15 MAY 1964, Page 5

Political Commentary

Housing the House

By DAVID WATT This warning is an essential prologue to any realistic discussion' of the present controversy over the extension of parliamentary accommoda- tion. The argument over Modern versus Gothic IS picturesque and amusing, but the whole question goes far deeper. The best way to approach it is to ask, as anyone coming fresh to the problem might well do, why, when it has been Obvious for nearly a hundred years that it is 'im- possible either to work or to rest' in the HoUse' of -Commons, nothing has been done earlier to build more room for Members. The present Palace of Westminster had scarcely been com- pleted before Members were complaining, and since the last war these complaints have grown almost hysterical, yet for years nothing radical was done. 'When I came here in 1950,' com- plained Mr. William Hamilton of West Fife in a debate last year, 'I was given the key to a locker Which was no bigger than that which I had at school. That was the only accommodation, the. onlY amenity, I had in the building.' He con- tinued: 'I now have an addition to my locker. I have a little desk. I go up in an antiquated lift and I eventually get right to the top of the build- ing. I am with another seven Members in a room the size of the average dining-room in the average cOuncil house.' Some Members who have not been in the House so long do not have even that. They have nowhere except odd benches in cor- ridors to dictate to their secretaries; •they have hardly anywhere but public lobbies to interview their constituents; they have almost no telephones available and those are mainly coin-box ones.

All this has been a commonplace for years and yet only now is it proposed to provide 100.000 square feet of room for the Commons. The original reason, was, of course, cheeseparing. The wretched Sir Charles Barry was driven nearly mad by the refusal of Parliament to grant him adequate funds for building the present Palace (poor Pugin was driven literally mad at least partly by Barry's understandable failure to pay him) and his original design has never yet been completed. The strange sense of responsibility in public relations which persistently prevents MPs from paying themselves adequately has operated from the beginning on the question of building and is still to be seen in all its grandiose per- versity in Mr. Emrys Hughes's recent motion which deplores the diversion of labour and re- sources from the task of building houses, hos- pitals and schools to expensive additions to the Palace of Westminster.

But this basic parsimony has now collected massive accretions of tradition, conservatism and obscurantism. The step was taken long ago that, since we can't afford to house Members properly, it is better for constitutional reasons that they should not be housed. It may seem in- conceivable to anyone who has not discussed the ' matter in the hothouse atmosphere of West- minster, but large numbers of Members are still passionately attached to their present discom- forts and will only with the utmost grudging- ness admit that even the present proposals are necessary. A very common expression of the argument is this compounded out of conver- sations I have had during the last week : 'the whole point of this place is that one's made to spend most of the time with people whose opinions one detests. If you give Members com- fortable private rooms they will spend all their time in them, instead of hanging about the lobbies having their corners rubbed off. The life- blood of this place which is gossip and cbm- munity spirit would disappear. It would be like the American Congress where they just sit in their offices and work.'

It is noticeable that the most ardent proponents of this view are of two sorts—either Con- servatives who regard their job as an MP as an adjunct to their private businesses, who (when not on a committee) do their parliamentary business at their own office with the help of their firm's secretaries and who come to the West- minster 'club' hi the afternoon, alternatively, they are elderly trade unionists who somehow or other write their constituency letters at the House, but prefer to spend the rest of their time in the Chamber or preferably talking over endless cups of tea in the tea-room. To either of these groups the idea that i$ is any major part of a back- bencher's function to challenge the Executive on points of detail or to become genuinely expert in a subject by research means little or nothing. There is no urgency in their minds about, say, improving and enlarging the Library, because few. of them use it systematically (how else could it meet the demands of 630 MPs with a staff of

seven research assistants and a budget of only £56,000 a year?): far less about accommodation.

We are now at the heart of the controversy over the new building. For the Speaker's Commit- tee has only been forced to its conclusion that a Gothic style is better than a modern one by its prior decision that the new building must be physically attached to the present Palace and must therefore harmonise with it. If only the Committee did not feel it had to create 'a par- liamentary precinct,' a modern annexe to the House on the other side of the road would be perfectly acceptable and the traffic diversion and so on would be unnecessary. But the presump- tions which lie behind the insistence on a par- liamentary precinct are strongly coloured by those which I have set out above. Members of the Committee, when challenged to justify their point of view, invariably reply that an annexe is 'out' because no one would use it if they had to walk three minutes to get there. The answer is that if MPs were doing their jobs in the modern kind of way they could scarcely afford mit to use their offices even if it took six minutes to reach them; that those MPs who regard them- selves as professional or nearly professional politicians do use their room if they are allotted one or hire offices and secretaries outside the Parliamentary precinct if they are rich enough. All this is not, of course, an argument against the precinct but it is very relevant against the argument for an.annexe.

Mr. Wilson's stalwart defence on Tuesday of the rights of British troops to zoom round Aden under the protection of their treaty obligations coincided neatly with a special meeting of the Anglo-Egyptian Parliamentary Association con- vened by some Conservative members to 'discuss the future of the society'; and it has undoubtedly served its main purpose of nipping off any un- pleasant attempt on the part of the Govern- ment to brand Mr. Wilson as a Nasser-lover and stabber of British boys in the back. It is a measure of these palmy days of fraternal har- mony that many a left-wing hand was lifted in blessing on this statesmanlike stroke that in the bad old days of Hugh Gaitskell would have con- tained a heavy blunt instrument.

The truth is that there are few genuine Arabophiles in the Labour Party and Labour back-benchers have few of the contacts with the Middle East that they have with Africa. This in- clines them to take a less doctrinaire view than usual of the whole concept of the Aden base and to contemplate with equanimity abandoning the sheikhs of the Federation at some future date.

The Labour leaders, in fact, seem to be in rare unanimity over policy here. They calculate that the base is useful at present as a jumping-off point for East Africa; that British oil instal- lations in the Gulf are probably worth defending and above all that the existence of a British presence in Aden is an important bargaining counter with the Americans. They want to detach Aden from the Federation and they bank on the Adertis finding revenue from the base too valu- able to throw us out. As for the hinterland, Labour would recognise the Yemeni Republican Government and impose a strict time limit of three or four years on the Federation sheikhs be- land which Britain would not defend them. There will be plenty to enrage Conservative back-benchers here when this policy (or some of it) is expounded in the Foreign Affairs debate but there is nothing to disturb the electors of, say, Faversham or Liverpool (Scotland).