When I was taught history at school I never thought much about the focus. But focus it did, on 1066 and William the Conker, Henry VIII and his appetite for wives, Liz 1 and her potato man, a bit of a muddle in the middle, lots of people called George and the Victorians inventing everything from flushing toilets to beach holidays. But really, looking back the Muddle in the Middle was the bit they should have focused on. Our 17th century revolution, coupled with plagues and fires and then another revolution, this one Glorious. And at the end of it we had the proper beginnings of a parliamentary democracy and a royal family that is big on formality and frocks and light on demagoguery.
And wandering around London these days and seeing all the grand buildings from which we are governed is to recognize that we, here, in the UK have been very lucky to have had our form of government and freedom from the nonsense of an absolute monarchy for the last 400 plus years.
If only what we voted for every five years actually was democracy then it would be really quite splendid.
You have to start with an ornate pile of horses do-dos that is Parliament, really two houses in a Palace – the Palace of Westminster. I know it looks good and Big Ben – The Elizabeth Tower in fact – Big Ben is a bell – is the epitome of iconic but it’s jerry built and falling apart. The current estimate – if the MPs stay put – it will cost £5.7 billion and take 32 years to fix; move the precious little darlings out to a Travelodge somewhere north of Hemel and it drops to £3.2 million and 6 years.
In front of Parliament is Parliament Square, a pretty little open space that currently contains a frankly zany selection of statues. I mean can anyone else see the irony of Nelson Mandela
and Jan Smuts in the same place?
I’m not part of the ‘Rhodes Must Go’ school of sanitising history and Smuts was seen as a war hero and all that for a large part of the 20th century but there is no doubt he was one of the architects of apartheid too. Maybe that’s the famous British idea of balance. More likely it is our ingrained irony and what passes for a sense of humour when politicians are involved.
There are other famous folks – Gandhi
Lloyd George about to take off
Palmerston ready to send in a gunboat
and, um, Beaconsfield
who? Ok so maybe his heroship is rather forgotten.
There used to have a protest camp here for many years, started by Brian Haw. It eventually covered a range of protests but our open democracy has to give best to the need to let tourists and locals like me take neat clean photos so it was unceremoniously cleared away. Sad really.
On the far side of the square, on the outside pavement, Abe Lincoln looks on, a bronze metaphor for many years of isolationism perhaps and a warning for the direction of US foreign policy if a certain preening popping-jay wins through in November.
Parliament is all very fine and the Wednesday bun fight that is PMQs – Prime Minister’s Questions – all great theatre, even if it sounds like a group of teenage boys watching America’s Top Model, but it’s not where the real work is done. That is in the ministries which line Whitehall.
First up – is anyone surprised – is the Treasury.
This huge slab of grandiose monumentalism fills the corner with a lumpen inertia much like the way the Treasury officials treats any policy the chancellor does not like.
By crushing the life out of it.
Beyond we have the aloof foreign office
the smug cabinet office
a new on the block Ministry of Culture Media and Sport – an odd mix when you think about it and really it would be better if it was called what is was – the Ministry of C List Celebrities – I didn’t bother with a picture
And part of the Department of health, more modern this.
You reach Horse Guards and the rather splendid guards in their camp finery
why is it that our military, when dressed in their uniforms, look like extras from a Busby Berkeley musical?
Wander through the arch to the parade ground
where guards change
colours are trooped
and tourists gather and it feels another world.
Along side each edge there are more, non specific government offices
– the Ministry of Policy Wonkery, the Office of Quango Burning, The Home of the Unelected Control Freaks – I made the last one up
plus heroes of long forgotten escapades.
On the other side of Whitehall from Horse Guards sits the Banqueting House
rather wonderfully old it is too.
I’ve had dinner here, in its ancient hall. Lucky me. A German lawyer played a grand piano which was very nice but I’d have preferred Coldplay TBH.
It is a serious question, this. These buddings are fantastic. Part of our history. But really are they fit for the purpose of running a 21st Century government? Dotted here and there are signs threatening near instant death under the Serious and Organised Crime Act if you look a bit moody in the direction of some guy in black totting a sub-machine-gun. I fully accept in today’s world our politicians need proper protection but providing it in a 18th and 19th Century context is not so easy. A conundrum this and one that probably costs us all in the long term.
There are nice touches too. A memorial to some 200 British Citizens killed in the Bali bomb was unexpected. Touching too.
The Churchill War rooms, a museum I forgot in my M is for Museums post is there too and as an insight into how the WW2 was fought without abandoning the capital, fascinating.
And finally as you skirt the edge of St James Park, you come to Admiralty Arch, home of the Admiralty and other bits of government.
For me this is the best of the bunch, crossing the Mall and neatly bookending it with a certain Buck House at the other end.
But more of that later.
Oh, did I mention Downing Street? Oh well, it’s through there.
Meah. This is more interesting.
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