Politics Behind Bars
The public gallery at the House of Commons is behind bullet-proof glass. This offensive distrust of the public reflects a greater sense of detachment between MPs and the electorate
Amid much blather about openness, our political class is becoming more closed. This was brought home to me the other day when I visited someone at the Palace of Westminster. The main entrance, beside Westminster Hall, was clogged with tourists, so I walked round to Portcullis House, where there was no queue. Within seconds I had been photographed and searched, and found myself waiting in the glazed entrance hall, which feels like a large aquarium. Through the glass wall, one sees into the covered courtyard, where the happy class of people in possession of permanent passes wanders at will. It is all very transparent. The visitor gets a small square of paper on which is written: “Non-pass holders should remain with their escorts at all times and/or remain within the areas to which they have been admitted.” If we happen to enter the public gallery of the House of Commons, we find ourselves separated from our legislators by a sheet of bullet-proof glass.
This reduces the temptation to throw things at them. But the screen also indicates an offensive distrust of the public. We are treated as potential enemies. It is true that some of us are potential enemies. But the erection of this barrier, carried out in a fit of panic in 2004, is nevertheless a cowardly mistake. If our politicians will not trust us, why should we trust them? They have created a sort of cocoon for themselves: a cosy 1950s environment patrolled by police officers who recall Dixon of Dock Green. The works canteen is subsidised, the post office staff are helpful and enthusiastic young people actually compete for the privilege of working for MPs free of charge, as interns. Possession of a pass to this world creates a pleasant sense of being an insider. Lack of a pass demonstrates that you are an outsider. I do not wish to sound ungrateful for the years (2004-11) when I worked at the Palace of Westminster. It is a delightful place: an architectural wonder. But it is full of disappointed MPs, who attempt to console themselves for their failure to obtain high office, by ensuring that they at least enjoy the facilities of a first-rate club.
The gates at the end of Downing Street, erected in 1989, are perhaps the most conspicuous symbol of the political class’s desire to keep the rest of us out. Andrew Mitchell, recently forced to resign as Chief Whip after an unfortunate altercation at the gates, should devote any leisure hours he may enjoy on the backbenches to a campaign to get the wretched things torn down.