To the then 32-year-old Bevan, Westminster’s seat of power seemed to have a church-like quality with its vaulted roofs and stained glass windows. The rows of statues of Britain’s great statesmen, the echoing halls, the Serjeant-at-Arms’ soft-footed attendants, the whispered conversations—all were alien and all seemed designed to overawe and intimidate a working class miner from the Welsh valleys.
Bevan pronounced it a form of “ancestor worship” before reminding himself and his working class readers that these were not “our” ancestors.
If the current opinion polls are accurate, more than 40 new SNP members will, like Bevan before them, be introduced to “parliamentary mysteries” that will be outside anything they have previously experienced.
The 2015 Parliament that convenes later this year may be a very different and reformed institution compared to its 1929 predecessor, but at its core it remains a deeply conservative force and influence that has successfully held together a democratically flawed “Crown State” for more than 300 years. New MPs should be warned.
Since the widening of the franchise to include workers, Westminster has successfully withstood waves of would be revolutionaries. In 1914 Labour, as a member of the Second Socialist International, was a committed anti-war party pledged to use any war crisis to bring about social revolution. On the outbreak of the war its MPs voted for the patriotic war and joined with the other bourgeois parties on the green benches in singing “God Save the King”.
The “Red Clydeside” MPs elected in 1922 pledged that the atmosphere of the Clyde would get the better of the House of Commons. It never happened.
Then left-wing firebrands like Davie Kirkwood and Manny Shinwell would end their Westminster days wrapped in ermine and safely ensconced in the House of Lords. Jimmy Maxton, the most iconic of the Clydeside revolutionaries, would later be patronised by Churchill as “the finest gentleman in the House of Commons”.
When he died in 1946, the entire House of Commons stood for a minute’s silence, a tribute without precedence for a back-bencher. The list could go on.
Part of Westminster’s continuing allure is the atmosphere it generates of being the “most exclusive club in Europe”. In the next Parliament, members will have a basic salary of £74,000 plus expenses. They will automatically carry the title of “Honourable Member”.
Staff across the parliamentary estate will be charged with recognising who they are and then treating them with due deference and respect. They will have access to subsidised “member only” bars and dining rooms. Only members and their guests will be allowed on the exclusive terrace that overlooks the Thames.
Members from far-flung constituencies enjoy first class air and rail travel. They are entitled to second homes in London. Through cross-party parliamentary groups, they will be able to join fact-finding missions to every corner of the world. Their ringside seat at the UK’s centre of political power brings with it the attention of other powerful and wealthy interests.
Gordon Brown earned almost £1million and George Galloway over £300,000 in outside earnings in the most recent year. Once inside the magic Westminster bubble the world can look a very different place.
Westminster also sets the boundaries within which “national” politics are conducted. Since the onset of capitalism’s latest crisis in 2008, dealing with the Government’s deficit has been the dominant theme of political debate. The big three Westminster parties are all committed to austerity and to a slash and burn attack on public spending and services.
Absurdly, Labour—the would-be peoples’ party—has even based its appeal to workers on the theme of a “Budget Responsibility Lock”. Challengers to this orthodoxy will be dismissed across the Westminster influenced media as “deficit deniers”.
Those elected next month on an anti-austerity ticket will be charged with challenging that orthodoxy. On arrival in London, they will be beset on one side by flattery and temptation and on the other by the unforgiving hostility of a House that is overwhelmingly unionist.
Their personal behaviour will come under the scrutiny of rival Whips, a biased media and security services that rate Scottish independence as a threat to UK national security. They will need the strength of lions and the solidarity of each other if they are to survive in the longer term.
Scotland’s newly elected MPs will arrive in London as Westminster outsiders. If they are to retain the trust of those who voted for them and complete the job they have been elected to do, they must remain outside the Westminster bubble.