horseshoe, which can be seen at Bangladesh’s National Parliament House. And finally, there’s the full circle – this scarce typology was used at the former West German parliament in Bonn. All of these formats remove positional signifiers of party allegiance or individual status; they articulate unity and collaboration rather than difference and conflict. There are further design tweaks that could also prove transformative. “While the Commons is stunning in its own right, the practical impact may be to instil caution and conservative, static values to sitting MPs,” says Patrick Dougherty, founder of furniture, homeware and design brand Ivar London. “By contrast, if MPs sat in a brand new chamber using contemporary design – plenty of light, comfortable seating and modern technical materials in plain sight – that might well encourage MPs to think of the future in a more optimistic light, and to be more encouraged to invest in science and technology and for that matter anything that encourages innovation and progress.” Regrettably, when it comes to parliament design, innovation and progress are off the table for now.