How old is the Chamber of the House of Commons? If you didn’t know, a reasonable guess may be that it is an eighteenth or nineteenth century structure. Although there have been buildings on the site since the 11th Century, the Palace of Westminster as a whole largely dates from the 183os. Surprisingly, however, the fabric of the present Commons Chamber itself dates from only 1950 when it was rebuilt following destruction in wartime 1941!
The striking thing about the EU referendum debate is the way in which politicians from all parties have been willing to share a platform. But this is not exceptional with the Parliamentary committee system allowing politicians to work together to achieve mutually agreed goals. This is at odds with the undemocratic charade to which Prime Ministers Questions has now descended in the main Chamber. In the current disillusionment with politics and the political establishment, one problem which is often overlooked is with the structure of the Chamber of the House of Commons itself. You can view the layout using this very good interactive guide. Incredibly for our main legislative chamber it can only seat 427 of the 650 MPs! The situation is exacerbated when the governing party (or coalition) has a substantial majority flooding one set of Chamber benches.
In terms of layout, the format of two banks of benches facing each other is, appropriately enough, known as Westminster Style. Considering the problems associated with this arrangement very few new legislative chambers are designed in this way. What are the problems? Firstly it does not facilitate good debate, partly because it encourages a confrontational approach between Government and Opposition often leading to the unseemly jeering and barracking with which we are all depressingly familiar. Moreover, exchanges between members on the same side is hampered by the fact that participants cannot see each other easily when arranged side-by-side.
The Westminster layout has another serious defect. Dividing the house into Government and Opposition gives a false impression of the dynamics of the British constitution. There is an atmosphere that the Government benches should always ‘govern’ and the Opposition benches should always ‘oppose’ The division between a government, technically appointed by the Monarch, and a Parliament holding them to account is effectively hidden and the public is encouraged to think in terms of political parties such as Labour and Conservative. This works along with the Whips System to allow the governing party to dominate the House, hindering effective accountability
The alternative approach is the ‘Hemicyle’ style most familiar to us from the UN debating chamber, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. It was also the chosen solution for the new Maltese Parliament building (details here). This is far more flexible, allowing speakers and parties to change location. Crucially, the layout is far more accommodating to a Coalition government arrangement. Similarly, many modern Chambers include desk space in front of the representatives allowing them to arrange documents and materials. Even better is an inbuilt IT system which allows blind and deaf representatives to play a full part. Other advantages of the hemicycle are discussed by architects in this article.
So, the House of Commons Chamber is a museum piece which should have been completely modernised after the war. We must stop 21st Century politics being conducted in a fake-antique building which only serves to entrench the position of the old establishment elite. In an era when new in infrastructure is being encouraged a new Chamber would be an extremely good long-term investment.