The Palace of Westminster

I’ve known for a while now that it is possible to go round the inside of the Houses of Parliament either by paying (at the weekends) or for free by writing to your local MP. So after years of slagging him off I swallowed my pride and sucked up to John Redwood to get a couple of tickets. Of course Redwood doesn’t organise the tickets himself, he has a flunky for that, but you know what I mean.

The tour itself takes 75 minutes and covers both houses and the royal rooms of the palace. You will have to take my word for it as we weren’t allowed to take any pictures other than in the Westminster Hall, which was a little dull even if it did look like the dining hall from Hogwarts and was in remarkably good condition for something that has been there for 900 years. I was surprised but just how small both chambers actually are – neither could hold all the Lords or MPs if all bothered to turn up at once. The upper house is obviously grander than the commons reflecting that one houses the (unelected) Lords and the other (elected commoners) MPs, which says something about out system of democracy! It was also pointed out that on busy days the MPs can do the equivalent of putting their towels over their seats like the Germans on holiday to secure their place. They can put a “prayer card” into a slot at the back of the seat and if they are there in time for 11:30 prayers they get the seat for the sitting. I guess it’s hard luck for MPs of other faiths and atheists who want to reserve a seat and have to sit through Anglican prayers to secure it!

The royal rooms were opulently appointed but rarely used it would seem. The Queen has a room solely for putting on her robe ready for the state opening of parliament which seems somewhat a waste. Other areas included a room which is normally used by the Lords which contains two massive paintings depicting the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar. They are so huge that they took the painter seven years to complete. They also caused the then French President, Charles de Gaulle, to refuse to give a speech to the assembled Lords and MPs there while flanked by two scenes of French defeat! They were covered with curtains for the occasion.

The final areas we were shown round were the lobbys both between the houses and where MPs go to have their votes counted “ayes to the right, noes to the left”. Still in this age of high-tech the votes are counted by herding the MPs like cattle through three narrow openings where they call out their name to the tellers who tick them off a list. If you wish to abstain you simply don’t go to either chamber, which means that you are simply not counted. This has the unfortunate side effect that there is no difference between an MP absenting and oversleeping and missing the vote! Therefore if you should check your MPs voting record (and you should here) that you will never know if they were indifferent or lazy.

Our tour guide, Duncan, was knowledgeable and really brought the Houses of Parliament to life and it was a fascinating tour. If you are on the UK electoral roll and a UK tax payer then gets some of your money back by signing up for a free visit it is well worth it. Contact your MP here.